Under the Gold Dome: Mercerians leading in the Legislature

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a stately building with a gold dome
The Georgia State Capitol is often referred to as "the Gold Dome." Photo courtesy Office of the Governor

One of the largest state legislatures in the nation, the Georgia General Assembly meets from January until late March each year to set the state’s annual operating budget and propose laws on a variety of topics from education to environmental protection. Mercer students major in changing the world, and as these leaders in the legislature demonstrate, Mercer alumni continue that commitment working to effect positive change under the Gold Dome.

Defending — and living — the American dream

As one of Gov. Brian Kemp’s floor leaders for the Georgia House of Representatives, Rep. Soo Hong (LAW ’08) said she is defending — and living — the American dream. The first woman of Korean descent to serve in the House, she is the daughter of first-generation immigrants, who instilled in her the importance of hard work, determination and sacrifice.

“It’s a struggle, but just like anything in life, it’s what you make of it,” she said. “I learned a lot early on. I was in middle school, calling the phone company to dispute a bill, and I think in that sense I learned how to be there and help people who couldn’t help themselves.”

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Hong immigrated to the United States when she was just 10 years old, and she learned English with the help of teachers who volunteered after school. She graduated high school as a HOPE scholar and went on to receive her undergraduate degree in economics from Georgia Tech, working multiple jobs to pay her way through college.

After college, she interned at the Georgia State Capitol and said that was when she was drawn to study law.

“I wanted to be in a position to help people during some of their hardest times,” she said. “To understand what people go through and hear their stories, and then have the knowledge, the capability to be in a position to actually help them.”

a woman speaks into a microphone
Rep. Soo Hong

Hong was elected to serve the residents of House District 103 in 2022, representing parts of Gwinnett and Hall counties. In 2023, she was named a floor leader by Kemp. In that role, she coordinates legislative initiatives and serves as the chief spokesperson for the Governor’s Office on the House floor.

As a freshman lawmaker, Hong sponsored notable pieces of legislation, including a bill that leveled the playing field for women-, minority- and veteran-owned businesses and a bill that extended aid to pregnant women in Georgia through the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program.

Named to Georgia Asian Times’ 2023 list of the 25 most influential Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the state, Hong was also the first Asian American and Korean American woman selected as president of the Cobb County Bar Association. She was also named the 2023 Legislator of the Year by the Junior League of Atlanta.

“We certainly do see a lot of leaders come out of Mercer. I think it’s the environment that Mercer creates, and the education that you get,” she said. “Coming out of Mercer Law School and the connections and the opportunities that I’ve had because of Mercer Law, it’s been more than I could have imagined.”

Hong said she’s always been grateful that her parents immigrated here, and she’s proud to be an American citizen now.

“To not even know the alphabet at 10 years old to be where I am today, that to me is living the American dream, and I’m passionate about ensuring that we create every opportunity for future generations to live their version,” she said.

Standing up for the voiceless and the vulnerable

House Majority Leader Rep. Chuck Efstration (LAW ’08) has made a career of putting dangerous criminals behind bars. During his 10 years serving in the House of Representatives, he’s sponsored legislation cracking down on criminal gangs and combating hate crimes, earning him a reputation for standing up for the voiceless and the vulnerable.

“As majority leader, I’m proud of the work our House has achieved to advance commonsense priorities that make Georgians safer, healthier and wealthier,” Efstration said.

Efstration represents House District 104, which includes the Auburn, Carl and Hamilton Mill areas of Barrow and Gwinnett counties. A former assistant district attorney and chair of his county Republican Party, Efstration was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 2013 and elected majority leader by his Republican colleagues in November of 2022.

Before being elected majority leader, Efstration served as chair of every judiciary committee and as an administration floor leader for Gov. Nathan Deal, another Mercer alumnus, helping to champion key policies to cut taxes, support law enforcement and protect the vulnerable.
Efstration said he never backs down from doing what’s right.

“Ultimately, I view my position in the Legislature as an opportunity to help Georgians by improving the law, finding areas of injustice and working to address it through legislation and through funding in the state budget,” he said.

a man sits at a desk while a woman leans over and talks to him
Rep. Chuck Efstration

As a proud Mercer Bear, Efstration said he looks back fondly on his time in Macon.

“Mercer offers a great chance to really focus on your education, hear from professors and work with classmates in a setting that is very conducive to later success in life,” he said. “The experience that I had in Macon certainly set me on a trajectory where I could be very effective in my career, and I think about that often. I received the high-quality legal education necessary to get me where I am today while also making lifelong friends along the way, some of whom I’m honored to serve with in the legislature today.”

After law school, Efstration returned to his hometown and worked in law enforcement as a felony prosecutor. As an assistant district attorney, Efstration conducted jury trials prosecuting offenses including murder, rape, armed robbery, child molestation, drug possession and sale, domestic violence, computer crimes, DUI and theft. He also served as a prosecutor for juvenile court and the Gwinnett County drug court. Today, he owns a small family law firm in the Dacula area.

“I think that being a lawyer goes very well with being a legislator because in working with the law all the time, and seeing how the law impacts Georgians, you can be very effective as you argue for changes, so it’s a better reflection of what people need in order to live their lives and continue to live in what I think is the best state in the country,” he said.

Leading the fight for families

Senate President Pro Tempore John F. Kennedy (CLAS ’87, LAW ’90) presides over the Senate body when the president of the Senate is absent and is also the chair of the Senate’s Administrative Affairs committee. A Georgia native born in the small rural town of Adrian, Kennedy said he’s proud to call Middle Georgia his home and honored to give back to the community that has given him so much.

“Regardless of the issue, I have never backed down from fighting for our families,” he said.

Elected to the state Senate in 2014 to represent Crawford, Monroe, Peach and Upson counties, as well as portions of Bibb and Houston counties, Kennedy was a legislative leader from the start. During his freshman term, Kennedy served as Deal’s floor leader in the Senate, and his Republican colleagues elected him to serve as caucus chair for the Senate majority.

During his time under the Gold Dome, Kennedy fought and worked to keep Middle Georgia’s economy open during the pandemic, passed historic tax cuts for families, ensured Georgia elections were secure and increased funding for public safety.

headshot of a man in front of an american flag and georgia flag
Sen. John F. Kennedy

“The most important thing is to serve the constituents that sent me there,” he said. “I didn’t go to warm a seat. I went to try to work and help people that have needs and have that connectivity that we as senators can provide for folks.”

A champion of victim’s rights, he said he’s most proud of the work he did getting Marsy’s Law passed. The bill proposed an amendment to the Georgia Constitution that would entitle crime victims to certain rights including fair treatment, respect and dignity; reasonable and accurate notice of proceedings of the person accused of the crime; to be present and heard at public proceedings involving the victim; and to be informed of their rights.

“Now we have a constitutional amendment in Georgia that guarantees the victims and the family of victims the right to be heard,” he said.

While at Mercer, Kennedy competed on the debate team and served as president of Sigma Nu fraternity. He described his time at Mercer as “good kids, good students, good people, good professors that cared about you. The whole university cared about you.”

A testament to that fondness for Mercer, both Kennedy’s daughter, Katherine, and son, Will, went on to receive degrees from Mercer (CHP ’23 and CLAS ’23 respectively), and his wife, Susan, is also an alumna (CLAS ’90).

“I think folks that are looking at Mercer are attracted to that (leadership) spirit, but then I think it’s furthered and nurtured while you’re there,” he said.

Eventually becoming a partner at the Macon-based law firm of James-Bates-Brannan-Groover LLP, Kennedy admits he never really considered throwing his hat into the political ring. But when he was initially approached to run for the Senate seat, he said, he thought it was a way for him to give back to a community that’s been good to him.

“I’ve been incredibly blessed to get to do what I’ve done. What motivates me are two things. One, the ability to help people, and secondly, the problem-solving aspect of service is a lot of fun,” he said. “I like the intellectual challenge of having problems and trying to figure out a way to address them.”

As proven leaders in the state legislature and their communities, these Mercerians are true examples of how every Mercer student majors in changing the world. As Rosalynn Carter once said, “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of The Mercerian. Read more from the magazine: More Mercer University alumni serve in the Georgia Legislature and Mercer University alumni lead state as governor.

 

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