Donald Trump being elected president is one of the worst things that has ever happened to the United States. It’s been a full-on catastrophe in all ways but one: The resistance to his regime also provided a jolt of new energy and determination to a Democratic Party that desperately needed it, motivating millions of activists and candidates to build grassroots infrastructure that generally takes years to grow.
Luisa Wakeman is a perfect example of this progressive revival. A resident of the Atlanta suburbs, she’d long figured most of her neighbors were Republicans, so she never spent too much time on politics; instead, she focused on her family and her dual career as a flight attendant and cardiac care nurse (really!). But when Donald Trump mocked of Gold Star families and disabled reporters in 2016, it pulled her off the sidelines; she began volunteering for the Clinton campaign that summer, and when Trump scored his unlikely victory, Wakeman vowed to get even more involved.
Fast forward a few years later and Wakeman is one of the most promising Democratic state legislature candidates in Georgia. She’s running a strong campaign in the rapidly changing and very flippable HD-43, a seat Democrats desperately need to win.
“My parents were immigrants, my family is originally from Holland, and my grandparents were in the Dutch Resistance during World War II. I grew up with stories about what can happen when people look away,” Wakeman tells Progressives Everywhere. “I knew I had to get involved when I saw hatred infused without repercussions.”
This is Wakeman’s second run for the State House. In 2018, Wakeman came less than 800 votes of unseating long-time State Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Republican who hadn’t faced any electoral opposition since 2010. It’s a familiar story; for a decade, Democrats just ceded legislative seats like this one to Republicans, allowing them to enact all sorts of racist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-democratic laws in states throughout the country. That’s especially true in Georgia, where extreme anti-LGBTQ laws and mass voter suppression have become the norm.
The first big election after Trump’s victory was the special election in Georgia’s 6th district. What would have been a sleepy race between Republican
Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff became a national story, with millions of dollars pouring into each campaign from around the country. Wakeman got involved in the Osoff campaign as a precinct captain, and though the Democrats fell short in that election, it planted the seeds of a grassroots infrastructure that quickly began to grow.
After the Ossoff campaign, Wakeman signed up for a day-long training with the grassroots group Georgia Win List; she thought she was going to learn more about working on a campaign, but instead was persuaded to actually run for office.
It was a major commitment, because she didn’t exactly have a lot of free time on her hands. Wakeman, who got her degree in economics, had worked as a flight attendant for Delta going on two decades when the company filed for bankruptcy in 2005. Then the recession hit. She was able to hold on to her job despite waves of layoffs, but with more time on her hands and an uncertain future, Wakeman knew she needed to restructure her own future.
So she went back to school, became a nurse, and took a second job in cardiac care, a feat that should give you an idea of her determination and capacity to help others. She learned a lot about healthcare while working in a hospital, especially with serious cases of heart failure. Cooper, meanwhile, is the chair of the Georgia House’s Health & Human Services Committee, which has blocked healthcare expansion for half a million people.
“Under [Sharon Cooper’s] watch, the uninsured rate has gone up, healthcare costs have risen. We have an opioid crisis. We have an HIV crisis and a maternal mortality crisis that is one of the worst in the country. And nothing is happening,” Wakeman says. “It’s just gotten worse. I’m a registered nurse. I’ve been at the bedside and I know that we can do better. One of the big things that we can do is Medicaid expansion and that’s not going to happen while she’s in office.”
In fact, Cooper made national headlines for her staunch opposition to Obamacare and Medicaid expansion, and years later, she maintains that stance. Cooper is also an extreme opponent of abortion rights and voted for Georgia Republicans’ infamous anti-LGBTQ bill in 2016. Wakeman brings that up several times in conversation; her daughter is a member of the LGBTQ community, she says, and it’s a disgrace that Georgia does not have any codified legislation protecting her from hate crimes.
Georgia is expected to be a battleground state this year, but it will take an unprecedented effort to turn it blue. As both Secretary of State and Governor, Brian Kemp has shredded voting rights in the state, purging voters by the hundreds of thousands. Those purges have had an outsized impact on minority communities, which in turn tilts the election against Democrats.
As a precinct captain on the Ossoff campaign, Wakeman saw the impact of Kemp’s active assault on voting rights. Not only were people she knew randomly tossed off the voter rolls with no warning or alert, polling locations were inconveniently placed far away from communities to which they were assigned. One town where she was assigned as a precinct captain, Chattahoochee, had its polling place in an entirely different municipality, in a location with very little parking. Wakeman is trying to mitigate the immediate impact and promises to support same-day registration should she be elected.
Democrats have to flip 16 seats to take back the Georgia House, and Wakeman’s district is in that top tier. She knows the stakes, and they go far beyond her Atlanta suburb.
“The political boundaries are going to be locked and if we don’t get a bipartisan or nonpartisan process, that could affect the political landscape in Georgia for the next 10 years,” she says. “If we can flip these seats and get a majority, that will help make sure, that the voters get to choose their politicians and not the other way around.”
In a state that’s teetering on turning blue at the national level, that couldn’t be more important.