The Georgia politician running for senator discusses the importance of centering race and class in an election, pushing back against the boys' club, and conquering her fears.
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Teresa Tomlinson knows what it takes to defy the odds—and she’s damn sure she can turn the Peach State blue.
The politician who boasts about her gumption was the first female partner at the law firm that kick-started her career, and the first woman elected Mayor of Columbus, Georgia. In 2014, she also became the first Mayor to ever win re-election in a contested race. The same tireless work ethic and dogged optimism that has defined her 30-year political career also fueled her leadership during the fight to save Sweet Briar College, which she later steered to victory. Tomlinson’s political career is also defined by remarkable openness: While Mayor, she launched a quarterly forum with her constituents in Columbus; as a candidate, she’s determined to visit all 159 counties in Georgia.
Tomlinson was encouraged to seek higher office in Georgia while she was finishing up her second term as Mayor, but she’s not one to walk away from a to-do list. “While in the batter’s box,” she said in a statement announcing her 2020 bid, “I keep my eye on the ball, not on the stands.” That’s not to say Washington doesn’t have a lot to learn from the popular Mayor of a two-time “Best-Run City in America”—during her tenure, Tomlinson balanced the budget for the first time in 16 years, saved and strengthened the city’s faltering pension plan, carved out 60 miles of biking and walking trails across the city and returned more than two miles of the Chattahoochee River to its natural state.
This is the third in DAME’s interview series with the Democratic women vying to flip the Senate in 2020.
What motivated you to run for this seat now—and what makes you confident that you can win?
I had served as the two-term mayor of Columbus, and expected to go back to my law career, when our recent civic instability began—and I became alarmed for this nation, and for the people of Georgia who were not being duly represented on Capitol Hill. I’ve also been involved in Georgia democratic politics for 30 years, and become able to recognize when a candidate’s political profile meets the political profile of the race. I started looking at this race because I believed David Perdue was doing a particularly poor job.
What lessons from your 30 years in politics are you hoping to bring to Washington with you?
As a young lawyer working in the federal court system, I was in way over my head. I had lept into a job that I didn’t have the experience or expertise to have, but my inexperience and my lack of expertise was actually a great asset because I did not know how things had always been done. Even though I was too young and dumb to know I was supposed to lose, I ended up winning. I mastered how to solve the unsolvable and how to pull victory from the jaws of defeat.
I took that into public service. When I got into office, I was met with a pension disaster. I actually run towards those things. Those are the things we need leaders to solve. You can’t be worried about the next election. You have to resolve these seemingly unsolvable things for the people you serve. You have the fiduciary responsibility to resolve these issues—and solving them, and the tough leadership it takes, actually makes you imminently electable. Difficult, politically challenging leadership can pay off. I think Washington is in desperate need of that leadership.
How do you face down fear?
It comes from a very long history of being in scary and uncertain and insurmountable circumstances—and having seen them, miraculously, in some instances, resolve themselves. Fear is not knowing what’s going to happen next. If you have experienced that kind of profound uncertainty about things that matter, you’re a little calmer than if you keep trudging forward. If you keep a steady vision on the horizon and keep marching toward it, it will most probably work out.
What will your priorities be in the Senate?
The number-one issue I hear about here in Georgia is the exhaustion with the instability at the federal level. Whether you’re worried about your 25-year-old daughter with a pre-existing condition being right at the age where she’s going to leave the family insurance policy, about these farmers who are suffering through the tariff wars, or investments of hundreds of millions of dollars in manufacturing that are in peril—people are desperate for a reasonable, rational, responsible elected official to go and put a steady hand on the wheel of government. From that comes the healthcare crisis, and immigration, and the climate crisis, and responsible gun laws, and the wage gap. Those individual issues are important, but the issue that cuts across all demographics and geographies is that people are desperate to find elected officials to make government work again.
Can you give us a little inside look into what the campaign looks like right now?
It used to be that the biggest frustration was apathy. Well, you don’t have to worry about that anymore. When you go to an IHOP in a rural county and there are a hundred people in the community room that only fits 80, you realize something’s going on here—and that’s a great thing.
This campaign is, on the one hand, a traditional campaign. We’re well-financed. We have a very professional team that has won statewide elections before. But then we have a very nontraditional campaign in that we are running a statewide campaign from a grassroots level. As we’re moving into this transformational time in Georgia—transitioning from an 18-year Republican-dominated state to what is firmly and indisputably a two-party state, and soon to be a blue state—the people need to hear you in person, they need to touch you, they need to know you.
That has been an exhilarating part of this: People responding again. If they know you’re willing to come to their community, whether it’s in Atlanta or Peach County, people come out because they’re so appreciative that someone running for state office is giving them the time and the respect to understand their community and their life journey.
You also have both a traditional background—as an attorney and then a mayor and a politician—and a nontraditional one. You led the fight to save your alma mater, and became Chair of the Board at Sweet Briar College and led it through a restructuring. How did all of these different experiences shape your political approach?
I’ve always been irreverent of traditional structure. I understood and I appreciated where we had come from, but where we had been was never enough to convince me that that’s where we needed to go.
The reason I ran for mayor in Columbus was that we had transitioned to be an African-American majority community, and yet our elected power structure looked like the 1870s—older, white, males who did not look like our community and the people they represented. I literally ran on race, poverty, and blight. All the consultants said, “We’re going to lose because no white woman needs to be talking about race, and nothing you say fits on a bumper sticker.” I won with 68 percent of the vote. People were hungry for good government. They wanted somebody who would talk plainly and boldly about how government can be used as a tool to solve our challenges.
How would you say gender and feminism shape your candidacy, your campaign, your policies?
I was the younger, by 12 years, in the law firm and the first woman partner—and I believed the pushback, the lack of respect that I was getting, was because of my age, because I was operating in complex litigation where most of the lawyers that I was competing against were old enough to be my father. As I got older and particularly once I got into elected office, I was stunned by the blatant gender discrimination.
I want to tell the younger women of the world: There’s no doubt that you are entering into a field with great opportunities, and you should seize them with confidence and know how many allies you have out there ready to lift you up. But you also need to know that you are not crazy, that you are not falling short, that oftentimes the pushback—the irrational or unjustified criticism you are getting, the lack of respect you are getting—is due to other people’s challenges with your leadership as a woman. But we must be ever vigilant to keep pushing forward—not just for ourselves, but for the women that are coming along behind us.
Is there any advice that you would offer to women who are looking to run or girls who are dreaming of running for office one day?
If you’re going to run for office, you need to understand government. It is a tool, like a paintbrush. I can’t paint, but there are other people who can make a paintbrush sing. You don’t have to be a lawyer, but once you have mastered government, and understand it fully, you will bring your unique perspective to how this will be done and done well. A lot of times, I will hear people running for various offices making promises and talking about things that government can’t do—jurisdictionally, constitutionally, locally, under charters—and the promises sound good, but they will either lose as they’re exposed in debates or they will have trouble reconciling their promises once they get in office. You can avoid that altogether and really be the best candidate out of the shoot if you have an understanding of the importance of government and how it functions.
DAME is partnering with Women Count to amplify the campaigns of the Democratic women running for Senate in 2020. To learn more about each candidate’s platform, visit https://womencount.org/
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