Elections

Who is Teresa Tomlinson? How a lawyer, mayor, Democrat hopes to gain statewide appeal

Teresa Tomlinson was 8 years old when she started going to political events.

Back then she was Teresa Pike, growing up in Brookhaven outside Atlanta, where her best friend’s father was Max Davis, a Georgia state legislator.

“He was a Republican, at the time when there weren’t many, and so when most little girls were at sleepovers or watching Disney movies, we were at rallies and community events and town halls,” she recalled.

That early exposure taught her “to appreciate the importance of government, the importance of good leadership, of transparency, of access to your elected officials,” she said.

Forty-six years later, the former two-term Columbus mayor hopes to put those principles to work as she pursues a run for the U.S. Senate, challenging incumbent Republican David Perdue.

Tomlinson, 54, filed Friday with the Federal Elections Commission to establish her exploratory effort to mount a statewide campaign, but she cautioned that her plans could change, should former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams jump in.

Abrams is the Democratic Party’s preferred candidate, for Perdue’s seat, but she is on an extended book tour, and has not decided what she will do next, Tomlinson said Thursday..

Perdue, a businessman and cousin of former Georgia governor and now Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, was elected to the Senate in 2014, defeating Democrat Michelle Nunn, daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn.

“I think she’ll be a good candidate,” Perdue said Friday during a visit to Macon. “I’m anxious to see how the Democrat Primary runs next year, and we’ll see who the candidate against will eventually be.”

Though not a veteran politician, Perdue like his cousin has name recognition across the state. Tomlinson has remained in the public eye since leaving the mayor’s office, appearing on radio and TV talk shows and attending public events around Georgia. But she still will have to introduce herself to people beyond Muscogee County, to garner the votes she needs to win.

People will want know who she is, what she stands for, and where she came from.

Growing up

Teresa Pike became a Republican, thanks to Max Davis, as all she knew of politics at the time was what she saw as a child.

She took part in student government before she graduated in 1983 from Chamblee High School and went off to school at Sweet Briar College in Lynchburg, Va., and later to law school at Atlanta’s Emory University.

Tax vote backup
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and former state Sen. Seth Harp debated the tax freeze referendum several times. Robin Trimarchi rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com

“As a young person, I worked in the U.S. Senate, actually, for Sen. John Warner,” she said during an interview Thursday with the Ledger-Enquirer. Warner was a five-term Republican senator from Virginia, serving from 1979 to 2009. “I volunteered for his office, as a college student. I was actually on the payroll of Reagan-Bush, 1984. I was the only female member of quote, ‘Youth for Reagan.’ … I stuffed a lot of envelopes for Mack Mattingly.”

Mattingly was a U.S. Senator from 1981 to 1987.

Tomlinson became disenchanted with the Republican Party’s shift to the right during the 1980s, and soon decided she didn’t fit there.

“I just can’t abide intolerance,” she said. “I think it’s antithetical to our concept of all men are created equal, and so I just fell out of step with them, related to that. What was most troubling to me was that the Republican Party came to use race, sexual orientation, religion, as a divisive means to get out the vote, and I thought that was just particularly cynical.”

Lawyer, leader

After gaining her law degree in 1991, she focused on her career, joining the firm of Pope, McGlamry, Kilpatrick, Morrison, & Norwood, which had offices in Atlanta and Columbus.

She loved it: “I had a great passion for justice,” she said. “There’s sort of a theme in my life that I hate bullies and I love justice, so the law’s a great place to exercise those particular personality traits.”

That’s what brought her to Columbus in 1994, and that’s how she met her husband, colleague Wade “Trip” Tomlinson. They married in 1997.

She became a partner in the firm, and a career in politics was not a prospect — yet.

That would not appeal to her until 2006, when she took what she thought would be a temporary hiatus to serve as the first executive director of MidTown Inc., the nonprofit focused on revitalizing the city’s core. That core is a six-square-mile area centered on Wynnton Road, long considered Columbus’ dividing line between black and white, rich and poor.

“It was separating us economically; it was separating our communities racially; it was allowing for an unhealthy and unstable community to arise in the heart of Columbus,” she said. “And thankfully there were a lot of folks that were visionaries, who wanted to do something different and be proactive.”

Tomlinson went to work on fundraising, branding the organization, building neighborhood associations, helping establish new historic districts, and pushing for redevelopment.

“Seeing the more immediate gratification of working in the community and making government work for people was something that really lit a fire in me, to see that if we elect good people, good strong leaders into government positions, we will get good government,” she said.

When Mayor Jim Wetherington pledged not to seek a second term in 2010, Tomlinson explored running and discovered Columbus politics then operated on an outdated model she called a “surrogate” system.

That’s a system in which a mayor wanting to pass a sales tax doesn’t go straight to the people, but to surrogate civic leaders: a bank president, a utility head, a major employer, a couple of preachers, she said. They meet to reach a consensus, and then the surrogates go out and promote the tax.

“Well, as your community gets larger, and particularly with the advent of social media, you cannot have that lockstep compliance with surrogacy like that,” she said. “So in today’s world, people don’t just go vote for something because their employer suggested he or she supported it.”

Tomlinson didn’t rely on surrogates, and mounted a diverse and far-reaching campaign that drew on the relationships she built with MidTown and expanded them. She also made extensive use of social media.

She did not have an easy run, at first, having to face perennial candidate Zeph Baker in a runoff. Baker, the son of a prominent local pastor, ran for the state House in 2008, for Columbus Council in 2014, and again for mayor last year.

Tomlinson trounced him, in the runoff, winning 68 percent of the vote to become the first woman elected mayor here.

That was on Nov. 30, 2010. The state legislature later moved the local nonpartisan election to coincide with state party primaries held in the spring. On May 20, 2014, she easily won re-election against challenger Colin Martin.

Mayor

Asked to cite three major accomplishments as mayor, she said the best was reforming the city’s budget, but added she usually mentions that last, because people find fiscal policy boring.

“We completely reformed our budget to save millions of dollars, $55 million over 10 years in the pension plan, $3 to $4 million a year on the healthcare plan here with the city,” she said, noting revenues were falling during a recession. The changes ensured the city’s fiscal health “indefinitely into the future,” she said.

What she mentioned first was crime: “First of all, it’s undeniable that we reduced crime by 42 percent.”

That statistic often draws ridicule, as critics cite recent spikes in Columbus homicides. Tomlinson is referring to an overall decline in all “Part One” crimes, which range from homicides to larceny.

Also during her tenure, the city made strides toward reversing blight and establishing an “alternative transportation system,” which means miles of hiking and biking trails that offer residents routes to travel without cars, connecting neighborhoods once separated by four-lane roads dangerous to cross.

Her efforts to rein in the city budget spawned a revolt in November 2014 when four elected officials sued, claiming she illegally altered the budgets they submitted for their agencies. Speaking at a luncheon in February 2018, she described this as her darkest day in office, saying she knew what a divisive and expensive struggle it would become.

But ultimately, she won. Two of those who sued, Sheriff John Darr and Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce, lost re-election bids in 2016. Their replacements dropped the suits. In April 2017, a judge granted the city’s motion for summary judgment in the remaining suits filed by Marshal Greg Countryman and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton-Bishop.

The 2016 election results weren’t all in Tomlinson’s favor: That year she backed an effort to lift the city’s so-called “tax freeze” on owner-occupied homes, and Columbus voters, as they had in the past, soundly defeated the referendum.

Enacted in 1982, the law froze the assessed value of a home after purchase, so its fair-market value for taxation never changed, as long as the same owner lived there. Critics long have said the law stifles growth, cuts revenues and nurtures an unfair tax system in which more expensive homes are taxed less than more modest dwellings.

Had the referendum passed, it would maintained the freeze for all except people who bought homes after Jan. 1, 2017. As those properties changed hands, they no longer would be under the freeze, either, so eventually it would fade away.

A 1991 effort to repeal the freeze by referendum failed 81 to 19 percent. The 2016 referendum fared better: It was defeated 62 to 38 percent.

Looking ahead

After leaving office this past Jan. 7, Tomlinson joined the firm of Hall Booth Smith, which she said is agreeable to her possible run for the U.S. Senate. She is not entangled in any long-term litigation that would impede that, she said.

She believes her time as mayor makes her a prime candidate for addressing the “dysfunction” of Washington, D.C.

“I will tell you it’s not news to anybody that Washington is paralyzed by dysfunction. You see it gripped by dysfunction through corrupted process and policies, mostly related to ego and bad decisions. … I’m very adept at resolving dysfunction,” she said. “I have a lot of experience with solving the unsolvable, and those are skills the United States Senate is in desperate need of.”

Traveling around the state, she has noticed new people coming to Democratic Party events, people who are frustrated with a deadlocked federal government, including farmers from Georgia’s more rural counties, she said.

Mayor Tomlinson
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson speaks with east Columbus resident Jonathan Jones, following her 28th “Let’s Talk with the Mayor” forum, which was held at the Columbus Museum. Alva James-Johnson ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer-com

Those counties could be the key to Democrats’ winning statewide, she said: The agrarian “Black Belt” counties across the state’s midsection once were reliably Democratic, but the party has neglected them, allowing Republicans to gain ground there as Democrats focus on heavily populated urban areas such as the Atlanta suburbs.

Asked about issues, she talks of expanding Medicare to those age 55; and of expanding the Voting Rights Act to all 50 states, to battle voter suppression and ensure the principle of “one man, one vote” applies nationwide.

But what she repeats most often is that she believes people today want a government that works, that responds to their concerns, and that is directly accessible to them, like a city executive who hosts periodic “Let’s Talk With the Mayor” forums around town, which she instituted and her successor Skip Henderson has continued.

That accessibility is reminiscent of the gatherings she saw as a child, when a state legislator hosted meetings with his daughter and her best friend watching from the back of the room.

That’s the way government should work, she said:

“I think people forget — we maybe have to go back to fifth-grade civics — that government is us. It’s not this horrible, monstrous thing that’s there to weight us down.”

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