Sam Park, a gay attorney and son of Korean immigrants, is looking to unseat a conservative lawmaker in Gwinnett and become the first openly gay man elected to the Georgia House.
Park is campaigning against Rep. Valerie Clark, who has held the House District 101 seat since 2011. But the district is one of the few competitive ones in the state, meaning there's a real chance Park could win.
“It would be an honor to win as the first openly gay man elected to the state legislature, and I hope it gives young, gay kids hope that there is a brighter future, that there is nothing that stands in their way just because of who they are,” Park told Project Q Atlanta.
He has benefited from the backing of LGBT groups and activists. Both the Stonewall Democrats and Georgia Equality have endorsed his candidacy and Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality; Alex Wan, the openly gay Atlanta City Council member; and LGBT attorney and former state Senate candidate Kyle Williams have co-hosted fundraisers.
Park has brought in a little over $41,000 in donations since March, according to financial disclosure reports.
Clark, though, has received the backing of some of the General Assembly's most powerful Republicans eager to hold on to the seat. Since March, she's raised $72,000 with House Speaker David Ralston, Speaker Pro-Tempore Jan Jones and Majority Leader Jon Burns donating generously. Clark also started the year with more than $46,000 in the bank from previous campaigns.
Park said he's “encouraged and proud” of the efforts of his campaign and the diversity of local constituents and communities that have pitched in to help.
“I am very encouraged and proud of how much I’ve been able to raise, how much our campaign has been able to raise from all different sources – from the LGBT community, from the Korean-American community, from other progressive organizations,” Park said.
Park shared that growing up in the South as a gay Korean-American was challenging.
“I grew up in a very conservative household, as many folks born in the South may. I grew up in the Baptist church, the son of Korean immigrants. I struggled with the issue of accepting myself for who I am, for a very long time,” he said.
Other aspects of his personal story are also what compelled him to enter politics. Park's mother was diagnosed with cancer, and it is only because of the insurance she was able to get through Medicare and Medicaid that she was able to receive the chemotherapy treatment she needed.
“Our state must expand Medicaid. The circumstance that compelled me to run for office was my mother’s story and difficulties. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer two years ago, in December of 2014, and she was given 4-6 months live,” Park said.
“Without public health insurance [like Medicare and Medicaid], it would be a completely different story, you know. My mother might not be here today,” he added.
Park said that the move in 2014 by the Georgia legislature to block Medicaid expansion, “has left 500,000 Georgians without access to healthcare. That’s something that breaks my heart.”
'We need to fight against discrimination'
House District 101 is a diverse area in Gwinnett County, stretching from Lawrenceville north to Suwanee. It’s considered a “majority minority” district, as it is only 42 percent white, and more than one in eight residents are naturalized citizens, meaning they were not born to American citizens and went through a naturalization process to become U.S. citizens.
As a candidate, Park said he's been welcomed by both LGBT and Korean-American communities in his district.
“To be accepted and welcomed by both communities, it’s encouraging and it gives me hope that despite our differences we can transcend them and fight for our common values,” Park said.
More than a dozen openly gay men have tried – and failed – to win seats in the Georgia General Assembly, with the likes of Josh Noblitt, Marckeith DeJesus, and Rafer Johnson most recently joining their ranks after failed primary candidacies earlier this year.
There are three openly LGBTQ members of the Georgia General Assembly – all of them in the House and all of them women. Keisha Waites, representing parts of Atlanta; Karla Drenner, whose district covers Avondale Estates in DeKalb; and Park Cannon, elected earlier this year to replace Simone Bell, also representing parts of Atlanta.
Park said fighting for LGBT rights means more than just marriage equality.
“I think we have a lot more to do. We need to fight against discrimination in the workplace. We need to ensure that parents, that LGBT parents, have the same rights,” Park said.
“I would like to see the LGBT community stand with other minority communities, especially given the fact that we’ve shared similar struggles of being discriminated against,” he added.
In March, Clark voted for House Bill 757, the “religious freedom” bill that would have allowed discrimination against LGBT people in a number of settings. The legislation was later vetoed by Gov. Nathan Deal as it ignited a national controversy. Park pointed out that Clark also voted for a massive reform in 2011 that broadly expanded anti-immigrant policies in the state.
“She supported one of the nation’s harshest anti-immigration bills in 2011. That tore tens of thousands of families apart here in Gwinnett County,” Park said.
Indeed that measure was widely panned for its harsh, Arizona-like policy changes, and the impacts it had on Georgia’s economy as many undocumented people left the state.
“As diverse as my community is, I reject, and I feel many voters in my district reject any sort of discrimination or any attacks against minority communities because that’s just who we are,” Park said.
“We have the opportunity to stand together and send a powerful message to the Georgia state legislature that we are not going to tolerate discrimination or attacks against minority communities,” he added.
The election is Nov. 8, though early voting opened on Oct. 17.