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Tom Baxter

Asian-Americans, their power growing, become a puzzle piece on the redistricting map

By Tom Baxter

Asian-Americans have not only been the fastest-growing demographic group in Georgia over the past decade, but in terms of producing political leadership, they have punched above their weight.

Although their communities still amount to only a little over 4 percent of the state’s population, Asian-American candidates have won elected office and been recognized as rising stars in both parties. But the career path of this pioneering generation has been filled with pitfalls.

If you were trying to think of a Republican who could prosper over the coming decade in Atlanta’s increasingly diverse suburbs, it might have been B.J. Pak, the first Korean-American to serve in the General Assembly. Pak served eight years in the House, and in 2017 was nominated by President Donald Trump and confirmed as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.

Pak’s forced resignation, after he refused to say the presidential election in Georgia was fraudulent, is one of the less-remarked disasters for Republicans which marked the end of the last administration. Pak has returned to private legal practice and might return to public service at some point. But politically, you have to wonder what might have been.

Like Pak in the decade before her, Democratic Sen. Michelle Au has been recognized in her first term as a capable legislator, even by those who oppose her views on gun control and other issues. A Johns Creek anesthesiologist who has a master’s in public health in addition to her M.D., she’s been recognized for the expertise she brings to the Senate and worked with Republicans on healthcare-related bills. She was among the Georgia Democrats invited to the signing of the infrastructure bill at the White House Monday. But in a redistricting session, it’s location, not expertise or connections, that matters.

What’s happened to the district Au represents in the current redistricting session could be seen as a metaphor for the Rorschach way Asian-Americans fit into the politics of fast-growing suburbs like those around Atlanta.
The district she was elected in covers part of Gwinnett and Fulton counties around Johns Creek and Duluth. According to the last census, it’s 39.2 percent white, 28.8 percent Asian, 17.4 percent black, and 13.9 percent Hispanic. In the new map, the Asian percentage in Au’s district actually increases slightly, to 29.9. But by pushing the district northwards into part of Forsyth County, this Asian piece of the puzzle ends up in a district that is 53.8 percent white, 8.5 percent black and 7.2 Hispanic.

There’s nothing new or sinister about the majority party redrawing the legislative map to its advantage. On the other hand, this process opens the door to many unforeseen consequences.

In her speech last week opposing the Republican Senate map — an utterly fruitless but obligatory part of the redistricting process — Au, who is Chinese-American, noted that the latest data indications that Georgia is “already a majority-minority state in its entirety, representing not just two or three or twenty, but more than a hundred cultures, languages and countries of origin.”

Much of this growing diversity is located in the areas in which the majority is reconfiguring the map to retain control. But how long will a map be stable in this dynamic environment? Au’s current district when to Biden by 58 percent in 2020; the district which got final legislative approval swung to Trump by 53 percent. It’s a Republican majority district on paper, but it doesn’t sound like an easy lift.

What if Au decides not to run in her redrawn district next year and runs for lieutenant governor instead? She wouldn’t be the only Asian-American in a statewide race — state Rep. Bee Nguyen is running for secretary of state — but that might not be a bad thing in the majority-minority Georgia

Au described in her speech.

The areas with the fastest-growing Asian populations overlap with but are not the same as, the counties which had the biggest swing in votes toward the Democratic Party in the nation last year. A hundred cultures, languages and countries of origin aren’t all likely to swing toward the same party or political orientation, as Pak’s early success suggests. Unless, of course, they are all swept in the same direction.

 

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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