Who Is This Woman? Teresa Tomlinson and her drive to serve (Columbus and the Valley magazine, January 2011)

by Jim Lynn

Who Is This Woman?

Columbus’ first woman mayor and her drive to serve

by Jim Lynn
Teresa Tomlinson is all about connections.

Columbus’ first Facebook mayor took office January 3, after a landslide pre-Christmas victory. She pledges to think. To innovate. To connect.

If she has her way, the city could break new ground in connecting Columbus neighborhoods
with city hall. As in the campaign, so, too, in office.

“We redrew the map of the way Columbus politics has always been done,” she said in one of several recent discussions, echoing her election night victory remarks. “It was a matter of waking up those different constituencies that don’t just fall down to predictable racial and demographic lines. This has been a process of waking up a lot of different voices and bringing them to the table, and you’ll see that moving forward.”

Multiple dynamics are at play in local campaigns, and drawing sweeping conclusions is risky. But Tomlinson did have broad support across ethnic lines in a town so divided that even the streets crossing Macon Road change names from north to south. She carried five predominantly black precincts against an African-American candidate. Drawing on the campaign, the election results, her vision for the next four years and even her life experiences, she claims a new day for Columbus politics.

The biggest component of the change she envisions, which she actually considers more common sense than vision, is a network of neighborhood associations to give Columbus residents unprecedented opportunities to voice opinion and to shape public decisions—to connect to city hall. The culture shift would be for the city bureaucracy to encourage neighborhood political action, rather than oppose it.

Take road building, for example.

In the historically predictable scenario, here and in most American communities, the city (or state) wants to build a road and the residents spend years trying to fight it. In Tomlinson’s context–sensitive world, the city and the neighborhoods work together to find workable solutions that facilitate traffic flow and pedestrian access, rather than encouraging more traffic at the expense of walkers and bicyclists. The residents gain by preserving their neighborhoods. The city gains by “taking its lumps on the front end,” avoiding controversial, costly and time-consuming debate.

For Tomlinson, it’s all about connections. Sitting in the front row of her law classes at Emory two decades ago, nerdishly enthralled by the “laws and rules that organize our lives and keep the peace,” she realized she would have to work harder to compensate for not being a part of the connected set, those with dads and uncles who know people who know people.

“I didn’t know the network,” she mused recently, sitting in her comfortably posh, high-ceilinged living room in Overlook. Even as an undergrad at Sweet Briar, she knew she needed to make things happen on her own. “I had an innate sense of it. My family was great, but I didn’t have connections.”

She was accepted to law schools at the University of Georgia, William and Mary, Washington and Lee, Rutgers and Emory. She didn’t apply to Yale, only because her father didn’t want to pay any more application fees.

“It was just kind of funny,” she said, “because of all these kids I went to school with, their parents were begging them to go to law school and begging them to try for Yale. My parents actually encouraged me to stay home and go to work for Fannie Mae.”

She is unusual in Columbus politics in part because she’s not from Columbus. Teresa Pike grew up in the Chamblee-Dunwoody neighborhood in northeast Atlanta, just inside the Perimeter. It’s an ethnically diverse, mostly working-class area, where at Chamblee High in the early 1980s, an Asian student was yearbook editor and a student from India was most likely to succeed.

“In my formative years, that was my world,” she said. “I was not really aware that the rest of America lived in very economically and racially segregated communities.”

Her father worked for Fannie Mae, the Federal National Mortgage Association, her mom for Kroger and A&P. Dad’s money paid the bills, mom’s paid for college and any extras for Teresa and sister Tonya, who now also lives in Midtown.

Both her mother and father came from poor backgrounds. Bob Pike grew up on the farmlands of Iowa. He joined the Air Force and was stationed at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Ga., where he met Dianne Miles at a soda fountain. When Bob was shipped off to Guam, Dianne got on a train for Iowa and cared for his ailing parents. Later, at the University of Georgia, Bob went to class and Dianne worked. At one point, Bob’s father lived with the couple in UGA married student housing. The dean of housing wasn’t pleased but let the trio stay.

Tomlinson’s mother was the sixth of seven children in a home with little caring or nurturing. The way she raised Teresa, though, was presaged by an encounter in a childhood friend’s home, where 8-year-old Dianne’s play was interrupted by her friend’s father simply hugging his daughter.

“He just hugs her, and my mother was just floored. From that moment, she said her life was going to be different. ‘My kids are going to know that they’re safe and protected and loved,’ she decided. And I can say that pivotal moment in my mother’s life enriched my life because we knew that whatever else may have been going on, we felt secure and safe,” Tomlinson said.

Dianne and Bob Pike had no blue-blood connections to smooth the way for their daughters. “But they were very supportive. We were told every day that we were great in her eyes. That was the environment I was raised in.”

After Emory, Tomlinson landed at the Atlanta office of Pope, McGlamry, Kilpatrick, Morrison and Norwood. In a mid-rise office building at Lenox and Peachtree, she was on the ground floor doing “grunt” work. And Trip Tomlinson was on the fifth floor, “part of the prestigious trial team.”

After two years in Atlanta, she moved to Columbus for what was supposed to be an 18-month gig working federal cases out of Montgomery. She rented a 1,900-square-foot house in Overlook, which she later purchased. The house was run down, owned by a man in Atlanta whom she remembers now just as Pedro.

But it was enough for her, two dogs and a cat, and she loved Overlook because it reminded her of the heavily treed, in-town neighborhoods near her home and across Peachtree from her North Buckhead office. She arrived in Columbus on the day of the O.J. Simpson car chase in 1994, and she thought she’d gone through a time warp and landed in Mayberry.

It was a Saturday evening, and searching for a grocery store, the only one she could find was closed. “That impressed me as being quite charming in a way,” she said. Turns out she just didn’t know her way around. A neighbor brought a basket of tomatoes earlier in the day, so it was tomatoes and O.J. her first night in Columbus.

A short while later she needed a wedding gift in a hurry and happened into the Silver Spoon, a nearby gift store that has since closed. “And I said, ‘OK, what do I owe you?’ and they said, ‘We’ll just bill you.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, you have no idea who I am,’ and they said, ‘Well where do you live?’ and I was thinking this is unbelievable. I mean in Atlanta there’s just no way they’d let you walk out with a $30 vase, and so they got my address and they billed me.”

She was quickly smitten with the people of Columbus and their neighborhoods. She knew there were grocery stores open on a Saturday night, even in Columbus. And she knew every store in town didn’t bill their customers. But the images—the tomatoes and the closed Rainbow Foods store and the woman who sent her a bill for a vase—set the tone for Tomlinson’s career here and her growing interest in the health of neighborhoods.

“It was community. A quaint place built on relationships. It meant a lot to me because remember, I wasn’t connected. It wasn’t like I could come to town and say, ‘Oh, you know my uncle.’” Not connected. But an easy talker and a politician’s people skills. Teresa Pike took part in more prominent legal work and settled into life here. Trip Tomlinson (no relation to the TSYS chairman) moved back to his hometown in the interim, and the pair were married in 1997.

Other attorneys regard her variously as intelligent, talented, creative and a dedicated member of the Bar. Among her clients over the years was Richard Scrushy, who she represented in financial fraud settlement discussions with HealthSouth Corp. She took part in securities and derivatives fraud cases and in cases related to the ValuJet flight 592 crash in 1996.

One case is most memorable for an interruption that set Tomlinson on a path to public life. In a week full, from daylight to dark, representing homeowners in class actions against mortgage fraud, she got one of those calls. You know, the ones you get when you’re just minding your own business, and then the phone rings, and you listen to someone asking you to do something, and you get the feeling you won’t be able to wiggle out of this one.

“I understand you’re a lawyer,” the caller said.

Overlook resident Janet Hollis, whose family helped develop the venerable neighborhood, had heard of the city’s plans to widen and redesign Buena Vista Road and wanted Tomlinson to look into the impact on the residential areas.

Hollis was insistent. Tomlinson obliged, making a trip to the Government Center to check on the process so she could provide some detail to Hollis and her neighbors.

“At the time I was getting ready for a trial,” Tomlinson recalled. “Bathroom breaks were optional. It was an incredible time. But she was pleading. I remember I drove to the Annex, and I said, ‘I am sure there is nothing I can do about this, I’m sure it’s all been taken care of in the absolute appropriate way and there’s nothing we can do, but I’m here to find out about a road project, so would you just tell me something so I can go.’

“The person behind the counter said basically that I didn’t need to be asking questions. It was, ‘These are things we know best about and we’ll handle this. You don’t need to worry about the details of how we run the city.’

“And remember I was a lawyer in a firm that handled complex litigation, which meant I can kind of smell when people are hiding something or trying to intimidate you,” she said. “So, instantly I went from ‘OK, you all have this totally under control, right?’ to ‘OK, now I’m interested in Buena Vista Road.’”

With four traffic lanes and left turn lanes and right turn lanes, the proposal called for Buena Vista from Lockwood to Illges to be “about as large as Manchester Expressway,” gobbling up right of way and making life difficult for pedestrians.

“When I found out what was being done I thought this was the biggest waste of taxpayer dollars and time to work the system in a way that’s going to require millions of dollars in condemnation fees, and there was no constituency for it,” she said.

“You can design roads better,” she says emphatically. “There’s been an engineering revolution in how you design roads and Columbus is so far behind it’s not even funny. It comes from a lack of leadership.”

After months of battle between residents and city planners, a less ambitious compromise was struck in 2005, but never implemented. City officials would not comment, but the mayor-elect, who for years has been a member of the planning department’s Citizen Advisory Committee, says planners sit on the Buena Vista project because they consider the compromise impractical.

“That was an interesting study in the inertia of bureaucracy and how much better it could be done,” Tomlinson reflected. The Buena Vista debate was the moment that pushed her into wanting to influence the role of government in the life of the community and the role of residents in the business of government.

“The government is great, the structure is there, but a lot of time these major decisions get pushed down to middle-level managers. There is not the elected executive oversight with their fingers down that deep. I’m not talking about micro-management. I’m talking about executive-level oversight, so that you don’t have people there who don’t feel like it’s their job to second guess why someone put a (road) proposal on the books in 1986.”

Tomlinson has no plans to be a treadmill mayor.

She recoils at the long-held notion that Columbus’ hybrid government was not intended to be a strong-mayor system because the charter leaves the mayor direct control over just public safety. She points instead to the phrase that the city manager serves “under and subject to the direction of the mayor.”

She says Columbus councilors and mayors have defaulted too much to City Manager Isaiah Hugley over the years, leaving him twisting in the wind on major controversies.

Former mayor and fellow attorney Frank Martin says, Tomlinson “is ready for prime time” and now is the time for her more activist view of the mayor’s office. “We certainly do need a strong mayor during this period of time,” he said. “At a minimum, we need someone providing oversight.”

Getting residents more involved doesn’t mean encouraging gadflies to crowd council meeting agendas. Rather, she wants the city to encourage the establishment of civic associations that create a network for communication between city departments and Columbus residents.

Instead of a single resident making an unverified complaint to the council about a speeding problem in a neighborhood, for example, the president of the neighborhood association, representing hundreds of his neighbors, raises the issue and does so with greater credibility.

And instead of the city working for years on a road plan, announcing it in a public hearing that few attend, and then spending years battling opponents, the city and the affected civic associations work together to devise a plan that makes sense for both sides.

The city of Atlanta is split into 25 Neighborhood Planning Units, or NPUs, each of which is made up of neighborhood associations of varying strength. But Tomlinson prefers a more ground-up approach, working through the city’s new Crime Prevention Office and leveraging its need to establish stronger neighborhood watch programs. Crime Watch programs don’t work well without strong neighborhood association infrastructure, so the goals are mutually supportive.

Drawing on a similar approach in Louisville, Ky., Tomlinson hopes to have city staff attend neighborhood association meetings to strengthen communication. While critical of the “inertia of bureaucracy,” Tomlinson aims to gain the allegiance of the department heads and employees who make up the bureaucracy. She wants to discuss ways to make government more efficient and more responsive to residents. She suggests “efficiency audits” and regular mayoral “cabinet meetings” with department heads.

An admitted policy wonk, Tomlinson will be “a thinking mayor,” as an observer noted. But unlike others who bring ideas but no mediation skills and quickly become marginalized, Tomlinson brings what others agree is a lawyer’s talent for convincing argument, for convincing others that they have something to gain from change.

It’s clear that part of Tomlinson’s attractiveness is her energy and her idealism. A fresh face, a new, younger voice. She’s uniformly seen as polished, intelligent, articulate and progressive, carrying the mantra of new urbanism and using her gift of persuasion to cajole the Consolidated Government into accepting new ideas.

Part of it too, unavoidably, is being the first woman to sit in the center seat at council meetings. Ask her what she thinks of being Columbus, Georgia’s first woman mayor, and she sidesteps, proffering instead that she ran to represent the people of Columbus at the Government Center. But her campaign ads spoke obliquely to making history. And when you talk about her formative years, particularly at the all-women Sweet Briar College, it’s clear that she was unwittingly groomed for the job.

One day, in law school at Emory, she approaches a curmudgeonly professor after class. “He tells me he’s never met anyone from a women’s college who didn’t think what she had to say was the most important. It took me a while to get what he meant, but I understand where he was coming from,” Tomlinson said. “Because when you go to a women’s college, obviously, all the leadership is women. The class presidents, everything. So it’s not an anti-man thing. You just grow up seeing that women can occupy leadership roles.”

“Take the world,” the Sweet Briar website exclaims.

“Women in leadership roles is part of that which made me,” Tomlinson says.

Both Tomlinson’s life and her approach to the mayor’s office are indelibly marked by her background, from the roots of her mother’s childhood through the rancor of battles over Buena Vista Road. She promises an activist role as mayor, perhaps raising a few eyebrows in the process, but with a hope of forging new bonds that connect local government, the city’s neighborhoods and the families who live in them.

Meanwhile, if Facebook is any indication (more than 1,000 friends so far), she’s getting connected.