Credit: Mark Morin/Courtesy Bentley of Bentley Hudgins
This Mercer grad could be Georgia’s first nonbinary state lawmaker. Meet Bentley Hudgins
Editor's note: This story mentions sexual assault.
Bentley Hudgins could make Georgia political history.
The 28-year-old Mercer University graduate — who is running as a Democrat in Georgia House District 90, covering eastern Atlanta and southern DeKalb County— would be Georgia’s first openly nonbinary state lawmaker and its first state legislator of Japanese American descent.
If elected, they could be the Deep South’s first non-binary, Japanese American state representative.
They come into the May primary with several key endorsements, including a nod from Fair Fight PAC, a political organization founded by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. A May primary victory for Hudgins means that they’ll likely represent the heavily blue district in the Georgia General Assembly.
The seat was held by Abrams and current Secretary of State candidate Bee Nguyen. In an interview with the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer and the Macon Telegraph, Hudgins said they plan to use their experience as a voting rights advocate and grassroots organizer to enact change at a time when “we are in the fight of our lives to save American democracy,” they said.
“My dream is for the people that I care about to have real power. That’s it,” Hudgins said. “I’m running because I really do care about my neighbors, and I want them to have a better life. Sometimes, the moment calls you.”
Hudgins, Mercer and their advocacy roots
Hudgins traces their advocacy and organizing roots to the tough experiences and good friends made while at Mercer University. They were a member of the Student Government Association and multiple student organizations addressing housing justice and food insecurity.
But they struggled. Hudgins worked three jobs and took out student loans to pay their way. Close friends died. Their sexual orientation was revealed without their consent.
They were sexually assaulted. And in an effort to avoid another sexual assault after being drugged, they attempted to drive home. Hudgins was arrested.
“Macon was a really hard time for me,” they said. “I came in with big, bright eyes and really ambitious goals, and reality had different plans for me. That was when I really understood that you can’t outwork systemic oppression.”
Hudgins withdrew from school and was working at Macon restaurants when 49 people were killed in a mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Hudgins organized a vigil at Tattnall Square Park that was attended by hundreds.
“That exercise of community, strength and neighborly love at a time of deep loss and trauma showed me that we do have a path forward — that we don’t have to suffer,” Hudgins said. “This developed into a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-generational coalition of people who wanted better.”
Hudgins and others led efforts to expand protection for public sector employees in Macon-Bibb County from discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability in 2017. Hudgins also returned to Mercer University and graduated that same year.
Shortly after graduation, Hudgins moved to the Atlanta area where they got further involved in politics and organizing.
Entrance to politics
Hudgins campaigned for Nguyen during the 2017 special election to replace Abrams, who resigned from the Georgia house to focus on her 2018 gubernatorial campaign. After Nguyen won her race, Hudgins worked on the reelection campaign of Rep. Sam Park, a Gwinnett County Democrat, in 2018.
The last two years were Hudgins’ most politically active. In 2020, Hudgins worked as a political strategist with the New Georgia Project where they and other organizers protested proposed cuts to the state’s public defender system.
Throughout the 2020 elections and 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs, Hudgins ran much of the nonprofit’s voter protection efforts. The work ranged from making sure voters had what they needed to stay in line to helping people fix issues with their absentee ballots.
During this time, Hudgins also worked to advocate and create spaces for LGBTQ+ Asian Americans. They helped lead a “Stop Asian Hate” rally in Atlanta after the 2021 spa shootings.
Hudgins, with the help of U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams and others, pushed for law enforcement to properly investigate a case where one of Hudgins’ friends, Josh Dowd, was assaulted and left unconscious on train tracks near Buckhead last year. Hudgins alleges Dowd, who is an openly gay Asian man, was the victim of a hate crime.
Under the stage name Shi, Hudgins performs drag routines, and they created an all-Asian cast show after seeing a lack of Asian representation in Atlanta’s drag scene.
Hudgins has used their drag performance background for political organizing. They participated in a campaign with the New Georgia Project and Drag Out The Vote, a nonprofit organization that works with drag performers to promote participation in democracy.
In several ways, performing in drag and campaigning aren’t that different, Hudgins said.
“Drag is inherently valuable and meaningful, and it is a way for queer people to produce art and express themselves and build community,” they said. “I found it to be an incredibly powerful organizing tool to provide space for healing and to raise resources for our community.”
The 2022 campaign
Hudgins said their 2022 campaign has been all about listening. Their team has knocked on more than 11,000 doors, sent more than 15,000 text messages and made 17,000 phone calls.
One of the most important issues is affordable housing. Hudgins proposes giving local communities more freedom to address their housing policy, passing a tenant bill of rights, addressing zoning issues, and passing rent limits.
“We also need to stop corporations and hedge funds and Wall Street from coming in and buying all the housing stock,” they said.
Access to affordable doctors who listen to their patients is also a key issue for Hudgins. As a Mercer student, they were diagnosed as legally deaf. An Atlanta doctor reconstructed Hudgins’ eardrums, and they credit the Affordable Care Act for making that possible.
“Medicaid expansion is the bare minimum,” they said. “It shouldn’t even be our blue sky goal. We’ve already seen (hospitals) close in Georgia.”
Hudgins faces four other Democrats in the May primary to replace Nguyen, including Saira Draper, who leads the voter protection initiative at the Democratic Party of Georgia.
Still, Hudgins was able to land the Fair Fight endorsement over their opponents. They’ve also secured endorsements from the Committee for a New Georgia, the Working Families Party, Georgia Equality, the Asian American Advocacy Fund and others.
“Bentley’s track record of putting service before self and working to provide Georgians from all walks of life a seat at the table is unparalleled,” Fair Fight Political Director André D. Fields said in a statement earlier this month. “Bentley is the clear choice in this election for any Georgian concerned about protecting voting rights. As state representative, they will build upon the legacy of their pro-democracy predecessors by holding anti-voting Republicans accountable under the Gold Dome while fighting for quality affordable health care, investment in public education, and empowerment for Georgia’s workers.”
Hudgins said they believe they will win this election. Abrams and Ngyuen left big shoes to fill. But Hudgins said they have the feet to fill them.
“Every time someone wins in this district, they bring something new to the game,” Hudgins said. “I seek to do just that. We need new leadership with a fresh pair of eyes who can bring a new vision for what is possible. People have stunted political imaginations. They stop at the bare minimum. …There is so much more than what we are being offered right now.”
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Telegraph.