Helen Gulgun Bukulmez and G. Lincoln McCurdy enjoying a glass of Turkish wine on election night, November 2, 2021, in Lancaster Kentucky.

Helen Gulgun Bukulmez and G. Lincoln McCurdy enjoying a glass of Turkish wine on election night, November 2, 2021, in Lancaster Kentucky.

Posted on November 15, 2021

Election 2021

In Kentucky, “Yeah”– A Turkish American Loses an Election — “But” An Omen of Hope Emerges!

By G. Lincoln McCurdy

On November 2, 2021, I was fortunate to witness a historical event in American politics that took place in the Bluegrass State, Kentucky. Would you ever imagine a Turkish immigrant female attorney opposing an African American male physician in a special election to fill a vacant seat? They were running for the Kentucky State Senate District 22 in a conservative, predominately white district. Such a scenario would have been inconceivable a few years ago!

I was excited about this election because of my connections to Kentucky and Turkey. Let me explain to my friends in Turkey and the United States why I find this election fascinating! I grew up in the Ohio River valley in Evansville, Indiana, across the river from Kentucky. I received my bachelor’s degree at Hanover College, a liberal arts institution overlooking the Ohio River between Madison, Indiana, and Louisville, Kentucky.

Many of my Hanover classmates were from central Kentucky, the heartland of horse country, so I developed an affinity towards the people and the local culture. The endless miles of bluegrass, the horse culture, the unforgettable memories in the state, and the origin of the name being Native American may have also helped to paint an exotic picture in my mind for Kentucky.

Years later, when I lived in Turkey for nearly a decade, I found Turkey exotic and mystical, falling in love with the natural beauty, culture, and people. Since my return to the good ole’ US., I’ve been very much involved in promoting Turkish-American relations and encouraging Turkish Americans to run for public office.

So, I was thrilled to see Helen Gulgun Bukulmez win the Democratic nomination for this special election. As a Turkish immigrant to Kentucky, her candidacy brought forth the meeting of two cultures on my home turf. The possibility for the first Turkish American to win a state elected office was also exciting, even though Helen warned everyone that as a Democratic candidate, it would be an uphill challenge in a Republican district. However, it was a thrill to support someone who has the guts to run, even as the underdog.

Let me now say a few words about Helen, whose roots are from a village in Urla, Izmir. She came to Kentucky to learn English, as a single mother with her son. After mastering her second language and falling in love with the way of life in the Bluegrass State, she decided to become a lawyer and make Kentucky her new home. It was when she became an American citizen that she adopted the name, Helen—which had sentimental ties to her childhood in the multiethnic culture of Turkey.

Her village upbringing was compatible with the country living in the Bluegrass State. She had no difficulty wielding an ax and a sickle in clearing brush after purchasing 68 acres (27.5 hectares) of woodland to erect a cottage with a vista for her home that she calls The Shire. Her pioneer spirit in starting a new life in a new land and establishing a successful law practice attracted many friends and admirers.

That same courage and popularity led her to politics. Thus, she found herself on the ballot on November 2 after handily winning the nomination at the Democratic Convention. “Yeah,” Helen did not win her first election, “but,” as Kentuckians would say, this election was more than a traditional Democratic-Republican rivalry. For me, I saw an omen of hope emerging in politics!

It was an election with non-traditional candidates and another step forward in advancing diversity in the political field. Additionally, this election reflected America’s openness to immigrants. Helen’s passion for community and her message of unity, inclusiveness, and healing resonated well with many voters, who were looking for new leadership.

At her election night party in Lancaster, Kentucky, she accepted her loss with graciousness and poise and turned an evening of defeat into gratitude. Helen may have immigrated from Turkey, but she shared the same values and desires of the people in her adopted state. Again, I realized how small the world is.

The people of Kentucky and Turkey are so similar in many ways such as their friendliness and hospitality. And, sadly, there is also a legacy of a violent past in both lands that impacts people today. The beautiful land in Kentucky witnessed the brutal Indian Wars of the 18th century, slavery, and discrimination against minorities and immigrants. Likewise, the ancestors of the Turkish people had to suffer centuries of warfare and sectarian violence.

Yet, Helen’s election party became a haven of escape from the past and today’s harsh realities despite being a political event. I felt positive energy and good feelings resonated among the supporters who attended that evening, including two Turkish Americans and some Republicans.

As the guests offered toasts and cheers to Helen over Kentucky bourbon and wine from the Aegean region of Turkey where she grew up, I saw the human spirit expressing a desire to break away from a dysfunctional political state and move forward in resolving today’s ills with civilty. “Yeah,” Helen did not win, “but” her candidacy was a step towards constructive change in our political system!