A little more than five weeks from completing her eight-year term as the 69th mayor of Columbus, Teresa Tomlinson, during a Women in Business luncheon Wednesday, recalled one of the defining moments of her decision to seek the city’s highest office.
The attorney and then-executive director of MidTown Inc. had sought the opinion of a well-known and respected city politico in Columbus, with the two meeting for lunch at the Burger King on Wynnton Road. This came after others in the community had suggested she should possibly run for mayor.
The conversation with the person, who Tomlinson did not name, became starkly blunt as it unfolded in the fast-food eatery and she asked his thoughts about her considering elected office, a challenge she had never tried before.
His assessment: You’re definitely going to lose. Why, she asked. Nobody cares about economic and community development, he said of the issue that Tomlinson was considering putting an emphasis on as mayor.
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“I don’t even know what you’re talking about. People only care about crime and schools,” the person responded, which drew Tomlinson’s retort that community development has everything to do with crime.
The future candidate said the adviser then tossed out another observation, declaring that “you’ll never win because white men don’t like you.” On Wednesday, she compared that to today’s political analysts on the cable news networks, who divide people by demographics to include gender, race and age, then make broad generalizations about how those groups will vote in an election.
“What that was was the good ol’ boy system, the old-school way of wanting to push me away from this opportunity, knowing that somebody like me, a Gen-Xer, somebody that had my experience, might shake up a system that he and a few others were used to,” she said. “So I needed to move on down the road.”
Tomlinson, who became mayor on Jan. 3, 2011, after receiving 68 percent of the vote by Muscogee County residents the previous November, then followed that up four years later, grabbing 63 percent of the vote for re-election, will leave office on Jan. 6, giving way to newly elected Mayor Skip Henderson.
On Wednesday, the Democrat spoke to those attending the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce’s Women in Business forum at the Rivermill Event Center. Her primary mission was to give those there some insight into her mayoral experience and lessons they might use themselves in their personal and work lives. It even had some moments of levity.
“When they told me I had a table of 10, I had to go scrounge up 10 friends and, even though you’re an elected official, sometimes that’s hard to do,” Tomlinson said, nodding toward the audience, which included city officials and members of the law firm, Hall Booth, P.C., which she has decided to work for in her post-mayoral life as she considers a possible run for a higher state or federal office in the future.
Off the bat Wednesday, Tomlinson, 53, delved into how change and uncertainty can create opportunity for innovation and leadership. She said her career path has been filled with change, with it often directing her in unintended directions, such as the 2006-2010 stint at MidTown Inc. — a job she loved — and her burgeoning political career.
“There were things, some serendipity, some just opportunities that arose at the moment. But with each one and now in particular, looking back on them, they were very fortuitous and very important,” she said.
Her message to Women in Business attendees: “You never know where life is going to take you, so give into the current that’s pulling you. Often the current that’s pulling you is probably because your passion and your talent is making people notice that particular thing about you. Or you’re gravitating toward the things that you love or enjoy so much.”
At MidTown, which she says changed the course of her life, her passion evolved into community redevelopment and renewal. She also noticed a “seismic” generational shift in Columbus that needed bold leadership and someone who would talk with residents about blight and its negative effect on crime, education and economic development in the city.
“That drive and that desire opened up (in me). I had no business running for mayor. I had never held elected office. But I had something to say and a deep passion to do it,” said Tomlinson, urging people in general to not underestimate relationships and the impact serendipity can have on their lives and careers.
As for the “push back” she received from the conversation at Burger King and another moment early in her first term when she was not informed that the governor of Georgia was visiting Columbus and the National Infantry Museum — ultimately driving to the event which she was not officially invited and greeting him at the last minute — Tomlinson said it all made her stronger. Again, she felt the obvious slight by the city’s civic leaders during the governor’s visit was aimed at her new ideas and way of doing things.
“I didn’t even appreciate that (at the time) because I didn’t see myself as some political force,” she said. “It was just me and my generation and the fact that I had not been part of the structure before and the fact that I was bringing a fresh vision and perspective to something that had been in place and operating in a certain way for a very long time. Their push back actually imbued me with confidence. Their push back opened my eyes to what was going to happen in this city over the next eight years.”
To that end, Tomlinson told those at the luncheon to not let detractors and competitors deter them. It may be their way of conveying that you are the right person for a particular job or task at that time.
The mayor also said that no one’s story or leadership style is going to be the same, thus individuals should embrace that rather than take their talent and experiences for granted. Ultimately, she said, remain true to yourself.
“Look, I fall short in more ways that I can stand up here and enunciate for you today. But I am the very best Teresa Tomlinson you have ever met. And so are you guys,” she said. “You’ve got to realize that nobody has your combination of life experiences and wisdom and your unique life story. You sell yourself short when you don’t appreciate that.”
Tomlinson closed the forum with a brief anecdote around the 2017 historical movie, “The Post,” in which Meryl Streep plays the owner of The Washington Post and the new CEO taking the helm after her husband’s sudden death. She knew nothing about the business, but had to struggle with the company’s board of directors to salvage the iconic newspaper.
“Sure, experience and expertise has its value, but inexperience allows you to be bold,” she said. “And it provides you a confidence uninformed by pitfalls because you don’t know you’re walking through a minefield half the time. So take advantage of it.”
An Atlanta-area native, Tomlinson has lived in Columbus since 1994, wedding Wade H. “Trip” Tomlinson, also an attorney. Her first 16 years in the community were spent at the law firm of Pope, McGlamry, Kilpatrick, Morrison, Norwood, LLC, where she became its first female partner.