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Politics

Why This Black Secretary of State Candidate Came Out of Retirement to Take On the GOP

Dee Dawkins-Haigler also wants Black voters to send a message to Georgia Democrats.

Georgia Secretary of State candidate Dee Dawkins-Haigler and her husband, David Haigler, donned campaign T-shirts while posing with business vendors at a festival in May. (Courtesy David Haigler)

Secretary of State candidate Dee Dawkins-Haigler wants Black voters to send a message to Georgia Democrats later this month by making her the party’s choice to take on GOP incumbent Brad Raffensperger in November.

Dawkins-Haigler, a 52-year-old former state lawmaker, nonprofit executive, and active minister at First St. Paul AME Church in Lithonia, is battling state Rep. Bee Nguyen in a June 21 runoff election for the Democratic nomination. Early voting for all runoff races in both major parties has already begun.

The secretary of state’s primary role is overseeing elections at the state level. She or he is also in charge of tracking annual corporate filings, distributing professional licenses, and managing the state’s securities market.

Where the contenders stand on the issues

Dawkins-Haigler and Nguyen spent most of their time taking shots at Raffensperger and the Georgia GOP instead of attacking each other during their recent runoff debate.

Both women announced their candidacy in the wake of Republicans passing a series of election laws post-2020 that critics have argued were designed to reduce minority voter turnout. Nguyen announced her candidacy in May 2021. Dawkins-Haigler followed suit this March.

“I thought it was time for someone with a strong voice to get into the race and try to protect voting rights,” Dawking-Haigler told Capital B Atlanta earlier this month. “I’m doing this for the culture.”

Nguyen and Dawkins-Haigler have campaigned in support of protecting voting rights and increasing election participation through voter education programs.

Dawkins-Haigler has prioritized restoring bipartisan oversight of elections after Senate Bill 202 gave Republicans in the General Assembly more control over the State Elections Board. Nguyen has proposed investing in training and resources for all Georgia local election boards. 

Dawkins-Haigler also wants to create a financial literacy task force specifically for Black people, similar to Raffensperger’s She Leads women’s financial empowerment program.

“I would have a program dedicated to helping Black people scale up businesses for Black people, help Black people learn how to invest in the stock market, to talk about different ways in which they can build generational wealth,” Dawkins-Haigler said.

Different backgrounds and resumes

While agreeing on most of the issues, the candidates’ identities and levels of experience seem to set them apart.

Dawkins-Haigler spent nine years in the Georgia General Assembly, beginning in 2008. She retired in 2017 after her first bid for secretary of state ended in a Democratic primary loss to former U.S. Rep. John Barrow. She was compelled to run again this year in response to Gov. Brian Kemp enacting a series of controversial election laws.

She points out Nguyen has served in the General Assembly for only the past five years after founding and leading Athena’s Warehouse, a women’s and gender-nonconforming people’s nonprofit advocacy group, in 2009.

“I understand the complexities of this office, the magnitude of this office, and I’m able to speak to [Raffensperger] from a place of experience, and not just the kind of experience you get from college degrees,” Dawkins-Haigler said. “[It’s] the experience of being a person who has been oppressed in this country from its inception. No one else can tell that story but a Black person because we’re the only ones that have experienced that type of oppression in the South, in Georgia.”

Following their debate on June 6, Nguyen defended her career background, which also includes serving more than three years as a communications specialist at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank.

“That experience made me a better lawmaker because at the end of the day I understood how policies trickle down and impact real-life Georgians,” she told Capital B Atlanta earlier this month. “This Georgia secretary of state’s office is a government job. It is a political job as well. And as a state lawmaker for the past five years, I have the political acumen. I know how to work across the aisle.”

Nguyen is the vice chair for constituency groups in the Democratic Party of Georgia. She became the first Vietnamese American member of the state General Assembly in December 2017. She took over the 89th District state House seat, representing Atlanta, that was previously occupied by Abrams after her first bid for governor.

Nguyen suggested she may be the better choice to deal with Republicans in the state legislature. “That’s going to be required because we need to learn how to navigate the current legislative body, which has gotten increasingly toxic and increasingly polarizing,” she said.

Dawkins-Haigler said she has more experience contending with alleged voter suppression efforts by GOP leaders. When she first joined the General Assembly in 2008, then-GOP Secretary of State Karen Handel was kicking people off the state’s voting registration rolls after accusing some of being non-U.S. citizens.

“I told the [Democratic] Party then, members of the party, that this was going to be the catalyst for a more diabolical scheme down the road,” Dawkins-Haigler said.

It was a tactic Kemp embraced 10 years later when he removed more than 300,000 people from Georgia’s voter registration logs for not voting in consecutive elections over three to five years.

Dawkins-Haigler launched her failed bid for the Democrats’ secretary of state nomination amid the controversy, before losing to Barrow, who is white. She argues race has played a role in who does and doesn’t win Democratic primaries in Georgia.

“The party establishment has, at times, deferred or tried to discourage Black women in particular from running for state office for fear that their electoral chances are not as good as other candidates,” she said.

Dawkins-Haigler said Black residents should choose her over Nguyen because she’s the more experienced candidate who’s spent years sounding the alarm about voter suppression in Georgia.

“I didn’t just start last week being concerned about this position and the implications of when people go awry sitting in that seat for their own selfish political gain like what has happened with the Republican Party,” she said.

Georgia Democrats already have two Black candidates — Stacey Abrams and Raphael Warnock — competing in tight statewide races this summer. Warnock, Michael Thurmond, and Thurbert Baker are the only Black people to ever win statewide elections in Georgia.  

Nguyen, 40, secured 44.33% of Democratic primary votes on May 24 before entering a runoff race against Dawkins-Haigler, who came in a distant second with 18.66%.

Two days later, Abrams endorsed Nguyen, along with underdog Charlie Bailey for lieutenant governor. Bailey, who is white, came in a distant second (17.63%) in the primary to former U.S. Rep. Kwanza Hall (30.16%), who is Black.

Black people moving to Georgia have contributed to a major demographic shift across the state and helped power the Democratic Party to landmark victories in recent years.

They also have contributed to an unprecedented surge in early voter participation this primary election cycle, according to demographic data reviewed by Black Voters Matter and both major parties.

Dawkins-Haigler said Democratic insiders, including Abrams, are backing non-Black candidates in key down-ballot runoff races out of fear that white voters would otherwise be discouraged from voting for the party, which could make it harder to win statewide elections.

The Democratic Party of Georgia said in a statement that it doesn’t endorse candidates in primary races.

“We look forward to supporting our entire slate of nominees in the general election and fighting to elect Democrats up and down the ballot,” a party spokesperson said via text message.

Since former state Attorney General Thurbert Baker left office in 2011, every statewide office holder in Georgia has been a white male Republican, Dawkins-Haigler said.

“They wanted to present a multiracial, multinational, ethnic group, diverse group, to show that Georgia really is the big tent, per se, as opposed to letting the chips fall where they may and let the voters decide,” Dawkins-Haigler said of Georgia Democrats. “Black people are willing to take a chance in betting on themselves because we understand the issues that are affecting those people.”