On Election Day, Georgia quietly elected its first openly gay male state legislator.
Sam Park — the son of Korean immigrants and only Asian-American representative serving in Georgia’s upcoming House of Representatives — made strides in the state’s political landscape as he unseated a three-term incumbent Republican, winning 51 percent of the vote with a campaign based on healthcare, equality, and economic policy.
“I’m a gay, Christian, Korean man sitting in the intersection of faith, sexual orientation and ethnicity,” Park told NBC News. “I feel that being myself, I have the opportunity to build bridges between communities that haven’t seen eye to eye – or may have necessarily been aware of one another.”
Park will be representing over 85 thousand residents living in Gwinnett County, the second-most populated county in Georgia. He said his bid for office was prompted by his mother’s cancer diagnosis in 2014. She was given 6 months to live, but they were able to find treatment options through Medicare and Medicaid.
“When my mom was diagnosed, everything kind of hit home in terms of what I wanted to do with my life, and who I wanted to serve,” Park said. “It dawned on me that having access to healthcare is a matter of life or death.”
His mother is now working toward partial remission, and Park is hoping to ensure all Georgians have access to healthcare by expanding Medicaid in the state during his time in office.
“Knowing that tens of thousands of people in my home state that could be in the same position that I was in — that was something that broke my heart,” he said.
Park’s social media manager Bonnie Youn said she was, like many others, compelled by his story.
“The Democratic Party of Georgia didn’t think his area was winnable,” she said. “But he did. It’s finally time that we have representation that matches our county. As the first Asian-American progressive to be elected in our county, he’s a trailblazer.”
“I feel that being myself, I have the opportunity to build bridges between communities that haven’t seen eye to eye – or may have necessarily been aware of one another.”
Bee Nguyen, his campaign manager, described the campaign as a grassroots movement that spoke to those who were underrepresented in Georgia’s political sphere. She said Park’s victory was personal for her, as well as the rest of his supporters.
“If he didn’t win the race we wouldn’t have a single Asian American in the house of representatives in Georgia,” she said. “To be a young progressive Asian-American candidate was something really different, and the symbolism resonated with me.”
The campaign team says that sentiment was shared by people even beyond the county in the aftermath of the presidential election results.
“A lot of folks on our side felt like a dark cloud came down – it was really unexpected,” Park said. “But then to hear from so many people, not just in Georgia but throughout the world, that we gave people some hope – a silver lining – that, to me, was really humbling.”
“But then to hear from so many people, not just in Georgia but throughout the world, that we gave people some hope – a silver lining – that, to me, was really humbling.”
Park has mixed feelings about the federal elections and but says he respects the results of the democratic process. For his upcoming two years in office, he plans to uphold the principles that his campaign was based on, which includes protecting those who may be in risk — like immigrants, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community.
“We need to be vigilant more than ever right now,” he said. “Now is not the time to be discouraged. We’ve been given an opportunity to be a safe place — to do what we can for people.”
But with the Republican Party still holding a strong majority in both chambers of the state's general assembly and with Republican Nathan Deal as Governor, Park says he has his work cut out for him in terms of trying to push a legislative agenda.
“The odds are not necessarily in my favour,” he said. “But they never were.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Sam Park as Georgia's first openly gay legislator. He is the first openly gay male elected to Georgia's General Assembly.