For nine long weeks, after the 2020 presidential election, Georgia was at the center of the political universe. Fresh off his loss at the polls, Donald Trump flew to Valdosta to stump for the state’s two Republican senators—both on the way to losing races of their own. Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, visited Georgia, too, peddling false claims that the November 3 election had been stolen. Locally, the Republican Party was divided: Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger insisted the 2020 election was conducted fairly, while Republicans in the General Assembly—citing mythical “irregularities” in the process—called for an emergency legislative session to halt the official certification of Georgia’s vote.
Bee Nguyen, a Democratic member of the Georgia House, watched as Trump loyalists around the country challenged election results in states where the race had been close. Campaign surrogates like Giuliani were trying to undermine the most fundamental right in a democracy, she thought, as she observed the elaborate press events they staged in cities like Phoenix and Philadelphia. Worse: The strategy seemed to be gaining traction. “You’re watching all of this unfold in real time and recognizing exactly the coordination that’s going on, the nefariousness going on, and the damage that’s being done,” said Nguyen. “It was horrifying.”
His options narrowing elsewhere, Trump’s focus shifted to Georgia. When state lawmakers announced hearings into the election results, the president dispatched Giuliani and Matt Braynard, a data analyst and former Trump campaign worker, to testify; prior to his appearance, Braynard filed an affidavit purporting to show that tens of thousands of Georgia ballots had been cast illegally.
Nguyen—the first Vietnamese American to serve in the Assembly, elected in 2017 to represent the Eastside neighborhoods of Edgewood, Kirkwood, and Gresham Park—was among the legislators questioning Braynard. Looking over his list ahead of time, she recognized one address as belonging to a constituent she’d met while knocking on doors in 2017. Nguyen got into her car and drove to the woman’s house, debating what to say when she got there. “I had to preface it with, ‘Okay, you’re not in trouble and I don’t want you to be scared, but this is what’s happening and I need to verify a few things with you,’” Nguyen told me. “I knew how alarming it would be for any voter to have someone come to their door saying, ‘Hi, I’m your state rep and I’m here because of this thing you’re being accused of doing.’”
That voter turned out to be registered properly; Nguyen kept digging. She soon found more than 100 additional entries on the campaign’s list that belonged to legitimate Georgia voters, most of whom shared a name and birth year with someone from a different district, or another state altogether. Braynard had also reported dozens of voters apparently registered to one PO box, which he said was evidence of illegal activity; Nguyen discovered that they were all just residents of the same condo building, right around the corner from where she lives. She had a friend who lived in the building. Nguyen became concerned about what might happen if Braynard’s list—which, essentially, suggested that large swaths of registered voters had committed felonies—became public.
Questioning Braynard over Zoom at the Thursday morning committee hearing, Nguyen shared what she’d learned—in a colloquy that’d later be described as a “takedown.” She spoke briskly and had clearly done her homework. “I knew I only had one chance to discredit Trump’s expert witness,” Nguyen told me. Footage of her 12-minute encounter went viral, picked up by the Washington Post and Mother Jones. “I didn’t have any understanding that the whole world would be watching,” Nguyen said. “I just knew I had a responsibility to use the limited time I was given to discredit the lies they were putting forward. And to do it in a way that was using truth and the facts, without any political assertions.” (As the video spread, Nguyen’s name and home address were posted to right-wing websites; she received death threats and didn’t sleep at home for two weeks.)
Until that viral moment, Nguyen has joked, her “only claim to fame” was her House seat itself: District 89, formerly represented by Stacey Abrams. But the committee hearing sparked something. These issues weren’t new to Nguyen. But now, she was a recognizable face of voting rights, at a moment when those rights were being challenged, in a state that everybody was watching—and, for good measure, from the same political perch that had previously belonged to Georgia’s most famous voter advocate. “She was able to stand firm in the truth of the matter,” said Representative Sam Park, for whom Nguyen worked as an organizer, and then a legislative aide, before embarking on her own electoral career. “Not to call anyone out, but to really demonstrate the nefarious intent and efforts that were underway to undermine truth in our elections.”
Months later, in May 2021, when she announced that she was running for Georgia secretary of state, Nguyen pointed to the chaos of the 2020 elections as a reason—and to the “misinformation, conspiracy theories, and, at times, straight-out lies” that had come before her House committee, as she told WABE’s Rose Scott in an interview the day after she announced: “I recognized exactly how dangerous that was for our democracy.”
• • •
Trump’s 2016 ascent to the presidency propelled a new crop of young, working-class candidates of color and women into electoral politics. Their success has contributed to a historically diverse U.S. Congress, and it’s changed the complexion of state legislatures nationwide, including in Georgia. Here, the share of women in the General Assembly grew to 31 percent in 2020, from 23 percent five years earlier, and the percentage of white members dropped slightly from 72 to 71. That’s a lagging indicator of a statewide trend: White people now constitute just the barest majority of Georgia’s population—51.9 percent, according to the latest census.
Nguyen is an emblem of these changing demographics: When she first ran for office, she said, she worried voters wouldn’t know how to say her name. (It’s pronounced win and does, she would eventually realize, lend itself to a propitious bit of wordplay: Today, yard signs promoting Nguyen’s secretary of state run bear the slogan WE BEE NGUYEN’N WITH BEE.) As a public figure, she’s also helped narrate and interpret the emerging Georgia that burst into the national spotlight in 2020. Months after the House hearings, she spoke up again following the shootings in Atlanta-area spas that left eight people dead, six of them women of Korean or Chinese descent. Nguyen took it upon herself to contact local journalists with suggestions for how to ensure the killings were covered with enough sensitivity to the victim’s families and the rest of Atlanta’s rattled AAPI—Asian and Pacific Islander—community. “I wanted to make myself as available as possible so the media narrative wouldn’t center around the perpetrator,” she told me. “I thought I could offer an alternative framing that focused on the women. I thought it was critically important that people saw an Asian woman talking about Asian women.”
Nguyen, who turned 40 in July, is warm and earnest. Her politics are broadly progressive, inflected with concern over economic justice and women’s and immigrant rights; a few years ago, Nguyen joined the local chapter of IBEW, the electrical workers union, in protest of the 2018 Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision that curtailed the power of labor unions to collect fees from nonmembers. In 2015, she cosponsored a Syrian refugee family that had been resettled to the Atlanta area. Her political campaigns—both in 2016 and today—and a nonprofit she started in 2009 are staffed primarily by women of color to help address representation gaps Nguyen found in both sectors, she said.
Like many young politicians, Nguyen is also adept at social media, blending calls for change with more personal reflections on her feeds. In August, as the U.S. ended its two-decades–long occupation of Afghanistan, Nguyen shared her own family’s story on Twitter. After the fall of Saigon to the communist People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong in 1975, Nguyen’s father—a lieutenant in the allied Southern army—was imprisoned in a political reeducation camp with two of her uncles. For three years, the Nguyen men underwent hard labor and starvation in the jungle, where they were indoctrinated with party propaganda and forced to renounce their old political beliefs. In 1978, the Nguyens attempted to flee the country by boat but became stranded when their engine failed. A Thai fisherman rescued the family, including Bee’s very pregnant cousin, who gave birth in a Thai refugee camp.
With the support of a local Catholic priest and a young Vietnam veteran and his wife, the Nguyens found refuge in Madrid, Iowa. The fact that they were able to resettle there was the product of bipartisan agreement over the country’s obligation to some 3 million refugees who fled after America’s doomed war—even if that agreement was at odds, as Nguyen pointed out in a tweet, with public sentiment: “Georgia’s Democratic President Jimmy Carter made a deeply unpopular decision to increase our take of Viet refugees—from 7,000 to 14,000 per month. The majority of Americans opposed this decision.” But, she noted, Carter had made the decision at the urging of Iowa’s Republican governor.
Nguyen was born in Iowa in 1981, the second of five daughters. Her father had been a pharmacist in Vietnam, but his degree didn’t transfer; he enrolled at Iowa State and became an engineer. After the family moved to Augusta when Bee was a child, he went back to school to re-earn his pharmacy degree and ended up working two jobs: engineer on the weekdays, pharmacist on the weekends. In the Midwest and in Georgia, Nguyen’s parents expressed little interest in politics, she said: “They had a lot of fear of any government because of their experiences in Vietnam.” Her parents also remain largely unwilling to discuss their painful last years in Vietnam with their children; she and her sisters have pieced together the family’s story from a patchwork of foggy memories and partial stories shared reluctantly by aunts and cousins at holiday gatherings and in conversations.
Nguyen’s sense of fairness emerged early on. Her sister Phi Nguyen—today, the executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Atlanta—recalled that, in high school, Bee was furious to learn that popular students had devised a scheme to rig the senior contest that bestowed superlatives like “Best Dressed.” She decided to counterorganize a group of her “nerd friends,” Phi said, putting them into the running for categories like “Cutest Smile” and “Most Likely to Succeed.” “We ended up winning a lot of them,” Bee said, laughing, when I mentioned it to her. She didn’t pursue any of the titles herself but felt proud to have helped tilt the scales toward a more balanced slate.
“Bee has always demonstrated this ready inclination to speak up for people who have less power,” Phi said.
Growing up, the Nguyen girls were pushed by their parents to pursue practical, well-paying careers in medicine or law or engineering. When Bee moved to Atlanta to major in English at Georgia State University, they weren’t thrilled. (A consummate rule-follower, she didn’t start dating until after she’d moved out of her family’s home in Augusta.) After college, she took a job with an academic tutoring company, then got her real-estate license and spent several years selling houses. Nguyen also took up a side project that eventually became a full-time passion: In 2009, while volunteering in Atlanta’s public schools, she founded Athena’s Warehouse, an organization that began by providing gently used prom dresses to students from low-income families, then grew to provide mentorship and other services to young women and gender-nonconforming and nonbinary people.
The experience led her to return to GSU for a master’s in public administration. “I had this growing recognition that my direct service work was important, but it was also ultimately a Band-Aid,” she said. “My students didn’t have easy access to healthy food, or dental insurance, or good public transportation. A lot of them faced immigration issues. I could see how the decisions we make at the state, local, and federal level had an impact on so many aspects of their lives, and felt those students deserved so much more than what they were receiving.”
Through a fellowship with the Georgia Women’s Policy Group, Nguyen was exposed to a range of issues she’d never considered: For instance, she advocated for a bill that would help clear thousands of backlogged rape kits sitting on Georgia’s hospital shelves after being collected from survivors of sexual assault. She coordinated media strategy for the group and, on the night of the bill’s vote, brought other women and rape survivors to the Capitol to meet with legislators.
“It was all of these women explaining to men at the Capitol why they should pass this legislation, sharing things about their experiences they had never told anyone before,” Nguyen told me. Though the bill passed, it led to a realization: “People should not have to use the most vulnerable, traumatic moments of their lives to explain good policy,” she said. “The Capitol can be a really intimidating space for people who don’t spend any time there. When I was first elected, I didn’t even feel comfortable there.”
• • •
Nguyen’s career in electoral politics began over dinner in 2016. She’d been invited by a friend in the nonprofit world to a gathering that, unbeknownst to Nguyen, was something of a political blind date—her friend had gathered half a dozen young Democrats of color to see what would happen if they got to talking. One was Sam Park, a Korean American hoping to become the first openly gay Asian representative in the Georgia House. Nguyen started organizing events and fundraising for Park, recruiting her sisters to pitch in by donating or knocking on doors for the campaign.
“We had all of our moms phone-banking in different languages,” said Nguyen, who assembled a group of volunteers to contact voters in Vietnamese, Spanish, Korean, and Hindi. “Because we’re a relatively small part of the electorate in terms of numbers, up until then it seemed like there was a lack of willingness by political candidates in Georgia to even try to mobilize the AAPI community. We saw that when you speak to people directly about issues they care about, and you invite people to be a part of this broader coalition, they will show up.” Soon, she found herself managing Park’s campaign; after he took office in 2017, she became his legislative aide.
That same year, Nguyen’s own state rep, Abrams, announced she was resigning to run for governor. Nguyen had recently proved that she had a knack for political organizing; suddenly, her home district was up for grabs. It took friends and colleagues prodding her to run “five to seven times,” she said, before she could even imagine leading her own campaign. Until recently, her parents still held out hope that Nguyen would return to school and earn her law degree—“I think they felt I was being naive and idealistic,” she said—but, the night of Nguyen’s first election in 2017, her father texted to share a few words of encouragement: “Stay calm. Work hard, work smart. Take care of your health. I pray for you every night. Love, Daddy.”
After winning the open seat, one of the first meetings Nguyen arranged was with Abrams—hoping to get some advice from the state party’s most famous member. (It wasn’t the first time they’d met: During her fellowship with the Georgia Women’s Policy Group, Nguyen had sought advice from Abrams on a tax credit she was working to advance.) Many of the issues Nguyen cared most about, like education and racial and economic justice, were areas where Abrams had made inroads for Democrats during her decade in the Capitol. Abrams, Nguyen said, told her she’d need to work with Republicans on her goals—a reminder that, for all of the acrimony that surrounds party politics today, legislators are still sometimes able to find areas of common ground.
Nguyen’s nearly four years in the Assembly have been productive. She shepherded a number of prominent bills into law between 2017 and 2021, developing a reputation for her collaborative style and sharp policy-writing skills. “She knows the nuances of public policy, and she has the means to navigate the political complexity of Georgia right now,” said Park, Nguyen’s old boss and mentor, who represents portions of Gwinnett County. He pointed out that Nguyen is one of few Democrats to successfully pass legislation in a state where some members of the party joke that their primary job is to play defense against bad bills; Nguyen worked with colleagues across the aisle, for instance, on House Bill 231, which expanded protections for victims of domestic violence, and which Governor Kemp signed into law in 2021. “I was proud to lead on that legislation and to work with her,” said State Representative Houston Gaines, a Republican from Athens. “I believe you can be friends with somebody and disagree with them politically.”
Working together “requires humility,” Park said. “In order to do that, most of the time, you have to give a Republican the bill you may have worked for months on writing.” In July 2020, Nguyen clinched the party’s nomination for a second time to hold onto her House seat, with 83 percent of the vote.
Because of her years managing nonprofit budgeting and day-to-day operations, Nguyen said she often feels most at home doing the “unsexy, grueling work” of politics: drafting spreadsheets of eligible voters, fundraising for candidates she supports, researching best policy practices in other states. She picked up skateboarding during the pandemic, after her partner, Democratic House Representative David Dreyer, gave Nguyen a board for her birthday. After months of practicing in empty parking lots, she’s frank about her skills: “I’m not very good.”
The pair met several years ago while knocking on doors for a Democratic candidate. Dreyer, who is divorced, represents a neighboring district that includes Grant Park. Though they live separately, the couple tries to cook an elaborate meal together at least once a week. The menu varies: Following a five-hour session in the kitchen preparing a traditional bolognese, she and Dreyer have stuck recently to more straightforward stir-fry and steak dinners. Nguyen, who says she doesn’t have national political ambitions, sometimes imagines a future where she’s living in another country, waiting tables part-time: “I sometimes fantasize about what it would be like to just be a private citizen instead of spending every day immersed in putting out fires everywhere,” she said.
• • •
As chaotic as the 2020 elections were, observers worry that they portend a much more dire future, in which Republican-controlled state legislatures use the pretense of “fraud” to overturn the results of legitimate elections, or to disenfranchise voters who might imperil their electoral prospects. In a recent essay, the University of California legal scholar Rick Hasen described the present era as an “unexpected moment of democratic peril in the United States.”
“It is literally the issue,” said Christopher Bruce, political director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Georgia chapter. “Everything is connected to voting: reproductive justice, trans rights, racial justice, privacy. It all comes down to our ability to vote and to elect the right officials to do the work of the people.”
In March, Governor Kemp signed Senate Bill 202, a suite of sweeping changes to the ways the state conducts its elections; among other things, it weakens the authority of county elections boards and the secretary of state’s office and strengthens the power of the Republican-controlled Assembly—the same body that recently entertained Trump’s easily discreditable claims of fraud. Proponents claim the restrictions increase electoral security, but most voting experts see them as ways to neutralize traditionally Democratic voters as Republicans’ share of the electorate continues to shrink. “People in power want to stay in power, and they will do anything they deem necessary to stay in power,” Bruce said. “Georgia is trying to decide who this state really is. Do you believe in the fundamental experiment of American democracy—of one person, one vote—to form a more perfect union, or not?”
In June, the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against Georgia, alleging, among other things, that SB 202 would disproportionately harm Black voters. The ACLU, NAACP, and other civil rights groups have sued as well. (As director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Atlanta, Bee’s sister Phi Nguyen has also brought suit over alleged voting rights violations, including filings in which Raffensperger is named as a defendant; she said she wouldn’t hesitate to do the same to the next elections chief—whoever it may be.)
Nguyen has been vehement in her criticism of SB 202, and in favor of federal measures that would protect the right to vote. In October, she was one of a handful of Georgians arrested in a demonstration outside the White House. The activists’ audience that day was the federal government—they were urging an end to the Senate filibuster that’s holding up the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore some provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that have been overturned by the Supreme Court. “We need Congress and the president to do their jobs,” Nguyen said. “We cannot outorganize a subversion of democracy.”
A couple months earlier, Nguyen had made a similar argument in front of a different audience: On a muggy August weekend, she took a stage on St. Simons Island for a fundraiser hosted by the local Democratic Party. Dreyer, her partner, watched from the crowd; the two documented the trip on Twitter, including a pit stop at a farm in Metter to buy peaches and take pictures of goats. “We need a secretary of state who’s willing to defend against the subversion of our democracy,” she said to a roar of applause.
Before facing a Republican opponent, Nguyen will have to prevail in the Democratic primary in June; among her opponents will be John Eaves, the former chair of the Fulton County board of commissioners—who says his experience should give him an edge. “She’s been a legislator three years; I’ve been chairman of Fulton County for 11 years,” Eaves told me, pointing out that Nguyen’s name recognition may have its limits: “When I go to South Georgia, the bad news is people don’t know who I am,” Eaves said. “The good news is they don’t know who my opponents are either.”
Nguyen had been invited to St. Simons to speak alongside several of the party’s rising stars, including a handful of other women seeking statewide office next year: Nicole Horn, who’s hoping to unseat Georgia’s incumbent labor commissioner; Nakita Hemingway, a cut-flower farmer from Dacula running for state agriculture commissioner; and state Senator Jen Jordan, who’s vying to be the state’s next attorney general. They looked like the future that national Democrats envision for Georgia, but their races next year will test the durability of the state’s newfound purple status—and, perhaps, whether the party can indeed “outorganize” laws making it harder for people to vote.
“Things have changed in Georgia,” said Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, another rising star in the party, as he addressed hundreds of Democrats on St. Simons. He applauded community members in Brunswick for agitating for justice in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, and sang a little bit of “Wake Up Everybody,” an old song by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes with the refrain “The world won’t get no better if we just let it be.” Johnson tweaked the lyrics a little bit: “Georgia won’t get no better if we just let it be.”
V is for Vendetta
The Republican race for the secretary of state’s office pits incumbent Brad Raffensperger against a fiery insurgent—and one very angry ex-president. Here’s what you need to know (so far, anyway) about one of 2022’s messiest contests. —Sam Worley
Nov. 26, 2018
President Trump endorses Raffensperger for Georgia secretary of state, saying in a tweet he would be “tough on Crime and Borders” as well as “great for jobs!” (None of this has much to do with being SOS.) Raffensperger says he is running “to make sure that only American citizens are voting in our elections.” (Noncitizens are already unable to vote in Georgia elections.)
Dec. 4, 2018
Raffensperger defeats Democrat John Barrow in a runoff, as his predecessor as SOS—Brian Kemp—becomes governor of Georgia.
March 14, 2020
As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, Raffensperger postpones Georgia’s presidential primaries—scheduled for March 24—until May 19. Weeks later, the date is pushed back again to June 9.
March 24, 2020
Raffensperger announces he’s sending absentee ballot applications to all 6.9 million Georgia voters, saying, “I am acting today because the people of Georgia, from the earliest settlers to heroes like Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Congressman John Lewis, have fought too long and too hard for their right to vote to have it curtailed.”
June 9, 2020
Primary election day, or—as it will later be described—a “meltdown,” particularly in high-turnout places like Fulton County, where people wait in line for hours. Raffensperger blames Fulton officials while Democrats blame Republican voter-suppression tactics. A New York Times analysis finds that Raffensperger’s office “failed to ensure that hard-pressed counties had adequate equipment or received desperately needed support.”
Nov. 3, 2020
Election Day, though nobody is under any illusion that results will be immediately clear. Both Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are forced into runoffs against their Democratic opponents.
Nov. 7, 2020
Joe Biden is elected president, though Trump and his supporters refuse to accept the results, falsely claiming the election was stolen and laying the groundwork for the January 6 insurrection. In Georgia, the race is so close that a recount is inevitable.
Nov. 9, 2020
Loeffler and Perdue send a letter demanding that Raffensperger “step down immediately,” calling his performance during the election an “embarrassment,” though they don’t offer specifics. Georgia’s Republican congressional delegation also sends a letter to Raffensperger asking that he investigate “continued, serious allegations of voter irregularities in our state,” which, again, do not exist.
Nov. 16, 2020
Raffensperger tells the Washington Post that Republican officials, namely South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, have pressured him to throw out legal ballots.
Nov. 19, 2020
After a hand recount, Biden is affirmed as winning Georgia by about 12,000 votes. Both Raffensperger and Gabriel Sterling, the secretary of state’s voting systems implementation manager, say they and their families have received death threats from aggrieved Trump supporters.
Nov. 26, 2020
Trump calls Raffensperger an “enemy of the people.”
Dec. 7, 2020
Yet another recount affirms Biden’s win, while Raffensperger says repeated claims of fraud are “hurting our state.”
Jan. 2, 2021
“I just want to find 11,780 votes,” Trump says to Raffensperger in a soon-to-be-famous
phone call. “There’s nothing wrong with saying, you know, that you’ve recalculated.” Raffensperger refuses.
Jan. 5, 2021
Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff defeat incumbent Senators Loeffler and Perdue, respectively, concluding the 2020 election cycle and giving Democrats control—if barely—of both the legislative and executive branches.
Jan. 6, 2021
One hundred and forty-seven congressional Republicans vote to reject the results of the presidential election, including Representative Jody Hice. In the aftermath of the violent insurrection, Hice also deletes an Instagram post from earlier in the day; the photo, of Hice walking into the House chamber, was captioned, “This is our 1776 moment.”
Feb. 10, 2021
Newly elected Fulton County DA Fani Willis opens an investigation into Trump’s attempts to tamper with the Georgia presidential election, including the Raffensperger call.
March 22, 2021
Announcing that he’s challenging Raffensperger in 2022, Hice is endorsed immediately by Donald Trump, who praises him for leading “with integrity”—“unlike the current Georgia Secretary of State.” Raffensperger says, “Few have done more to cynically undermine faith in our election than Jody Hice.” (Other competitors: Former Alpharetta mayor David Belle Isle, who lost to Raffensperger in 2018, is having another go, falsely suggesting that “thousands” of illegitimate mail-in ballots were counted in the last election and promising to “clean up the mess.” Former Treutlen County chief magistrate judge TJ Hudson is also running.)
March 25, 2021
Governor Kemp signs SB 202, a sweeping piece of legislation that restricts where, when, and how Georgians can vote.
March 28, 2021
Civil rights groups including the NAACP sue to overturn Georgia’s new voting law, saying its restrictions on voting amount to “intentional discrimination” against Black voters. Raffensperger, as SOS, is named as a defendant. In June, the U.S. Justice Department makes similar claims in its own lawsuit against the State of Georgia.
Sept. 17, 2021
Trump sends another letter to Raffensperger, continuing to allege “large scale Voter Fraud” and asking him to “start the process of decertifying” the 2020 election results and “announce the true winner.”
Sept. 25, 2021
Hice appears at a rally in Perry with Donald Trump, who continues to talk about the previous election: “We never forget 2020, just in case you have any questions.”
This article appears in our December 2021 issue.