Park Cannon, 24, was waiting on the MARTA train platform in Atlanta when she received a phone call from Georgia State Rep. Simone Bell. "Park, I'm thinking about resigning in the next two weeks," Cannon recalls her asking during that November 2015 call. "I wanted to know if you'd ever thought about running for office." Bell was in her 6th year of representing an Atlanta district and was planning to rejoin Lambda Legal as their Southern regional director.
"I knew there were others who would run for her seat who would not lead with as much conviction as she would, and I had to throw my hat into the ring," says Cannon, a Democrat who had never run for office. "I began to cry tears of joy and was immediately ready to start running for office for the January 19th special election." Cannon, a coordinator for a program that teaches Black women how to lobby, had met Bell through work, but the two developed a strong rapport during the race, talking and texting often.
Cannon won the race, making her one of the youngest-ever members of the Georgia House of Representatives. Between her age, race and openly queer identity, she made national headlines.
While Cannon's 58th district is predominantly Black and in the mostly Democratic city of Atlanta, she joined a Republican-dominated house: Democrats are outnumbered nearly 2-to-1 on the House floor. Only 18 percent of her fellow representatives are women, and Cannon says the body is "overwhelmingly White." Georgia is also what Victory Fund CEO Aisha Moodie-Mills calls a "low-equality" state, meaning there are no non-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people and very few out elected officials.
A Creative Beginning
While Cannon had never been in an elected office before, she's shown her passion for politics throughout her life in non-traditional ways. In 2008, as junior at a Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, high school, Cannon decided to choreograph a dance titled "Yes, We Can," after Obama's slogan and will.i.am's unofficial campaign song.
"I was too young to vote, but I knew there was something I could do to support his movement," she recalls. "I created an original modern dance piece. We had six different dancers from my grade, a guitar player and a singer perform in front of my entire school. There was a lot of movement that included looking up, looking hopeful and opening up to new things. We also expressed feelings of frustration and tribulation. At the end there was the repetition of the words 'yes we can' with the entirety of the performers holding hands and embracing each other."
Cannon also remembers the night of Obama's first presidential win as one of the most exciting moments of her life. "My mom is a person [whose] name on her birth certificate was spelled wrong because of overt racism. She went to high school every day through the back door of her school, and her family made a living running a restaurant out of a trailer. When someone who looked just like her older brother or her younger brother became president it was just priceless."
While Cannon lived in Brooklyn during her high school years, she was born and raised in Albany, Georgia, about three hours south of Atlanta and just 30 minutes away from her mother's hometown of Camilla. Cannon now lives with her mother in the Old Fourth Ward, a historic Black neighborhood known for being Martin Luther King Jr.'s childhood home.
After high school, Cannon went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and volunteered with Planned Parenthood and NARAL. She has continued her reproductive rights work, serving as the coordinator for the Black Women's Wellness Program at Atlanta's Feminist Women's Health Center.
Even if Cannon didn't follow a traditional trajectory of political campaigns, internships, or lower-level political office, it's clear that her political aspirations began way before that phone call with Bell.
A Whirlwind Special Election
Cannon ran against two African-American men for Bell's seat. She waged an intense fight to raise money, get to know her district's voters, and stand up to the ageism, sexism and homophobia she faced on the campaign trail.
"Sitting on panels with the two other gentlemen [candidates], there was a culture of Southern hospitality mixed with benign paternalism," she says. "The need to open the door for me or pull my chair out [were] intentional ways to make me seem inferior. There was also times of overt sexism where [one of my opponents] said 'Maybe if I had a little bit more sugar in my tank or if I wore a cuter dress [I would do better].'"
Moodie-Mills, whose Victory Fund provides monetary and tactical support to a select group of LGBTQ candidates, put into context how rare Cannon is. "I can count on one hand the number of African-American, out LGBTQ officials in state legislatures," she says. More specifically, Cannon is one of just four. U.S. Congress is equally dismal; only seven lawmakers identify as lesbian or gay, and only one of them is a person of color, Representative Mark Takano. Cannon, who is decades younger than many elected officials, is also unique in that she explicitly identifies as queer rather than lesbian or gay. This reflects a significant generational shift in identity and terminology.
The Victory Fund, which endorses office-seekers who champion LGBTQ and reproductive rights and are running a viable campaign, endorsed Cannon and designated her a "spotlight candidate." It contributed close to $3,000 to her campaign, nearly 10 percent of her overall fundraising. The rest, she says, came from "reaching out to every person I had ever met ever. I researched every business card, tracked down every Facebook post, reached out to every family member." She also received a total of 11 endorsements from groups including labor unions.
It would be understandable if Cannon, a brand new politician and the ultimate minority in the Georgia State House, hung back and observed for the first couple of months of her tenure. But there she was, speaking up during the debate over HB 757, a bill that opponents say would promote discrimination against LGBTQ people under the guise of religious liberty. "Wouldn’t it be true that if this bill passed as amended, a domestic violence victim in a same-sex or same-gender-loving relationship could be denied care?" Cannon recalls asking.
Governor Nathan Deal vetoed that bill, but it's likely to be one of many Cannon will fight during her time in the legislature. Since she's running unopposed after Bell's seat expires, she will serve through at least 2018.
While Cannon is an unlikely Georgia state rep., she says she imagined a future like the one she is living now in November 2014. As protests erupted all over Atlanta in response to the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, Cannon decided to head to the capitol instead. "I stood on the corner of Mitchell Street and Capitol Avenue for 30 minutes, picturing myself having an office in the capitol building. I said to myself, 'This is the place where I want to do this. This is where change needs to happen. This is what I’m committed to.'"