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As back-to-back blue waves hit Gwinnett County, it has been Black women leading the shift

Veronica Cope

The 2018 and 2020 election cycles saw Democrats make major inroads in Gwinnett County, flipping it from away from being a solidly Republican county and bringing more diversity to local elected offices.

Amid that shift, however, there was one group at the forefront of the change: African-American women.

In a two-year span, 20 Black women were elected to legislative, county and municipal offices in Gwinnett. The county also went for Stacey Abrams, whose bid to be Georgia's first African-American governor came up short in 2018, and voted for the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris presidential ticket in 2020.

Harris made history as the first Black person, first Asian person and first woman to be elected vice president.

"Gwinnett is a great example," University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said. "Women at the county level, traditionally the job they were most likely to hold would be that of clerk of court and then probably, oh, probate judge might be the next most common thing at the county level. They didn't hold jobs like sheriff or district attorney.

"We're not just talking about Black women. We're talking about any women holding those kinds of positions and so what we're seeing is Black women are moving into county jobs that I guess were almost thought of more male jobs than women jobs."

By the numbers, Gwinnett Democrats flipped 23 seats previously held by Republicans in partisan elections between 2018 and last November. These range from school board seats to the 7th Congressional District seat.

Of those seats, 11 were flipped by African-American women, five were flipped by African-American men, four were flipped by White women, one was flipped by an Asian woman, one was flipped by an Asian man and one was flipped by a White man.

On top of that, four Black women were elected in nonpartisan elections to the city councils in Lawrenceville, Suwanee, Snellville and Norcross. Four more Black women were elected to serve on the benches in Gwinnett's Superior and State courts.

Another African-American woman, Kim Jackson, was elected to replace the Democrats' former Senate Minority Leader, Steve Henson, after he retired last year.

"In Gwinnett County, Black women are a large voting block and we make up a majority of the voting block, especially on the Democratic side," said new Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson, who is the third woman to lead the county government, but also the first Black woman.

"And yet, when we're sought out for our votes and support and that doesn't manifest in representation and policies and things that we're seeing in leadership positions, then we have to take it upon ourselves to run for office because we want to see that representation. We want to see policies put forth that are reflective of the things that we value: public safety, issues around police brutality, economic inclusion."

Prior to the 2018 elections, no Black women held a county-level office and state Sen. Gloria Butler and state Reps. Karen Bennett and Dar'shun Kendrick were the only African-American women in Gwinnett's 25-member legislative delegation. Black women now make up about a quarter of the legislative delegation.

A 'special energy'

Former Gwinnett Democratic Party chairwoman Bianca Keaton said she believes there is a "special energy" that African-American women have, but she also said Black women who decide to pursue leadership roles face challenges.

Keaton is the first African-American woman to lead the county's Democratic Party.

"It's not without challenge, but I do think that there is a desire to have the needs of women addressed," Keaton said. "And, when you talk about Black women in particular, you don't just address the issues of women, you address racial issues as well.

"Some of these women, many of them, have also overcome major challenges related to class and socioeconomics. And, with that, you have people who can speak to a wide array of experiences that are in our electorate, not from an 'I studied' standpoint, but an experiential point-of-view, and I think that matters to a lot of people because you have representation."

New District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gatson said African-American women have been "the backbone of a lot of changes in our country." and that is why they have been at the forefront of Gwinnett's shift from a traditionally "red" Republican county to an increasingly "bluer" Democratic stronghold.

Austin-Gatson, who defeated longtime DA Danny Porter in November, is Gwinett's first African-American district attorney.

"I think women have to lead the way because we see our children and our grandchildren and don't want them to continuously inherit inequities," she said. "So, I think we're at a point where we've stepped up. The demographics have changed and now is the time. We don't need to wait anymore. It's happening."

County Commissioner Marlene Fosque said that, while it may seem as if the emergence of African-American women as a political force happened suddenly, the groundwork for it was laid long ago.

Fosque became the first African-American member of the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners when she was elected in 2018 as the county celebrated its bicentennial.

"It seems like it's all of a sudden, but it's been 202 years for the (women) who just got elected and it's been 200 years (for those elected in 2018)," she said. "It comes from years of people praying and asking for new leadership to come and so many of us have stepped up to that challenge."

African-American women are a major part of Gwinnett's electorate

It may not be too much of a surprise that African-American women have been at the forefront of the Democrats surge in Gwinnett since they are one of the largest voting blocks in the county.

State data shows that in the November 2018 general election — when the gubernatorial race between Abrams and Brian Kemp was at the top of the ticket — Black women had the second highest turnout in the county, behind only White women.

"Black women always vote at higher rates than Black men — significantly higher — and what we've seen for the last two or three election cycles is that there's been some slight erosion in support for Democrats among Black men, but not so much among Black women," Bullock said. "Now, there may be a four or five percentage point difference in the level of support that Black women and Black men will give to a Democratic candidate.

"So, we put these two things together, the higher turnout rate among Black women and their greater loyalty to the Democratic Party than Black men and you see that they play an oversized role (compared to other ethnic and gender subgroups) in support for Democratic candidates."

Figures from the Georgia Secretary of State's office show 62.87% of Black women who were registered voters in Gwinnett cast ballots in the November 2018 general election. By comparison, 63.14% of White women, 62.05 percent of White men and 52.64% of Black men who were registered in the county to vote in that election cast ballots.

The Secretary of State's Office has not yet released demographic turnout data from the November 2020 general election.

As of Feb. 8, African-American women are the third largest voting block in Gwinnett County with 91,518 registered voters. Only White women (121,238 registered voters) and White men (113,199 registered voters) have higher registration numbers in the county.

For those reasons, African-American women across Georgia will likely be a key factor in next year's governor's race. It is anticipated that Stacey Abrams will likely challenge Kemp in a rematch from 2018.

"The way Democrats can win requires a couple of components in a state like Georgia or Alabama, and that is you need to have strong Black turnout," Bullock said. "I mean, Blacks need to cast at least 30% of the votes total, but then you also need to get a share of the White vote, probably 30% of the White vote, and that will do it.

"That's pretty much what (Sen. Raphael) Warnock, (Sen. Jon) Ossoff and Biden did in Georgia. That's what (former U.S. Sen.) Doug Jones did in Alabama in 2017. If you hit those marks, you're probably going to win. Having a Black woman at the top of the ticket probably brings some additional African-American women to the polls."