Both candidates in a runoff for a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives were often told by their immigrant parents to keep their heads down and stay out of trouble.
But no matter who wins Tuesday, they’ll make waves by becoming either Georgia’s first Vietnamese-American or Indian-American state representative.
Nguyen and Varghese, both Democrats, led a field of four Democratic candidates in the Nov. 7 special election for House District 89, a majority-black district that includes Cedar Grove, Druid Hills, East Atlanta, Edgewood, Gresham Park and Kirkwood.
The candidates, both 36 years old, say their upbringing influenced their priorities: public education, equal rights and health care access.
Nguyen’s parents fled Vietnam in the 1970s after her father was held as a political prisoner for three years following the fall of Saigon. They boarded a boat with 30 other people on their journey to Thailand, Iowa and Georgia.
“My parents felt disempowered, which led to the work I want to do, which is always about empowering people,” Nguyen said. “I’ve never kept my head down all of my life. I was the black sheep in the family. Breaking the norms with immigrant families is pretty challenging. It set me up for being an organizer and an advocate.”
Varghese’s parents moved from south India to seek a better life. His mother’s first job was at Your DeKalb Farmers Market, and she never envisioned politics in her son’s future.
“As an immigrant and a minority,” he said, “it’s important to me that everyone has the ability to build their best life, regardless of their gender or the color of their skin. Creating and building a strong public education system is the single most important thing we can do.”
Despite some similarities in their backgrounds and policies, the candidates strongly disagree over who would be more effective in the Republican-dominated state Legislature.
Nguyen says she’s qualified because of her advocacy for legislation that required police to collect and analyze sexual assault evidence, and from her experience running the Athena’s Warehouse nonprofit, which offers after-school programs for teenage girls. Besides becoming the first Vietnamese-American state legislator, she would also be the first Asian-American Democratic woman to hold state office.
“I’m much more rooted in grass-roots and community organizing,” she said. “All the things I’ve done have been about stepping up when I saw something wrong and empowering more voices to come to the table.”
Varghese says his career as an attorney, handling civil rights and whistleblower cases, means he knows how to make laws. He said he was motivated to run as a reaction to Donald Trump’s election as president last year, and after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which has since been eradicated. If elected, he said he’d work to expand Medicaid.
“The skill set I bring to the job is very valuable, and it’s currently missing at the Legislature,” he said. “We need to fight for the the country we have — not the type of country that President Trump reflects.”
Nguyen received the most votes in the special election, about 40 percent, despite raising less money than Varghese. Nguyen has raised $90,272, compared with Varghese’s $215,294, according to state campaign finance records.
Southside House runoff
In a separate House runoff Tuesday, Kim Schofield faces De’Andre Pickett to represent District 60, which covers areas including College Park, East Point, Forest Park and southwest Atlanta. The two Democrats are running to replace Keisha Waites, who is in a runoff to lead the Fulton County Commission.
Schofield, an Emory University researcher and advocate for lupus patients, said she would work to bump up the state’s minimum wage and increase access to health care.
“People shouldn’t have to choose between paying a light bill and getting their medicine,” she said. “We need to make sure people aren’t working two or three jobs just to provide for their families.”
Pickett, a former middle school teacher now in education administration, said he wants to ensure adequate funding for schools as a way to build up the surrounding communities.
“I’m running so this seat stays community-focused,” he said. “Everything I’ve ever done in my life as it relates to advocating and being a fighter and advocate has been for the community. It’s never been for my job.”
Schofield has raised $8,440 in campaign contributions, compared with Pickett’s $2,015, according to campaign finance filings.