Teresa Tomlinson: ‘I have a lot of experience solving the unsolvable.’
Former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson sat down with the Ledger-Enquirer last week to discuss her life, political career and plans to explore a run for U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican David Perdue.
In this portion of the Q&A, Tomlinson delves into her political strategy and philosophy, and early influences.
In a speech this week to local Democrats, you mentioned a “Black Belt” strategy for Democrats winning statewide races. Would you elaborate on that?
“That’s not something that I invented, obviously. It’s something that political scientists have been talking about really in the South for a very long time. And when we talk about the Black Belt we’re actually referring to the rich and fertile soil that runs through states like Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. And those are areas that really have a long and rich agricultural history, and so their communities that have traditionally been Democratic communities. It’s a solid blue band that runs through the state of Georgia. When Doug Jones won his Senate seat here recently, he actually expanded those blue counties … so that strategy is one that we’ve been talking about in Georgia really for the past two decades, of how can Democrats do better in those Black Belt counties? And that’s something that I’ve been very intrigued about, because of course, having been in leadership here in southwest Georgia, those counties are very important to the state of Georgia. We of course have our metro Atlanta area, which is our most densely populated area. That’s where Democrats always do very, very well. So on election night, when you’re watching, hundreds of thousands of votes are coming in, just rolling in from counties like DeKalb and Fulton and so forth. But yet Republicans tend to win because they can aggregate the smaller totals from the non-metro Atlanta areas, and for some reason, really for the past maybe even 30 years, Democrats have not been paying the attention they need to pay to those Black Belt counties, those central Georgia counties. There’s about 50 of them, and we tend to split them with the Republicans, which is really quite shocking, historically, because those counties know that government is a partner in their prosperity, and I think it’s been a very unfortunate and unintentional thing for Democrats that we just have not been plowing the field like we need to be doing in those particular counties. Governing is important. It’s important to people that live in counties that are struggling with things like not having healthcare, not having ObGyns or general practitioners in those areas. It’s important to them getting the farm loans they need, the disaster relief they need. It’s important because tariff policies can make the difference between whether they have to file for bankruptcy and lose their family farm, or whether they continue on and prosper….”
How will you pull support from Perdue?
“First of all I think people are hungry for good government. I think they see not only this dysfunction in Washington, but frankly, some of what I call the crazy and the mean. Some of this is just not necessary. For instance, it’s not necessary to separate families in order to have a strong immigration system, so why are we spending a lot of our time ripping ourselves apart about the debate related to whether it’s the morality, the legality, of that. When we should be spending all of our time and energy on coming up with a strong immigration system that facilitates our future economic interest, as migrants are essential to that. That helps facilitate again our farmers, because migrants are essential to that, particularly here in Georgia, and that does protect our borders, obviously and allows for sustainable immigration system. So we spend way too much time trying to shock the conscience, it seems, than solve the problem.
“Mayors have to be pragmatists. It’s our job to keep the city running day to day, not to get in high falutin’ conversations about conceptual debates. Sometimes that’s important, obviously, to vet all the issues to make sure you come up with the best policy. But bottom line, a mayors are in charge of gettin’ ‘er done, and I think our U.S. Senate needs a little bit of that right now.”
What other issues would you focus on?
“There are so many things. I think, number one, and one of the reasons why we’re looking at whether this campaign can have resonance in Georgia right now, whether what is a burning passion of mine, in providing good government to people, is something that the people want to talk about. That’s what this process is.
“There’s no reason in the world why the Voting Rights Act doesn’t apply to all 50 states. I think in retrospect people probably wish they had done that to begin with, because the quote ‘one man, one vote’ right in this country is essential to our democracy. So that seems to be to my mind some low hanging fruit, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, I can’t imagine that you want to contest the one man, one vote underpinning of our Constitution and democratic voting system…. It gets to the suppression issue, which I think has been shocking, for a lot of people, and it’s certainly devolved into a partisan debate as you’ve seen with our Secretary of State and some of the things going on at the state legislature with the voting machines and so forth. But the federal government can set a standard, that just says this is our Constitution, we’re going to have certain laws related to ensure that the quote, unquote, ‘one man, one vote’ is implemented by all 50 states.
“You know, there’s been a lot of discussion about the expansion of Medicare and Medicaid, and as a pragmatist, I have a lot of thoughts on that. One thing is to expand to 55. That’s something that’s quite doable under the system we have now and it’s actually quite cost efficient when you have to look at what the federal government would put in, i.e. the taxpayers would have to put in and what it would save them from what they’re currently paying in premiums. So a lot of work has been done on that. A lot of studies are already in the can, and yet we seem to get wrapped around the axle on the more partisan debate. The one thing about expanding Medicare to 55 is that people who are in public safety across the nation tend to retire at 55, and they’re in desperate need of something like that, and there are many others.”
What would you cite as three of your best accomplishments as mayor?
“First of all, it’s undeniable that we reduced crime by 42 percent. That’s pretty remarkable and I think it’s the result of a wonderful partnership we had here with building up communities, obviously being able to fund our law enforcement in a way we couldn’t before the OLOST…. But also the groundwork we laid in the projects that we actually cut ribbons on, reversing blight, setting up an alternative transportation system, a biking and walking system in this city, that allows people to traverse what was these large roads that separated communities, usually by income level, whether they own a car or not.
“We were able to dramatically reduce unemployment and dramatically increase quality of life, and … 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. We just completely reformed the budget in a way that’s going to allow for the fiscal health of Columbus indefinitely into the future. One of the things I’m proudest of is that we’re able to provide here in Columbus, both city and county government services at the lowest per capita rate of any major city in the state of Georgia…. That’s why we were named one of the top 25 best run cities in America.”
How did leading MidTown Inc. change the course of your career?
“I was a practicing lawyer, very much enjoyed the law, I had a great passion for justice, 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. I had the opportunity to work with some folks who were trying to reverse the course of blight in Midtown. 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, and thankfully there were a lot of folks that were visionaries, who wanted to do something different and be proactive. And so I left, what I thought was going to be temporarily, left my former law firm to help start MidTown, successfully complete that fundraising effort so that it could continue and thrive into the future, and then begin the framework that would allow for the branding of MidTown, for the building up of neighborhood associations, for the investment of development. Glenwood Properties did a lot of work at Cross Country Plaza, which was on a downward spiral when it came into their hands, and that was through a partnership with MidTown. … 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.”
How did your political strategy differ from others?
“We had a pretty outdated political structure here. A typical smaller community structure is to have surrogates. So, let’s say you had a city of 75,000 people and the mayor wanted to pass a one cent sales tax, he would call in the banking president, the head of the utility, a major employer, a couple of pastors from different or diverse churches, and then he would get a consensus in the room, and then they would go out, and the 10 or 12 of them would announce that they’re all supporting the one penny sales 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. So in today’s world, people don’t just go vote for something because their employer suggested he or she supported it. They don’t just vote for something because their minister has suggested that the types of policies that that facilitates is something that the church supports. So it’s just a different world.
“We needed a much more hands on and much more transparent political structure here, and we needed to set up a community where people had direct access to their mayor, so that’s what I did through the ‘Let’s Talk’ forums, why I did so many neighborhood association meetings, had three Facebook pages, two Twitter accounts and I responded to all of those myself, usually.
“Once the citizens get used to that, they’re going to demand it…. Columbus now is going to have this more sophisticated political structure…. It was just an evolution of the city.”
What were your childhood political influences?
“My best friend’s dad was a Georgia state legislator. He was a Republican at the time 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, and I just came to appreciate the importance of government, the importance of good leadership, of transparency, of access to your elected officials, and it developed a lifelong passion for me of understanding the importance of government in our lives. And so, since he was a Republican, and I really didn’t have any other exposure to the other party, if you will, I went to college and just continued on the vein that I was familiar with. It was really in my later years in college and my first few years in law school that I began to realize that from a philosophical standpoint, from a policy standpoint, the Democrats were much more aligned with what I thought were good governing principles. And so in approximately between 1989 and 1991 I switched parties.
“As a young person, I worked in the U.S. Senate, actually, for Sen. John Warner. 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.”
Why did you switch?
“It was the right wing extremism of the Republican Party… In the late ‘80s, it was particularly the issue of tolerance I had a real problem with. I just can’t abide intolerance. 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 racially divisive, sexual orientation, religion, as a divisive means to get out the vote, and I thought that was just particularly cynical.
“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. If you feel that your government is a weight around your neck, then you’re sending the wrong people to Washington, D.C., or to the Gold Dome, and that’s what I intend to address in this exploratory phase of what I hope is a campaign for U.S. Senate, is that we’ve gotten way off track, with understanding that government is us, that it’s important, and that we can do much better at it than we are right now, that breaking down into this dysfunction and to the deadlock is not serving anybody’s purpose, and in fact it’s hurting our economy, it’s causing greater budget deficits, that for all the talk of great, extreme ideology related to tax systems, our budget deficit is more, it’s increased. Our trade deficit has increased and we also have a larger national debt than we’ve had before.
“We’re in an interesting but exciting situation where everyone is waiting on what Stacey Abrams is going to do, and as I said she originally said the end of March, and then needed more time related to the book tour, and so now it looks like a couple more weeks, is what we’re being told….
“We have our team together. We have identified our major constituencies and supporters, we’ve identified our donors, and I’ve been spending a lot of time meeting with those individuals over the last several months, so largely our infrastructure’s set up. That’s what we had the opportunity to speak with the DSCC about. We had met with the DSCC previously, in January. We’ve been in regular contact, but Wednesday was the first day it was done by invitation, and it was a full day’s vetting of a senatorial candidate, so I think that was very productive….”
What is your core constituency?
“Normally if you were talking about Democrats, you’d be looking at women, and you’d be looking at some of the things we traditionally think of: people who live in cities, and so forth, people who find education to be very important, and people that are interested in reasonable gun control, like background checks and things of that nature. But it’s very interesting with the engagement we’ve had over the last year and a half or so, that those lines are getting a little bit blurred…. I’m seeing people show up to pancakes and politics type events that aren’t your traditional quote unquote ‘Democrats.’ These are people who maybe have been voting Republican and now they see that that’s not their home anymore, and so they’re wanting to hear from people that are reasonable and who are going to hold as an objective good government, pragmatic government, producing actual policy solutions for them, and getting out of just the deadlock of the debate.”