Sam Park picks at his lunch at El Torero, a Mexican restaurant in Duluth, a northeastern suburb of Atlanta. It’s a somewhat ironic choice, given that the 32-year-old politician could have picked from dozens of nearby places to emphasize his Korean heritage in a neighborhood where Eastern churches and Asian grocery stores abound.
» Top New Releases in Books
Loading the page...
This is home, though. And so the fact that Park knows his tacos as well as his Korean BBQ is kind of the point. Increasingly, the area will be known less as the “Seoul of the South,” than simply the modern iteration of “the South.” Gwinnett County, one of the most diverse in the nation, is noteworthy for more than its culinary fusion. The county was 90 percent white in 1990, but by 2040, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission, Gwinnett will be 37 percent Latino, 29 percent white, 20 percent Black, and 14 percent Asian and others. “It really is a diverse cross-section that seems to be moving toward some sort of equilibrium,” Park says. ”Which I think is fascinating from a nerdy point of view.”
Sam is smart; he is thoughtful; he is relentless. And I think he is demonstrative of what we can do when we cultivate young leaders and give them platforms.
Stacey Abrams, former Georgia House Minority Leader
Georgia’s only male Asian-American lawmaker and the first openly gay man elected to its state House could well be one of the faces of that demographic shift led by historic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams — who is seeking to become the nation’s first Black woman elected governor. Georgia Democrats are betting less white means more blue. Park readily admits the change isn’t “inevitable,” and his own story is instructive on this point. He upset a three-term Republican incumbent in 2016, but it was one of few bright spots for Democrats that night as the GOP continues to dominate the state. His proposals to boost voter registration, increase patient access to medical cannabis and expand access to public services for non-English speakers ran into roadblocks in the Republican-dominated House. Park also worked on the much-hyped campaign of Democrat Jon Ossoff, who fell short in the most expensive congressional election in history.
But Park is playing the long game. As Ossoff’s deputy political director, he was in charge of converting Asian-American, Muslim and LGBT voters — many of whom remain engaged in this year’s midterm elections. His efforts drew national notice. “Koreans who may never have donated or door-knocked or registered to vote, they were seeing and hearing from him, and were probably even engaged for the first time,” says Christine Chen, executive director of Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote. That momentum has translated to first-time candidates like Ethan Pham and David Kim running for Congress in a Gwinnett-based district (Pham lost in the May primary; Kim advanced to the Democratic runoff on July 24). “Sam is smart; he is thoughtful; he is relentless,” says Abrams, the former state House minority leader who has led Democratic efforts to turn out minorities. “And I think he is demonstrative of what we can do when we cultivate young leaders and give them platforms.”
But Democrats have been claiming Georgia will run blue for a few cycles now to no avail. While demographics might shift, “you still have to be a candidate who resonates with an overwhelming amount of voters,” Republican strategist Ryan Mahoney says. As for Park? “I think Sam is too young in this whole game. … When you don’t have majorities under the Gold Dome, you have to make a decision: You can be loud and build your name ID, or you can get something done.”
Dressed casually over lunch, Park appears even younger than his promo photos and social media image. The slick suit and side-fade suggest calm, cool, collected lawyer. In person, Park is more thirty-something still trying to find his place in this political age. His short time as a candidate hasn’t given him the polished air of practiced politicians, but it has allowed him to retain an authentic persona — and a sense of awe. “My grandparents were refugees from the Korean War,” he says. “I don’t come from a political background, and yet here I am, a state rep. That can only happen in a country like America.”
His parents raised him Christian and Republican, like many Asian-Americans who settled in the South during the ’90s. They were entrepreneurs, owning a small check-cashing store for a decade before shifting to a cell phone outlet. In 2014, Park’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Although she passed away earlier this year, she initially was able to get treatment partly because she was covered under the Affordable Care Act, and was a recent convert to the Democratic Party. Preserving the health care law was part of Park’s decision to run for office. “It’s the benefits that we receive that makes my love for my country even stronger,” he says.
The decision wasn’t easy. Abrams remembers sitting down with Park, a former intern of hers, when he was debating whether to run. “He was concerned about running as an out gay man, because his mother and community understood it but it wasn’t talked about,” she says. The two had an honest conversation about the interconnectedness of race, sexuality and religion in the Korean community. “The bravest thing he told me is that he was willing to risk these things to win this election.” He understood, in other words, that “if he didn’t say who he was, he wouldn’t be running an honest campaign for himself.”
Park is now focused on making tangible gains in the legislature on civil rights, redistricting reform and expanding Medicaid. In the long run, he hopes a progressive, pro-worker platform can expand Democrats’ appeal no matter voters’ color — or preferred cuisine.
Correction: Sam Park was mistakenly listed as Georgia’s only Asian-American lawmaker. He is actually one of two, the other being Rep. Bee Nguyen of Atlanta, who was elected in 2017. We regret the error.