Racking up endorsements: Teresa Tomlinson’s supporters include Amabassador Andrew Young, Sen. Max Cleland, Gov. Roy Barnes, Former GA Chief Justice Leah Sears, Hank and Billye Aaron, Former U.S. Rep. Buddy Darden, Atlanta City Council President Felcia Moore, Cathy Woolard, Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis, Former Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson, Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz, and the National Organization of Women PAC, to name a few. Seriously, it’s not even close. Read more
(Originally published March 3)
By Jonathan Grant
Teresa Tomlinson has been at this for a while. She’s been working longer than any other candidate to unseat Sen. David Perdue. And harder, in her view. “No one will outhustle me,” she insists. Her resolve—call it “Georgia Gumption”—is paying off. She’s drawing big, enthusiastic crowds: “the biggest crowds all across the state of any candidate,” she said. She’s also running up the score on endorsements. And to complement all that, fundraising is up. In a word, she’s got momentum.
In making her case to voters, the former Columbus mayor stacks up her successes and Perdue’s failures to show: (A) she’s proven she can do the job; and (B) Perdue has proven that he can’t.
Recently, Tomlinson came to Avondale Estates to speak to dozens of people who braved the rain to attend a meeting of DeKalb Young Democrats. It was her birthday. The crowd sang for her—both traditional and Stevie Wonder versions.
Perdue sent a tracker to record the event so that he can see what’s coming.
Here’s what’s coming.
“Loud and proud Democrat”
Tomlinson speaks confidently and gestures emphatically as she makes her points. Her voice contains a hint of eight generations of rural Georgia when she urges the crowd to “send Perdue packing.”
So far, the Senate race among Democrats has been clean, unlike the GOP spitstorm between Rep. Doug Collins and Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s handlers in Georgia’s other Senate contest. However, Tomlinson raised some eyebrows when she declared that this was her race to win, all due respect to her Democratic opponents.
While that may sound brash, Tomlinson makes a compelling case that she’s the one to defeat Perdue, with crucial advantages over her major opponents, Jon Ossoff and Sarah Riggs Amico. As the two-term mayor of Georgia’s third-largest city, Tomlinson brings a wealth of experience to the table. She also has a winning record, going 2-0 in elections. Ossoff and Amico are a combined 0-2, having lost Georgia’s 2017 Sixth District Congressional race and 2018 Lieutenant Governor’s race, respectively.
Tomlinson doesn’t shy from battle, and doesn’t suffer GOP talking points lightly. “David Perdue and Donald Trump can call names all they want,” she tells audiences. “They can call me a socialist, and when they do that, they’ll be lying. The people of Central and South Georgia know the mayor of Columbus, Georgia and they know it is impossible that the people of Columbus, Georgia twice elected a socialist mayor.”
Not a socialist, and not “Republican Lite,” either, which Tomlinson considers the problem with recent Democratic candidates. Instead, she identifies as a “loud and proud Democrat,” noting that she’s spent 30 years involved in party politics. This follows a brief stint as a Young Republican in the 1980s. She’s progressive, and has fourteen detailed position papers on her website to prove it.
The Emory-educated attorney specialized in complex litigation before entering politics. Perhaps this makes developing policy papers easier for her, but in any case, this attention to detail presents a sharp contrast with Ossoff, widely regarded as a centrist, who doesn’t have an Issues page on his website. Advantage Tomlinson.
“You can’t beat an incumbent unless you can find a candidate who has won hard-fought elections,” Tomlinson told DeKalb’s Young Democrats. “And you have to have governed, and governed well.” She said Democrats need a candidate “who can stand on the debate stage and tell Perdue ‘I have served, and you have failed us.’”
It’s not bragging if you can do it
Tomlinson sees government as a positive tool “to help people live their most prosperous lives.” She points to criminal justice reform during her tenure as head of Columbus’s consolidated government as an example of that. At the Columbus/Muscogee County Work Camp, this meant increasing education and job training, yielding the highest number of GED graduates in the state; banning the box (link) for local government employment; and instituting the Rapid Resolution Program to reduce the number of people being held in prison for failure to make bond.
Under her leadership, Columbus reformed pensions, healthcare and insurance for city workers, she said, thereby saving millions of dollars for taxpayers. The local government also created a Health and Wellness Center for preventive care; it provided free basic prescriptions with no copays. She called it “a better plan for less money.”
She doesn’t mention it in her stump speeches, but Tomlinson also developed an innovative “Save a Pet” program to save abandoned pets from being euthanized at the Columbus animal shelter. That earned her a “Bright Ideas” award from Harvard’s Kennedy Business School. So, not just people prospered under her leadership.
Perdue and the MAGA hat
It’s difficult to talk about Perdue without mentioning President Trump, especially since Perdue considers himself “the president’s copilot.” That makes him Trump’s top “Yes Man” in the Senate. That’s saying a lot, since the entire Republican Party, save Mitt Romney on his best day, is ruled by Trump’s whims and tweets.
Tomlinson has been a fierce and early critic of Trump as well as Perdue’s obedience to the president. She was one of the first Democrats to call out Trump for wrongdoing, back in 2018. Prior to Trump’s impeachment trial, Tomlinson called for Perdue to recuse himself, after he’d publicly derided the process and declared his intent to vote to acquit. Like nearly all other Republicans, Perdue voted against issuing subpoenas for witnesses and evidence in the trial, then voted for acquittal. Tomlinson gives Perdue an “F” for his performance: “He failed us. He failed the Constitution, failed his oath, and failed the people of Georgia.”
.@SenDavidPerdue, you have FAILED us. It's time for some change. #TeamTomlinson #GeorgiaGumption pic.twitter.com/6RLeRGrWKu
— Teresa Tomlinson (@teresatomlinson) February 27, 2020
Perdue’s failures began with his basic campaign pledge, according to Tomlinson. “He told us when he was running for office, ‘I’ve been a CEO. I’m going to go up and completely reform the budget. I’m going to get rid of the deficit,’” she noted, However, Perdue—like the rest of the Republican Party—abandoned conservative principles of fiscal responsibility when he put on the MAGA hat. “The Office of Management and Budget tells us that the deficit is greater than it would have been if he and his ideological bent had never shown up.”
Receipts on that statement, from The Washington Post. Perdue took office in 2015.
Tomlinson derides Perdue’s role in Trump’s tariff wars and his attempt to degrade Americans’ healthcare. Perdue voted to repeal Obamacare, of course, and he more recently has moved to promote “junk insurance policies” that don’t cover pregnancies or pre-existing conditions, she said. “We’ll all end up paying for those financial catastrophes and personal disasters because of David Perdue’s irresponsibility. People are dying for a health care system that works.”
And then there’s the future of the nation and the planet. The Trump administration and its allies present “everyday threats to the rule of law, everyday threat to the future viability of our planet,” Tomlinson said. “Temperatures in the Anarctic reached 70 degrees last week.” (The effects of climate change) are imminent. They are at our front door. What are we going to do about it?”
Perdue has already answered that question, posting this pithy thought on Facebook when anti-reulator Scott Pruitt was appointed head of the Environmental Protectiona Agency: “Outside of eliminating the EPA altogether, Scott Pruitt is the next best thing.” The inept and scandal-plagued Pruitt is gone, but Perdue’s anti-environmentalism persists. He has a dismal 1% rating from the League of Conservation Voters, and he’s a climate-science denier—who lives on an island. Really. “You know who believes in climate crisis?” Tomlinson asked the crowd at Avondale Pizza café, then answered, “Farmers and shrimpers and fishermen, who are close to the land.”
“I honor a country that allowed my family to crawl its way out of poverty,” Tomlinson said during her Avondale visit. “And we’ve got to get back to electing people who understand that government is a tool to solve our problems and to celebrate and grow our middle class and most certainly not a weapon to divide us.”
For her part, Tomlinson embraces Perdue’s claim that he’s Trump’s co-pilot, telling Democrats, “He has co-piloted the president into declaring tariff wars on our own farmers” following it up by saying, “This November we’re going to help them land the plane.”
Statewide strategy: Put a dent in GOP margins
Georgia will play a key role in whether Trump and his co-pilot stay in the cockpit. Changing demographics, Trump’s unpopularity in Atlanta’s suburbs, Stacey Abrams’ strong showing in the 2018 governor’s race, and two Senate campaigns have pushed the state to the forefront as a 2020 battleground. Winning Georgia will be a crucial goal for both parties, and Trump and Perdue will likely win or lose it together.
“The ground is shifting. You can feel the change coming. Georgia is at the precipice of becoming a blue state,” Tomlinson told the Avondale crowd, citing a poll that shows Perdue’s vulnerability—depending on who’s running against him. Tomlinson says that she’s the right candidate for that task: “We need to seize this moment. Republicans are losing those suburbs like crazy,”
Tomlinson has strong Atlanta roots, graduating from Chamblee High School and Emory Law School. “We’re going to play hard in Atlanta,” she said, but it’s her political base outside Atlanta that gives her a strategic advantage over other Democrats. As a sign of her strength among Democrats statewide, Tomlinson has endorsements from key political, civic, and civil rights leaders all across Georgia—in Athens, Augusta, Savannah, Statesboro, Fort Valley, Hinesville, and Columbus, to name a few points on the map.
She sees an opportunity to put a dent in the formidable Republican voting margins that have built up in rural Georgia in recent decades. “In South Georgia, those folks have been left behind by Republican policies. Communities have been strangled,” Tomlinson said. “I will go anywhere and tell people that Democratic principles are the better governing principles … and create the framework in which they can live their most prosperous lives.”
“There’s no way (Republicans) win if you run a formidable woman from outside Metro Atlanta who can shave those vote margins” in rural Georgia, she told another group of Sixth District Democrats last year, rattling off the names of counties she’d visited, some of which give Republican candidates 80 percent of the vote. “You don’t have to flip this county,” she tells rural Democrats in rural counties in both North and South Georgia. “That’s not the objective in this election. You shave that four to five percent.”
Her ambitious plan seemed to befuddle some pundits. To clear up any confusion, she posted a video to let people know “I ain’t chasing after MAGA hats.” However, if some of those guys are tired of Trump, they’re welcome to come on over,” she told her Avondale audience. “They can find me on the ballot.”
The centerpiece of her statewide strategy is to improve Democratic fortunes in the state’s Black Belt, a wide swath of territory from Augusta to Columbus, with a large population of African-American voters—an area where, in recent years, “We leave tens of thousands of votes on the table,” Tomlinson notes. Part of that is due to voter suppression, which is especially pernicious in rural Georgia. Overcoming that will be another piece of the puzzle.
There’s also the matter of missing puzzle pieces: Democrats still need to build infrastructure in rural Georgia. There are about 50 counties, nearly all of them in middle and South Georgia, that don’t have any Democratic Party organization. That leaves grassroots organizers and civil rights organizations to do the work.
Her candidacy should hold a special appeal to Democrats interested in flipping Georgia’s House of Representatives. Democrats currently hold 75 seats; they need 16 more to gain a majority, choose the Speaker, and get a seat at the table for legislative issues, including the upcoming redistricting battle following the 2020 census—to avoid being gerrymandered out of power until 2030.
Most of the targeted GOP seats are in Metro Atlanta, but seven aren’t: two include parts of Athens, one in Savannah, and others centered around Milledgeville, Warner Robins, Americus, and Randolph County. The last two, House Districts 138 and 151, are in Southwest Georgia. Tomlinson is especially optimistic about this region, where she has name recognition from eight years of media coverage as mayor of Columbus and the support of the area’s black state Senators, Ed Harbison and Freddie Powell Sims, and Columbus Rep. Carol Hughley.
Slicing margins across the state, on top of big margins in Metro Atlanta should be enough to win, Tomlinson figures. This makes sense. Abrams came up just 55,000 votes short in 2018—an average of 21 per precinct. “When you see Fannin County is coming in at 5 percent less (for Republicans) than it did in the Abrams-Kemp race,” Tomlinson told her audience, “then you hop in your car and head to Columbus, where we’re having one hell of a victory party. That’s how we do it, folks.”
And then she asks, “Are you ready to win?” The crowd roared Yes!
Teresa Tomlinson leaves no doubt that she is.
Disclosure: My wife has donated to Tomlinson’s campaign. You can, too.
If you haven’t had a chance to hear Tomlinson speak, watch this interview that ran Friday.
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