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How Georgia's 1st Vietnamese American state rep is continuing Stacey Abrams' fight

Bee Nguyen took over Abrams' seat in the state House in 2017. Now she's also battling voter suppression and galvanizing Asian Americans.
Georgia state Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta.
Georgia state Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta.Courtesy Bee Nguyen

When President Donald Trump's campaign launched a legal challenge this month to overturn Georgia's election results, state Rep. Bee Nguyen, a Democrat from Atlanta, found a way to knock down the claim that thousands of fraudulent ballots had been cast.

After she got a list of voters alleged to be living out of state, she scrutinized public records, cross-referenced birthdates, made calls and visited people to verify their identities.

She determined that at least 128 names on the list — more than 10 percent — traced to Georgia residents who voted legally. At a recent state House hearing, she confronted the Trump-aligned data analyst who compiled the list. A 12-minute video of her presentation has been widely shared and covered by mainstream media.

"It was critical that I talked to voters themselves," Nguyen said. She said Georgia's long history of voter suppression makes unsubstantiated claims of mass fraud "extremely dangerous." (After a recount, Georgia certified Joe Biden as the winner of the state.)

Nguyen, 39, describes herself as a member of the New South, a rising coalition of younger Black, Latino and Asian American progressives who have turned Georgia, formerly a Republican stronghold, into a battleground state. Since she became the first Vietnamese American elected to the Legislature three years ago, taking over a House seat held by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, she has been an outspoken advocate for voting rights, especially for racial minorities and immigrants long targeted by Republicans' voter suppression tactics.

Now, with two Senate runoff elections approaching, Nguyen is cautiously optimistic that Asian American and Pacific Islanders — who helped flip the state from red to blue in November — can again provide the margin of victory for Democrats. If Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both win Jan. 5, Democrats will secure control of the Senate.

"There's still a lot of energy in Georgia," she said, noting that early voting returns are keeping pace with those from the general election. "But in many households, AAPI folks are not groomed to be part of the political process or understand how to be a part of it."

Although it is rapidly growing, the Asian American community in the South is still learning to navigate the political process. The sophisticated grassroots efforts that drove record numbers of AAPI voters to the polls in November, such as in-language phone-banking and relational organizing, started maturing only over the past few election cycles.

Given the tight time frame before the runoffs, Nguyen said, organizers have had to be more selective with their mobilization strategies. Rather than devote resources to converting undecided and conservative voters, they've focused on mobilizing registered Democrats who already voted for Biden. In mid-December, Nguyen tweeted out a list of constituents in her district whose mail-in ballots were rejected because of missing or mismatched signatures, urging her followers to alert the people so the errors could be fixed before the runoffs. She hosted a canvass at her home Tuesday.

"We know with runoff elections it's always a turnout game," she said. "It's a turnout game with people we know are going to be on our side."

Nguyen, a daughter of refugees, said her upbringing heavily influenced her activism and politics. Her parents resettled in Iowa after the Vietnam War, and trauma from the conflict gave them a deep distrust of government. Her father, who was imprisoned for three years during the war, wanted to live a quiet life in the U.S. while staying out of politics as much as possible.

"That framed my perspective in terms of what empowerment meant for my family," she said. "It was important to me that I found a space where I could support other people who didn't feel like they had a voice at the table."

In her late 20s, Nguyen founded the Atlanta-based nonprofit Athena's Warehouse, which provides used prom dresses to high schoolers from low-income families. While she was building the organization, she saw a disconnect between the laws that politicians were enacting and the needs of their constituents. So in August 2017, when Abrams left her seat to campaign for governor, she ran and won, becoming only the second Asian American Democrat in Georgia's Legislature.

By the end of her first term, Nguyen had helped campaigns to stop the closing of several South Georgia voting precincts and to largely repeal an onerous "exact match" voter registration law, which had frozen 53,000 applications during the 2018 midterm elections.

Asian Americans are 2.5 percent of Georgia's electorate — doubling their share from four years ago. During that time, the number of Asian American representatives in local government has grown from one to six. (In November, Nguyen won re-election unopposed.)

Greater political representation, Nguyen said, can trigger a "shift in understanding" about the unique needs of Asian constituents. One of the more pressing issues is to expand language access for limited English speakers, she said, so they can get timely translations of election materials and emergency notices during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Like many other AAPI activists and politicians in Georgia, Nguyen credits Abrams for being the first statewide politician to recognize Asian Americans as an important contingent of the emergent New South, alongside their Black and Latino neighbors. (After she ran for office, Nguyen was a senior fellow at Abrams' voting rights organization, Fair Fight Action.) During her gubernatorial bid, Abrams invested in multilingual outreach efforts to the group and got 78 percent of its vote.

"Now we're in a space where people do recognize that there are enough AAPI voters to influence elections if we're invited to be part of this broad-based coalition," Nguyen said.

CORRECTION (Dec. 31, 2020, 11:30 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated Bee Nguyen's distinction in the Georgia Legislature. She is the second Asian American Democrat, not the second Asian American.