Is Mayor Teresa Tomlinson losing black support?

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comMay 4, 2013 

When Mayor Teresa Tomlinson was elected in 2010, she went into office with strong support from Columbus' black community.

In addition to sweeping all the city's majority-white precincts, she also won five of 12 minority precincts, despite being in a runoff against Zeph Baker, who would have been the city's first black mayor.

But recently Tomlinson clashed with some members of the black community over the future of the Liberty District, once the heart of black Columbus. She has also been criticized for her handling of discrimination cases.

Some say recent tensions are a sign of the fracturing of the mayor's black support. Others say the strong bond between the mayor and black supporters will help her overcome a temporary concern.

"She's a very wise mayor because she has made it her business to spend a lot of time in the African-American community," said the Rev. Gerald Parker, pastor of New Providence Baptist Church. "She comes to the churches, attends the events, and I guess it's good that she does those things when moments like this come up."

Ed DuBose, president of the Georgia State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a Columbus resident, had a different perspective. He said backlash against the mayor may be based on perceptions, not reality, but could be harmful just the same.

"I think the mayor has challenges right now," he said. "People looked at her decision to move forward with her plan as trying to work more in favor of businesses rather than the people. I don't know whether that's true or not, but that was the perception that was out there.

"My concern is that she has made a lot of decisions, a lot of moves, that would give the African-American community the idea that she may not understand their issues."

The coalition

With the black population at about 46 percent, the black vote will be crucial in the 2014 election in which Tomlinson said she will seek a second term.

In 2010, she built a coalition that bridged the city's racial, socioeconomic and geographic divides.

She reached out to black pastors, politicians, business leaders and grassroots activists like DuBose. It resulted in a landslide win over Baker, a youth minister at Spirit Filled Ministries.

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, said he has been fortunate to work with 10 mayors, and he believes Tomlinson has been serving African-Americans well. "In my opinion the mayor has been doing a good job for all the citizens of Columbus," he said.

"She's been accessible, concerned about quality of life, and she's very involved in the community."

But the coalition that Tomlinson built may be in jeopardy, according to some grassroots leaders.

J. Aleem Hud, CEO of Project Rebound, a youth and neighborhood empowerment program, said he worked with Tomlinson on some community projects before she ran for mayor and thought she would be more sensitive to the plight of disadvantaged residents. He believes the plan to build apartments around the Liberty Theatre was more about potential commercial development at the corner of Veterans Parkway and Victory Drive than what was best for the community.

He said the city has poured resources into such projects as the ice rink, natatorium and whitewater rafting at the expense of crime prevention and youth development programs for minority youths.

"People are beginning to have second thoughts about the previous election because of some of the decisions that they thought were really insensitive to grassroots and neighborhood interests," he said. "Before she was being viewed as a viable candidate. Now, people are waiting to see what the options are going to be and are not so quick to jump in the Tomlinson camp."

Strained relations

Tomlinson said she has tried to be sensitive to the needs of black people. But her goal is to benefit the entire community, not pander to any specific group. She said her election was based on a philosophy of merit-based leadership that transcends race and demographic preferences.

"Columbus is a meritocracy," she said. "The citizens vote for the person they believe runs the strongest merit-based leadership. I don't look for the short-term political favorite. I have a very long-term view of leadership."

In the case of Booker T. Washington Homes, Tomlinson championed the Columbus Housing Authority's plan to build 100 mixed-income apartments around the historic Liberty Theatre.

The project was to be part of the proposed redevelopment of the BTW apartment complex, but it was opposed by stakeholders who wanted a commercial and entertainment center.

Tomlinson said she fought for the project to be on the right side of history. She believes it was an opportunity to invest $32 million in the Liberty District and improve the living conditions of BTW residents in the near future, rather than several years from now.

But some of Tomlinson's detractors were particularly irked by her decision to go to BTW to rally support. While there, she told residents there were five people opposing the BTW project. She said they went to the Planning Advisory Commission and scared the "bejesus" out of commissioners who succumbed and voted against rezoning for the project. The group she referred to included Tax Commissioner Lula Lunsford Huff, who openly endorsed Tomlinson in the 2010 election, and Councilor Jerry "Pops" Barnes.

Also present was Gloria Strode, the wife of Tollie Strode, Tomlinson's former campaign manager.

Tollie Strode, who parted ways with Tomlinson after her election, said in a recent interview that the mayor "tried to make folks that had a stake in this thing the villains. You don't get much done when you do that to anyone."

The housing authority has since backed out of the plans, and the mayor says it's time to regroup and come up with an alternative that best serves the overall community.

Parker, who pastors a church of about 500 people, says there is no consensus among African-Americans about the BTW project. And he expects most people will get over the recent controversy.

"I have members that live in BTW," he said. "And their main concern is this: they want affordable living and a nice place to live. Because at the end of the day, the only ones that are really going to be concerned are the ones that profit from it and the ones that are going to be living there.

"The rest of us, whether we live on the east side, the north side, whatever, we'll read about it, we'll talk about it, but either way it's not going to affect us."

The mayor's side

Tomlinson said her motives have been misconstrued by some in the community. She said she went to BTW to inform residents about what was at stake if the project didn't go forward.

"It's so odd to me that this continues to be a point of discussion because it is the fate of the BTW residents that was being discussed and opposed," she said. "And nobody had gone to see where they were on it.

"I think that this suggestion that somehow the mayor can't directly speak with people of a certain economic level, race or whatever, and must go through surrogates is not a healthy one," she said. "I think every citizen should have personal access to the mayor and not have to rely on a surrogate."

Tomlinson also defends her record involving claims of minority mistreatment that led last week to a U.S. Department of Justice forum. The Columbus branch of the NAACP has criticized her handling of two cases involving Tony Carr and Jaquess Harris.

Carr, a Fort Benning fire inspector, was shot and killed by a Columbus police officer in September 2011.

The officer, Vincent Lockhart Jr., was chasing a robbery suspect, Alrahiem Tolbert, who apparently carjacked Carr. Lockhart opened fire, killing both men, and has been on administrative leave.

Harris, a Phenix City woman, was killed in October 2012. She was hit by a Columbus police cruiser while an officer was on his way to a backup call.

Tomlinson said the cases were referred to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Georgia State Patrol for independent review, and are now in the hands of the district attorney.

"We are not a discriminatory government," she said. "We have a process for grievances from the community. We have not only our own Internal Affairs investigations, but we've also referred to independent agencies and subjected ourselves to independent review."

The Rev. Richard Washington, pastor of St. James AME Church, said some in the black community set unrealistic expectations for their leaders, then turn against them when they can't deliver.

He said the mayor is only human and should be given an opportunity to learn from recent events.

"You have to know where your land mines are," he said. "If you step on the wrong thing you might blow something up. And when you discover a sensitive area you have to readjust. I think she's attempting to readjust, doing a good job, and these experiences will make her an even better mayor."

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