Immigration could change the politics of a Georgia district

By Ray Henry
The Associated Press

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. (AP) — Sitting in a crowded strip mall office, about three dozen Gwinnett Country Republicans — mostly white — voted down a newspaper ad reminding the GOP faithful about the next primary. They squabbled over the best time for outdoor rallies.

But there were no arguments when Rich Carithers requested $1,000 to sponsor a Republican table at an upcoming Asian culture festival. It’s expected to attract thousands of people later this month to a county where minorities now hold the majority, even if they don’t always show on the voter rolls.

“This is where we should put $1,000,” Carithers told his fellow Republicans, who quickly agreed.

Demographics carry political consequences in Gwinnett since the country anchors the seventh Congressional district, a seat now held by Republican John Linder, who is stepping down. Voters will decide Tuesday which of the eight Republicans should get the chance to face Democrat Doug Heckman, who lost against Linder in 2008 and is running again.

Gwinnett remains a combination of the old and new South. A memorial unveiled in 1993 outside the historic courthouse in Lawrenceville, the county seat, honors the secessionist Confederacy. Yet the district’s western suburbs closest to Atlanta are dotted with Korean churches, Chinese restaurants, and Asian supermarkets and malls.

Carithers said that unless Republicans recruit those newcomers, Democrats will be Gwinnett’s majority party by 2016.

“It’s always been that you see the same faces over and over again — and that’s that of the standard white guy in the party,” he said.

The changes are eye-popping for longtime residents. In the 2000 Census, 73 percent of Gwinnett residents were white. By 2009, updated Census estimates showed that those whites were in the minority.

“This district is trending away from the Republicans and toward the Democrats,” said Heckman, the Democratic candidate. “The ethnic diversity of the district has grown incredibly over the last 10 years.”

While Republicans acknowledge the changes, they dispute that race predestines party affiliation.

“There’s no ethnic majority in Gwinnett County anymore,” said state Rep. Clay Cox, one of the Republicans vying for Linder’s seat as he knocked on doors in Grayson. “And what we see is that the Republican conservative principles are holding. I don’t believe that love of freedom and respect for the Constitution, you can relate that at all to one’s skin color.”

The candidates are reaching out to minority populations. Cox did an hour-long appearance on a Korean radio station where his remarks were translated for listeners. He has also given interviews to Korean-language newspapers. Another Republican in the race, Chuck Efstration, is speaking at a Korean American church and will hold a townhall session with a translator for Korean voters.

Republican candidates in Georgia excoriate illegal immigrants, although the Congressional candidates in Gwinnett soften the rhetoric when it comes to legal newcomers.

A Republican candidate running for state Senate in Gwinnett will test the waters for the GOP.

Garry Guan, 55, who was born in a Chinese city not far from the Russian border, is running as a Republican to become the first Chinese American elected to Georgia’s Senate. Carithers is volunteering as his campaign manager.

Guan used a Chinese proverb to dismiss the notion that immigrants will naturally drift into the Democratic politics. He became a GOP believer largely because the business views he developed while running a translation service — an aversion to taxes and deficit spending — mesh with that of the GOP.

Guan said Chinese and other Asians have historically been slow to enroll as voters, although he notes a Roman Catholic church for Vietnamese recently held a voter registration drive.

“Traditionally, a lot of these people are coming from countries that are not in any kind of democratic form and fear of the government is almost across the board,” Guan said. “And these traditions are brought in here even though there’s nothing to fear from the government in this country.” ♦

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