Unseating an incumbent in a non-battleground district can seem like a lost cause, but openly gay Democrat attorney Sam Park is fighting to make history in solidly red state House District 101 near Lawrenceville.
For over a decade, gay men have been running to be the first openly gay man to win a seat in the Georgia General Assembly, and Park is the next in a long line of candidates hoping to break through the rainbow ceiling. While Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates), Rep. Kesiha Waites (D-Atlanta) and former Rep. Simone Bell (D-Atlanta) have won seats in the House while being open about their sexuality, no gay man has been elected. Former Rep. Rashad Taylor (D-Atlanta) lost once his sexuality became public knowledge.
He is running against Valerie Clark, who has held the office since 2010. Clark ran uncontested in 2014 and won with 56 percent of the vote in 2012. Clark voted for House Bill 757 the self-titled “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” when it worked its way through the Georgia General Assembly.
Park acknowledged the difficulty of unseating an incumbent, but said his run was prompted, not by the desire to write his name in the history books, but because of his mother. In 2014 his mother was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer and given six months to live. Through Medicare and Medicaid she explored treatment options, and is working towards being in full remission. Because of his mother’s experience, Medicaid expansion is his top issue.
“Knowing that there were 500,000 people without that same insurance… knowing that they don’t have the same access to healthcare, something that was saving her life, broke my heart,” he said.
Wearing his religion on his sleeve
Park’s website speaks more about his faith than it does about his sexuality, and while that is a common tactic for LGBT candidates in the South, Park said his faith is one of the strongest components of his life.
“I was born in Georgia, and raised Baptist, so I come from a very conservative background. Discovering and learning about yourself as a teenager, and as an adult, I discovered, yeah, I’m gay, and there’s no real control over that,” he said. “Discovering who I was in relation to my faith, yeah, there was a tremendous amount of conflict there.”
That painful conflict caused Park to leave his Baptist faith behind.
“When I was 18 I turned my back on faith because I could not be truthful about who I am and my faith,” he said. “Through difficulties, and loss of love ones, I felt who do I turn to? So, I came back to my faith, and that faith proved to be an enduring foundation.”
Park believes that because of his faith he can advocate for LGBT issues in a unique, and potentially effective way.
“I am of the opinion that (some parts of) Christianity has been turned, and distorted into hate… so for me it’s very unfortunate that the people who share my faith are people who are leading the charge against the GLBT community, and in my experience, that’s not based on faith. It’s based on fear and hate,” he said. “I think ultimately that is why we have bridge that gap.”
A wannabe wonk
A policy wonk is a nerd for the lawmaking process. They hone in on details of laws, policies and regulation, often looking at bills word-by-word and arguing over comma placement. Park longs for the day others consider him a policy wonk.
“I really admire policy wonks… change one word and it can make a world of difference,” he said. “I would love to be called a policy wonk.”
Park has worked as a legislative aide in the Maryland Senate, worked as a health team extern for the Bipartisan Policy Center and as a legal extern for the Georgia Senate Democratic Caucus.
“I’ve been working behind the scenes in politics for three years,” Park said. “I tend to be more comfortable behind the scenes, and it’s not very comfortable being in front of the cameras.”