Physician-Politicians Leading the Way for Georgia Democrats
By Crystal Bui
Georgia Democrats hope voters will be open-minded on who they’ll elect. Their recruitment efforts are changing the face of the party: Democrats are looking for more doctors to join their fight in the battleground state. This represents the first in a three-article series highlighting political strategy in the upcoming pivotal 2024 elections.
The evolving strategy was in part inspired by an anesthesiologist who was successfully elected in 2020 as a Georgia State Senator: Dr. Michelle Au. During Au’s first term, new election districts were drawn, so she pivoted and later ran as a Representative for District 50 – which encompasses Johns Creek, a northeastern suburb of Atlanta. For the second time, Au, armed with her medical and Master of Public Health degrees from Columbia University, beat a Republican opponent.
Au’s resume is a bit of an anomaly and a double threat at that. To some voters (her patients), she’s known as a thorough, knowledgeable, and detail-oriented physician – after all, they entrust her with their lives. But when the Georgia General Assembly meets, Au is in the hospital less and at the Georgia State Capitol more. She’s figuring out how to advocate for patients with an entirely different method. She’s writing and co-sponsoring bills that will affect the health and safety of Georgians. Being first elected in the midst of the pandemic, Au’s medical experience and expertise were that much more crucial to her colleagues and to her constituents.
“Medical school – first or second year – you realize that so many of the factors that make patients sick, and bring them to the hospital or the clinic in the first place, are really far outside their ability to address by the time they get to the hospital,” said Au.
Even though I can give them medication, and we can do the surgery and recovering therapies, and treat their pain and all these things, I can’t fix the upstream reasons that made them have a heart attack, or made them have diabetes, requiring an amputation. These are sort of larger problems in the public health field; we call them ‘social determinants of health.’ And once you realize that, you realize a lot of the fixes that need to take place are at the health policy level.
Physicians and Policy
Au concentrates on health policy as her primary legislative focus. Patients inspire her work. For Au, it was about finding common-sense legislation that would keep hospitals from being overrun with those who need care. Because patients confide in her about the issues affecting their health, their families, and their lives, it gives her a pulse on what needs to change.
“A lot of the ideas I get for bills that I end up drafting and filing are from experiences that I have with patients where patients will tell me things like, ‘I really meant to have the surgery earlier, but this happened with my health insurance.’ Or I asked them, ‘Did you take your blood pressure medicine this morning?’ They’re like, ‘Actually, I haven’t been taking it for three months because I couldn’t get a refill because of this XYZ issue,’” said Au. While this seems forward-thinking, practical preventative policy, Au’s latest effort is bound to be far more controversial.
Au is spearheading a pediatric gun safety bill – HB 161: Pediatric Health Safe Storage Act. While Democrats and Republicans may never agree on any bills surrounding firearms, Au is betting they may agree on the emotional appeal of keeping the next generation safe.
“There’s a reason that I decided to call this bill the Pediatric Health Safe Storage Act, and the reason I’m trying to get this bill heard in the Public Health Committee instead of the Public Safety Committee. This is a public health bill,” said Au.
It actually allows us to discuss what the real issues are: which is, it’s not a political issue. It is a health issue. It’s a public safety issue. And it’s the top killer of kids and teens in this country […] And when that is the reason that kids are dying, we need to look at it in a non-political way.
While Au’s platform and agenda fall in line with Democratic priorities, Au is viewed by some as bi-partisan – a resource for both Democrats and Republicans to get a second opinion when authoring bills related to health. That makes her as impressionable to her colleagues, as she is influential. Whether or not that bipartisan view survives interjecting into one of the most heated social issues in the country remains to be seen.
Why Georgia Democrats Are Recruiting Medical Professionals
Han Pham, Executive Director of Her Term, knew of Au from the days they both went to Wellesley College and was sure after their first official meeting that Au was beyond qualified as a candidate.
“You think about the doctors’ bedside manner – I think that she must have a really good bedside manner because that is what seemed to come through in her campaign,” said Pham.
Her Term is a political non-profit that has been on a mission since 2017 to find, recruit, and provide critical support to progressive women running for seats in the Georgia legislature. Pham says Au encompassed the qualities needed in a good candidate – and a great politician.
[Au’s] manner was so kind and thoughtful. You can’t ask for more in both the candidate and an elected official – that someone is not just a calming presence but also has answers. You want to be able to trust this person, that they will be able to do what needs to be done and know what needs to be done.
Pham said getting more progressive physicians involved in Georgia politics is a tactical response in this post-pandemic and post-Roe V. Wade world. It’s a way to put candidates in the spotlight that the public truly believes is looking out for their best interests and well-being. And who better to write policy than those working on the frontlines and seeing the immediate effects of political decision-making?
The Path Forward
Politics, Au says, is one way of upholding the Hippocratic Oath doctors and medical students must take. Au has been working to convince more physicians to double as politicians and policy advocates. She’s not shy about telling her colleagues they can impact patients’ lives from outside the hospital walls. It’s her selling point: appeal to a doctor’s desire to keep people safe and healthy.
In the end, it may not be about having a fancy liberal arts political science or law degree that makes someone qualified to create policies that affect all Georgians – at least, that’s what the Democrats are betting on as they continue to look for candidates with non-traditional degrees, including an MD.
“When I’ve been talking to doctors to try to encourage them to run for office […], one of the pieces of pushback that I get is that, ‘I’m only an expert in this area,’ and ‘I can only help in this particular area,’” said Pham.
And I would actually say that having expertise in a particular area is really, really useful and really, really helpful, especially for the caucus, because then you can actually talk to your colleagues in a way that the lobbyists can’t really talk to your colleagues and help them understand what the issues are.
Democrats are hoping voters agree.