Inside Democrats Broad Georgia Electoral Strategy

By Crystal Bui

Georgia Democrats pushing for physician-politicians at every level of government

While Georgia Democrats are looking for more doctors to join their fight in the battleground state, the highly scrutinized political spotlight isn’t for everyone. But in this post-pandemic and post-Roe V. Wade world, the party believes those who can use their medical backgrounds to push for common sense health policy are urgently needed. 

So what can Democrats do if they want those with medical expertise in office but have to contend with the intimidation some physicians feel about walking up the Georgia Capitol steps? The solution: get more physicians involved on every level – not just the races covered by national media outlets. The overlooked public offices are also a way for hesitant newcomers to get their feet wet and make a greater change at the local level before trailblazing to the state- or- national stage. This represents the second in a three-article series highlighting political strategy in the upcoming pivotal 2024 elections.

The Decatur Board of Education 

Dr. Carmen Sulton is a mother of four and works at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Pediatric Emergency Department. She also serves as the Medical Director for Procedural Sedation at the Egleston campus. Sulton is one example of this progressive strategy; having physicians influence policy from the local level to the State House. 

The physician-turned-politician is in her first term on the Decatur Board of Education. Decatur, six miles northeast of Atlanta, has an independent school system consisting of four neighborhood elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school serving about 4200 students. Dr. Sulton was elected in 2021 – a time when her medical expertise was that much more crucial as her colleagues navigated the COVID-19 pandemic and juggled the balance of at-home and in-person learning models. Sulton is now the Vice Chair of the Board. Talking about her desire to get involved, Sulton said,

It started out with just a general sense of involvement in my kid’s community. I’ve always kind of been involved in their schools and volunteered as much as I could.

That involvement in the school system made her realize that while the school board had educators, real estate agents, and those traditionally involved in policy and politics serving the district, she hadn’t seen a physician – or someone with her background – be represented and make decisions affecting children’s health and wellness at school.

It was an interesting perspective that was lost. Those kinds of things prompted me to put my money where my mouth was and stop criticizing the job that the other board members were doing and jump in there and do it myself.

Rusty but ready 

Sulton said the last time she ran for office was for student council back in high school. The biggest hurdle in her stepping out of her physician’s coat, she said, was getting over the intimidation of the campaign itself. But Sulton knew she was meant to serve and enrich the lives of families and make educated decisions for them, especially as the pandemic was still surging in 2021. 

I found it very intimidating at first. But once I found the right campaign manager who got over some of those humps, I figured out I didn’t have to do them. I didn’t have to figure out the branding; I didn’t have to pick out the colors; I didn’t have to put up the art sides once I built a team. I felt like my talents were able to shine.

What some don’t realize is after having trouble finding a compatible campaign manager initially, Sulton ended up with a campaign manager who knows her best: her husband. And the ultimate choice was on-brand for this physician-turned-politician, her husband wasn’t in the political arena either. He’s an anesthesiologist. The dynamic duo husband and wife, armed with medical degrees, came together to influence the education system as the pandemic continued. Sulton won a landslide in her race with more than 65 percent of the vote. 

How her role affects other families

Han Pham, Executive Director of Her Term described the confusion and anger situation facing the local communities,

When you talk about how much Covid really affected everyone, we were embroiled in a lot of infighting among parents in the district: about whether or not kids should go to school or not, face-to-face. We were all upset with the board members, and how they were seeming to allow the superintendent to make bad choices.

Pham’s children go to school in the district where Sulton is a board member. All politics begin on the local level.

“There was all of this going on, and [Sulton] kind of came in as a breath of fresh air saying, ‘I really think we can come at this from a perspective of being very deliberate and thoughtful about the way we approach problems,’” Pham said.

Issues on the forefront

For the issues at the top of Sulton’s radar, campus safety is a big one – including what to do with potential weapons on campus. Sulton said that no matter what side of the aisle you’re on in regard to firearms, her purpose has always been to give her medical perspective and to navigate issues by prioritizing children first. She provides an ongoing pulse to the Board on kids injured by guns. 

“Unfortunately, in the emergency department, I manage weapons and injuries there all the time. Even on my last shift, I managed a child who was shot,” Sulton said.

When we talk about managing things like weapons detectors, or managing how people feel when they have to walk through a weapons detector, those are all valid perspectives. But we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater here, unfortunately.

Sulton said that her position is unique because oftentimes her constituents can’t speak up or advocate for themselves. 

“In education, my constituents are children. They’re not their parents, and people sometimes have some trouble with that. But it’s been a growing process to continue to realize that you make global decisions for the entire educational community, not one or two people. And you have to figure out a way to get past that – unfortunately or fortunately,” Sulton said.

From big to small 

As 2024 approaches, for the Georgia Democrats, it isn’t necessarily about stacking one branch of government. It’s about making sure that there are those qualified to talk about public health policy at every level – an effort that Sulton is clearly on board with. 

“Politics comes in a lot of different flavors,” Sulton said.

For some, the flavor is U.S. Congress. For others, it’s the Georgia General Assembly. But for Sulton, the physician who is beginning to make waves in politics, it’s sitting in the position that directly affects the future generation: the Decatur Board of Education.

My biggest piece of advice [to physicians] is that [you] have the skills you’re not told that you do. But you have the skills to be in leadership and government. You just have to figure out where you want to apply those skills and realize you have to use your brain in a different way.

For many this election cycle, the political offices at the lower level are a gateway to something bigger and better.