Cobb's new state senator brings Atlanta school board experience to the Gold Dome

Nov. 26—Democrat Jason Esteves is no stranger to elected office. Since 2014, he served on the Atlanta Board of Education, the state's first Latino school board member.

In this month's general election, voters elected Esteves to the Georgia Senate seat held by Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta. Jordan vacated that seat to challenge Republican Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, a race she lost.

A former middle school teacher, Esteves, 39, launched his bid for the open seat, which includes parts of Cobb County and Atlanta, because of his background in public education.

"I ran because I realized, whether it was in the classroom as a teacher or as a school board member, that there are so many things, so many factors, that influence whether a child receives their education, that are dictated by laws and policies at the (Georgia) Capitol," he said.

From funding to healthcare to healthy meals and safe housing, the Senate, in Esteves' mind, is where positive changes can be made for students' lives, in and out of the classroom.

"All those things are factors that help determine whether a child is going to be successful or not in education," Esteves said. "That's the premise upon which I ran."

Leveraging experience in Atlanta

Esteves defeated Republican Fred Glass with 45,076 votes (56.6%) to Glass's 34,607 votes (43.4%).

It was not Esteves' first bid for a seat in the Georgia Legislature: He ran for a state House seat in 2012 but was defeated in the Democratic primary. When a position on the Atlanta school board opened up, Esteves entered the race with encouragement from supporters of his House campaign, winning in 2013 with more 70% of the vote.

Esteves originally ran for the board on the promise to get the scandal-ridden Atlanta Public Schools out of the headlines. He said the experience of working toward a common vision with his fellow school district officials sets him up for success in the Senate (Esteves served as board chair from 2018 to 2021).

"The method in which I will be doing this work is really no different than on the school board. Yes, I had eight school board members and a superintendent that I had to bridge-build with," he said. "In this instance, I'll have 55 other state senators that I'll have to do the same thing with."

The senator-elect said he is excited to work across the aisle to get things done, and believes that most Georgians agree on most issues, especially related to education, his foremost priority.

"I was a big fan of Jason's because his expertise is public schools, and I feel like that is missing in our legislature," said Stacy Efrat, an east Cobb resident, early supporter of Esteves and one of the founders of the watchdog group Watching the Funds — Cobb, which tracks spending by the Cobb County School District. "I've got three kids in Cobb County public schools and I thought he would be a great asset to the legislature."

Efrat said she wants Esteves to work across the aisle while in the Senate, including in efforts to fully fund public schools.

"Public schools should be a priority for both Democrats and Republicans," Efrat said. "I know that everything is very divisive right now, and I think Jason's expertise and experience would, hopefully, allow some Republicans in the legislature to work with him."

Focused on the issues

Esteves was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, to Fernando, an Army staff sergeant, and Linda, a former customer sales representative and florist. Esteves moved to Columbus, Georgia, when his father was transferred to Fort Benning. After finishing high school in Orlando, Florida, Esteves studied psychology at the University of Miami. Following graduation, he taught social studies for two years at Fonville Middle School in Houston, Texas, through Teach for America.

It was at Fonville, which had a large low-income student population, that Esteves began developing his leadership acumen by helping students start a student council and planning field trips.

"I realized how much of an impact I had when I stepped up," he said.

His early experiences in public education paved the way for his service on the Atlanta school board, though Esteves also prepared himself on the legal front. He returned to Georgia after his stint with Teach for America to attend Emory University School of Law.

He met his wife, Ariel, while at Emory. She is a nurse practitioner with her own clinic in northwest Atlanta, and they live in the city with their 7-year-old son, Jaeden, and 4-year-old daughter, Zoe. Esteves is now a vice president at Equifax, managing risk for the company.

On the education front, Esteves said he will push to fully fund public education in Georgia and expand early learning, such as offering pre-K for children between the ages of two and three.

In addition to education, Esteves said he wants to prioritize health care and economic opportunity while in the Senate and identified connections between different issues, such as teacher pay and affordable housing.

He appreciates the two teacher pay raises signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp, which brought starting teacher pay to around $39,000, but said teachers need more.

"If we want a world-class public education system, which I think we do, especially if we want to be the best state in the country ... we need support for those teachers, but you also need pay that is worth something," Esteves said.

Esteves said part of making Georgia a better state involves making it a more renter-friendly place.

"Georgia is a very landlord-friendly state, and because of that, corporations, literally companies, have bought up a lot of real estate and are renting, including in Cobb County," Esteves said. "The only reason those companies are coming to Georgia is because the landlord-tenant laws are favorable, and what that ultimately does is it drives up prices for everyone."

Esteves will also focus on health care. He supports expanding Medicaid, which he said "poll after poll has shown is widely popular," and also improving senior care, something personal to him after his mother was diagnosed with late-stage Alzheimer's and moved in with him.

Environmental justice is another priority. He said there are high pollution sites throughout Senate District 6, like a coal ash pond at Georgia Power's Plant McDonough south of Vinings and the Sterigenics plant near Smyrna, which closed in 2019 over concerns about the company's use of the cancer-causing chemical ethylene oxide but reopened in 2020.

"Those are items that need to be addressed," he said.

Uniquely positioned

Esteves had a busy campaign, raising nearly $570,000 against his opponent's $84,000. He said one of the two keys to his victory was fundraising, while the other was talking to voters and meeting them where they are.

Despite the hustle of the campaign, Esteves said he was able to keep his sanity through it all by taking his daughter to gymnastics and coaching his son's soccer team. He also loves to play basketball, hitting the court three times a week at 6 a.m.

An avid traveler who has been to all continents except Antarctica, he is looking forward to an upcoming trip to Canada with his wife to see the Northern Lights.

He is also excited to be one of four new Latino legislators elected to the General Assembly this year, adding he plans to become involved in various bipartisan caucuses, including the newly created Georgia Hispanic Caucus.

Esteves said his participation in the Leadership Georgia training program introduced him to people he will now serve with in the Georgia Capitol, including two Republicans with whom he developed "solid relationships" and is excited to work.

"I'm focused on a Georgia where everyone has the opportunity to thrive."