Correction: An earlier version of this article stated Bee Nguyen represents Georgia’s 89th Congressional District. It is the the 89th state house district.
For Bee Nguyen, the past few years have been busy.
The nonprofit director turned state representative ascended to public office in 2017, after Stacey Abrams, then a state representative, launched her campaign to be governor of Georgia, leaving her seat vacant.
Nguyen won a special election for Georgia’s 89th state house District, a diverse swath of metropolitan Atlanta. Since then, she has been at the forefront of voter turnout efforts during a presidential election and two high-profile U.S. Senate runoffs. In the past several months, she has fought against a contentious Republican-backed voting bill and spoken out about anti-Asian violence in the aftermath of mass shootings targeting Asian spas in the Atlanta area.
“I think there’s also a lot of emotions behind some of the things that have transpired, but really not enough time to process what those things are,” Nguyen said. “So I’m just putting my head down and trying to be as productive as I can.”
Nguyen has added even more on her plate — her first run for statewide office. On May 4, she announced her candidacy for Georgia secretary of state, becoming the first major Democrat to enter the 2022 race. The role would oversee elections in the key swing state, which have been the subject of fierce partisan battles in recent years.
A number of Republicans have also announced their bid for the seat, which the current secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, is expected to defend. The candidates include U.S. Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), a Donald Trump loyalist who has secured the former president’s endorsement.
Raffensperger and Hice did not respond to a request for comment.
Secretary of state campaigns don’t usually merit national attention, but this is Georgia, where voting rights have been a central issue ever since Abrams’s contested defeat to then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp. Abrams never conceded defeat in the controversial gubernatorial election, which Kemp oversaw.
Abrams went on to found Fair Fight, an organization dedicated to fighting voter suppression across the United States. She and other voting rights advocates were credited in expanding the state’s Democratic electorate, helping deliver Georgia to President Biden and giving Democrats control of Congress by sending two Democratic senators to Washington.
Trump and his followers responded by falsely claiming that fraud tainted election results in the state. Earlier this year, Georgia Republicans passed a new voting law that critics say is likely to restrict access for poorer voters and voters of color.
Nse Ufot, who leads the progressive voter advocacy group, the New Georgia Project, applauded Nguyen’s candidacy.
“We are so excited to have the voice of a voting rights champion like Bee in this critical election,” Ufot said in an email. “We need a secretary of state who will fight to protect the freedom to vote and safeguard the people’s right to participate in our democracy.”
If elected, Nguyen, 39, will be the first Asian American in the role and only the second woman of color to serve as secretary of state.
One of the first things Nguyen said she would do as secretary of state is expand non-English language documents so Georgians of all backgrounds can access information about voting, business loans, insurance and workplace trainings.
She said these values were shaped not only by her experiences as the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, but also from her time as an educator and advocate in public schools through her mentorship organization, Athena’s Warehouse.
Nguyen actually traces her path to public office back to a bridesmaid dress. She was in her mid-20s, and many of her friends were getting married, which meant accruing beautiful bridesmaid dresses that she knew she would never wear again.
Nguyen wanted to donate the dresses to high school girls who couldn’t afford a formal dress for prom or homecoming, but she also wanted to avoid the “princess narrative” that can be associated with these events. So she linked interested girls with mentors: The girls would get a free dress, but also do three hours of community service with their mentor, followed by a shopping day. The shopping days were celebratory, an opportunity for the girls to “feel special and have a connection with another woman in the community,” Nguyen said.
But, she said, she soon realized that the young women who came to Athena’s Warehouse needed more substantial support, and she expanded the mentorship organization into after-school programming.
For 10 years, Nguyen worked with teen girls after school. The work was “incredibly hard,” she says, and there were times when she questioned whether she or the organization was doing enough for her students. But it was also a formative time for Nguyen, opening her eyes to how much public policy shaped their experiences.
“It prepared me for public office more than anything that I have done in my life,” she said.
“When I was in the classroom every week with young people, I really saw what it meant to live in an under-resourced community where your public school wasn’t being funded appropriately,” she said. “There was a lack of access to health care, transportation, healthy food … there were high levels of victimization and domestic violence and dating violence. And then on top of this, there was an extra layer of immigration status for some of my students.”
She vividly recalls being in class when President Barack Obama ushered in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which allowed some undocumented immigrants who had been brought into the United States when they were children to receive temporary permission to stay in the country.
Nguyen was struck by the kind of impact it had on her kids.
“Instead of telling me the most important thing to them was, ‘Oh, I can finally get to college,’ they said, ‘I can finally get a driver’s license so I can drive my mom or dad to work and not be worried that they were going to get pulled over for a broken taillight and then get slated for deportation,’” Nguyen said. “It made me also understand exactly why our local, state, and federal immigration policies are so critical in helping people build a life in this country.”
She said she still keeps in contact with her former mentees, whose visions and hopes for their state and their country serve as Nguyen’s “moral compass” as a lawmaker. Even though Nguyen is certain she’s running for the “right reasons,” she still had reservations about running for statewide office, especially as an Asian American.
She said she consulted Abrams, one of her mentors, with her doubts.
“She said, ‘Well, you’ve always been Asian, right? And you’ve always been Asian in Georgia.’ And she said people need to be able to see it sometimes before they can imagine it, and that’s the importance of putting yourself out there.”
For Nguyen, Abrams is an important example of what it means to expand people’s political imaginations.
“I remember in 2018, people questioned [Abrams’s] viability as a candidate as well, because we’re so used to seeing candidates be fit into a certain mold. And she didn’t fit the mold for most people,” Nguyen said.
“And then we saw how she just transformed Georgia and national politics.”
A spokesperson for Abrams said she “thinks the world of Rep. Nguyen, her work ethic, the leadership she provides and the reputation she has earned.”
At the heart of Nguyen’s vision is recognizing the Georgia that exists now: one that has been profoundly shaped by both immigration and migration. She also said she believes the office is untapped in its potential to touch Georgians of diverse backgrounds, noting that “there’s a lot of stuff the secretary of state can do independently.”
Beyond elections oversight, the secretary of state’s office also plays a key role in supporting businesses and workers through licensing, loans and relief.
Nguyen pointed to inequities in who was able to access Small Business Administration loans during the pandemic — many minority business owners were left behind, simply because no one had reached out to them, she said.
But ultimately, Nguyen knew none of the policies she envisioned are possible if Georgians can’t first trust that their votes will be counted. She recalled the lack of Republican pushback in the statehouse as Trump pushed conspiracy theories about Georgia’s election results; how an election that saw remarkable turnout from voters of color was deemed fraudulent.
Nguyen saw those claims as attempts to erode democracy itself, in Georgia and beyond.
“Everything is at stake.”