Georgia’s Secretary of State, usually a more low-key political position, has become one of the key figures in Georgia’s electoral landscape in recent months. When President Donald Trump contested election integrity and the results of the 2020 presidential election this January, Georgia SOS Brad Raffensperger was put in a position that forced his hand to choose either party allegiance, or the integrity of his position as the highest ranking election official in Georgia.
He earned respect from across the aisle for his courage to break with party ranks. Last November, Raffensperger published an op-ed in USA Today: “Elections are the bedrock of our democracy. They need to be run fairly and, perhaps more important, impartially. That’s not partisan. That’s just American.”
Despite his courage to stand up to Donald Trump and in combating conspiracies of election fraud, Raffensperger supported the passage of S.B. 202, a massive voter suppression omnibus bill that severely curbs accessibility for absentee and early voting, limits the hours of polling precincts in counties with the dense populations (which tend to lean Democratic), and criminalizes handing out supplies or water bottles to voters standing in line. Minutes after its passage, it was signed into law on March 25 by Governor Brian Kemp.
Representative Bee Nguyen (HD-89) is running to change that. At the time of her election in 2017, Nguyen became the first Asian American Democratic woman to hold state office. During her time in the Georgia General Assembly, Nguyen has sponsored legislation that would increase voter accessibility, school equity, and criminal justice reform. Last year, when President Trump’s lawyers came to Georgia to file lawsuits contesting election integrity, Rep. Nguyen fiercely rebutted their claims of voter fraud in a thorough presentation that has since gone viral.
VOX ATL got a chance to sit down with Representative Nguyen to talk more about her goals and vision as a candidate for Secretary of State.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VOX ATL: Could you talk more about your background, and how it has shaped your political career?
Bee Nguyen: My parents are refugees from Vietnam, and they came here in the late 70s. Their experiences have shaped everything in my life. One of the things that they emphasized when I was growing up was the importance of education — education being the tool to get out of poverty. But one thing that was missing was the idea that simultaneously we should participate civically, and learn how to build that kind of power.
I ended up starting a nonprofit called Athena’s Warehouse, working in public schools in Dekalb and Atlanta and ran that organization for 10 years. Part of that work was so important to me because I saw myself in a lot of the young women there. We did after-school programming and mentorship, and a large portion of the student population were immigrants or children of immigrants. They also struggled with the same things that I did growing up, which was living as an American, while also recognizing the cultural things that come along with being a child of immigrants. We spoke Vietnamese at home, ate Vietnamese food at home — there are just different cultural things that are very specific to the way in which my parents were raised.
One thing that was different is the population of students I work with — many of them were undocumented, and their parents left their home countries for the same reasons that my parents did: poverty, conflict and violence. But they were not given refugee status because of the nature of the way our immigration system works. A lot of talented young people didn’t have the opportunity to go to college because of affordability, and because of the restrictive immigration laws that exist in the state of Georgia.
In doing that work, I saw that I needed to get involved on the policy side, that the people who make decisions on behalf of others sometimes don’t understand the lived experiences of other people and working in a public school that’s under-resourced. I saw how all of those issues intersect with each other — not just lack of funding for public schools, but also lack of access to transportation to healthy foods to healthcare, to dental care, and high levels of victimization that exists in these communities. So I ultimately decided to run for office. And in the past four years that I’ve served, the students that I worked with and the experiences that I had in the classroom have always morally grounded me.
VOX ATL: You’ve been a fierce advocate for voter rights and you’re one of the harshest critics against SB 202. How do you see yourself transforming the role of Secretary of State to make Georgia elections more fair and transparent?
Nguyen: The Secretary of State currently does not have collaborative relationships with our 159 counties. The Secretary of State should invest in training all 159 counties to make sure that elections are run efficiently. Training is something that we’ve brought up time and time again, but we haven’t seen that investment or commitment from our Secretary of State, and making sure the Secretary of State invests in the right resources and provides financial support so that these local election boards can afford to have enough equipment to run elections is incredibly crucial.
One of the things that has been ongoing is that while we’re having these election hearings, local election boards are hesitant to testify in committee because they’re afraid that the Secretary of State will take punitive action against them. That’s not the kind of leadership that we need in Georgia. We need somebody who is not going to deflect responsibility and blame local elections officials, we need someone who’s going to come to the table and work in tandem with them through these challenges.
The overarching goal that I have is to apply the lens of equity, efficiency and accessibility to all divisions of the Secretary of State, including elections. Though Senate Bill 202 does dilute the power of the Secretary of State, there are still a lot of things that the Secretary of State can do in order to make elections better.
VOX ATL: What was the “aha” moment for you– when you knew that you had to jump into this race for Secretary of State?
Nguyen: I didn’t have an aha moment. I think that’s been true for most of my life, it’s been being immersed in the work and figuring out things like, How can I be effective? What is it that I can do? In the four years that I’ve served, I’ve seen legislation introduced to make it harder to vote every single year.
Last year when I was curing ballots, I remember going to my neighbor’s house. His ballot was flagged because he forgot to sign the outside of the envelope. My 70 year old neighbor had to rely on a stranger to come into his house in the middle of a pandemic because he didn’t have internet, an email address, or a smartphone. He had to trust me to take a picture of his license for him and submit it to the Dekalb Board of Elections in order for his vote to be counted. When you don’t do that direct kind of work, you kind of lose sight of the people that are impacted by policies that make it harder to vote. You’re able to really witness some of those barriers in real life. I mean, this is my neighbor who lives a few blocks from me, so it becomes deeply personal.
Around the time we had the hearings in our legislature last year, where [Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy] Giuliani was brought in [to provide testimony of election fraud], we were met with a situation where we knew if we spoke up in committee and pushed back against the election misinformation, a target would be placed on our backs, especially for the women of color on that committee. I knew that it was my responsibility and my duty to speak up and to tell the truth. But I knew that in doing that, I would become a target. I received death threats and my address was doxxed on a right wing gun site, but at the end of the day, I didn’t regret any of the work I did. I felt like it was fundamentally very important to our democracy. It was bigger than me. That personal connection to voters compelled me to be even more committed. Those barriers were the ultimate drivers in making this decision.
VOX ATL: Right now, you’re a popular candidate among many Democratic counties in metro-Atlanta. Many are skeptical as to whether you have the potential to win as a Democrat state-wide though. What do you say to the skeptics who say you’ll have difficulty appealing to Georgians outside of metro-Atlanta?
Nguyen: Any Georgia Democrat is going to have a difficult time statewide in Georgia. But so is any Republican. What’s different this time around is that we have seen evidence that Democrats can win in the state of Georgia — we just saw it with Joe Biden and our two newly elected US senators. So, you know, we can win. And we can win by doing the same thing, which is centering that broad based coalition of people who came together to stand for democracy. The attacks on our democracy are still very much alive right now, and we cannot continue down the pathway of supporting Republicans who want to make it harder for people to vote, who want to continue to undermine the results of the election in November. These matters transcend race, gender, economic status, and even, in some cases, political partisanship. We know how incredibly dangerous it is for us to be in a position where our democracy is eroded and constantly undermined. So I believe that we will come together again in 2022.
VOX ATL: You were the first Asian American female legislator elected to the Georgia General Assembly, and you’ll also be the first Asian American Secretary of State of Georgia if elected. Traditionally, Georgia politics has been dominated by white male politicians. Why does right now feel like the right time for an Asian woman to be running for Secretary of State?
Nguyen: For some people there will be a never “right” time. But we have to be able to step up and give people the ability to imagine something they haven’t seen before. Part of that is taking that risk, and showing people that Asian Americans can run statewide. When I was the first Vietnamese person elected to our Georgia General Assembly, [Georgia] hadn’t seen that before. And we won’t see [representation] until people are willing to step up and run. In light of everything that’s happening with our AAPI community, everything that’s happening with our elections and our democracy, it’s now more critical than ever that people step up for the right reasons. We as Georgians understand that diversity is a strength and that when we come together, we are stronger as a state.
VOX ATL: Last question: What’s your message to the young people of Georgia?
Nguyen: I love young people. I think the voices of young people are incredibly important. Having spent 10 years in the classroom with young people, it’s one of my favorite experiences, and it helped shape me as a person. I emerged out of that work being a better lawmaker, a better advocate, and a better person.
When I think about the work that I did with young people, one thing that I really, really love is that they are so hopeful, and they really want to see a place where they can contribute back to their community and take care of their families. Their vision for what Georgia and the [future] of their community looks like, is always positive. We need more of that.
So my message to young people is to continue to make your voices heard, and to understand that your voice and your vote does matter. If you don’t have the ability to vote, there are other ways that you can make sure that you have a voice at the table. You can be community organizers. You can advocate at the Capitol. You can push for issues that are important to you. Young people are our future, and I want to see more young people participate and bring forward their ideas. They’re a critical part of this coalition that we’ve built.
Representative Bee Nguyen is currently serving House District 89 in the Georgia General Assembly. She is running for Secretary of State of Georgia; the Democratic primary election will take place on June 21, 2022.
Above photo from beeforgeorgia.com website