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Editorial: What Georgia Voters Should Know About Teresa Tomlinson

Editorial: What Georgia Voters Should Know About Teresa Tomlinson

Published in the Roanoke Times

We don’t like to tell people how to vote, which is one reason why we no longer make endorsements. In a world where too many people take their cues from talking heads on their favorite news/propaganda channels, we need people to think independently and make their own decisions. We endorse critical thinking, not candidates.

We also like to stick to issues close to home. There’s a whole internet out there where you can find every flavor of opinion you like on President Trump, but far fewer places where you can find discussion of issues unique to this part of Virginia. So why, then, are we writing about one of the candidates in next year’s race for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia? That’s because we have some insight into one of those candidates that Georgia voters might not know about — but might like to know.

We refer to Teresa Tomlinson, the former two-term mayor of Columbus, Georgia, who is running as a Democrat for the Senate seat now held by Republican David Perdue. We have no idea what kind of mayor Tomlinson was, though apparently she was a popular one because she won re-election with 63 percent of the vote, the first Columbus mayor to get re-elected in a contested race since 1971. Whether she should be Georgia’s next senator — that’s a question for Georgians, not us. But here’s how we know Tomlinson: She was one of the people who helped save Sweet Briar College when its board tried to shut it down in 2015, and one of the people who helped bring it back to life. There were lots of alumnae who rose up against the board’s decision and waged a dramatic —and ultimately successful — fight that went all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court. They all deserve credit for Sweet Briar still being with us. But only one eviscerated the board in sworn testimony in court the way Tomlinson did, only one used her position as a graduation speaker to deliver a rally cry for the women’s education the way Tomlinson did, and only one went on to chair the board that brought Sweet Briar back from near-death as Tomlinson did.

We first saw Tomlinson on April 15, 2015, when alumnae were mounting what then seemed a quixotic legal fight to reverse the board’s decision to close the all-women’s college. Sweet Briar’s board at the time tried to quash the whole proceeding. To the board’s chagrin, Circuit Court Judge James Updike wanted to hear some evidence – and boy, did he. The board had argued that Sweet Briar had run its course, that alumnae weren’t donating, that students weren’t enrolling, and that it was best to wrap things up in a dignified fashion. Tomlinson sat in the witness box and coolly and methodically exposed all that as a fiction. Tomlinson had volunteered to help her alma mater raise funds and testified that she was “shocked” at how flimsy its fund-raising operation was. “They were leaving a lot of money on the table,” she said. She was her own best example. At one point, the school had asked her to donate all of $250. She was capable of donating a lot more – and had. She’d stroked a $20,000 check in honor of the 20th anniversary of her graduation, yet the school was only asking her for $250? That’s not how fund-raising works. Tomlinson’s testimony that day —calm and detailed — went a long way toward Updike’s ruling that afternoon that opened the door for alumnae to continue their legal fight. Tomlinson’s testimony was unusual in another way. Here was the school’s legal team cross-examining their upcoming graduation speaker. They did not fare well. If Tomlinson is ever in the U.S. Senate, we pity anyone who has to testify before a committee she’s on and tries to get away with clever talk.

On May 16, 2015, Tomlinson delivered what is surely one of the most unusual commencement addresses ever. At the time, the school was still scheduled to close; the Virginia Supreme Court had yet to hear arguments in the alumnae group’s legal case, so things looked pretty grim. She delivered a stirring speech that quoted the Bible and Winston Churchill and urged graduates to “make the world regret we ever put Sweet Briar College in jeopardy.” Now, speeches are easy to give, but Tomlinson also dropped a small bombshell toward the end —that she’d been in contact with Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and that he was hoping for “the best possible outcome.” Herring had made himself unpopular among Sweet Briar alumnae for failing to come to their aid; this was the first public sign that Herring might do so, after all. If you’re looking for leadership, here’s some. Until then, Sweet Briar alumnae had been trolling Herring online and stalking his public appearances to protest. By contrast, Tomlinson called Herring “a special leader.” This went against the conventional wisdom among Sweet Briar alumnae, but Tomlinson turned out to be right. Herring had organized some mediation between the two parties. At the time, that seemed to some a face-saving move, but after the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in the alumnae’s favor, it became a critical venue toward negotiating the board’s quick surrender. Tomlinson saw all that before others did.

And who became the chair of the new alumnae board that took over the school? Tomlinson. That was July 2015. At the time, Sweet Briar existed in name — and property — only. Most students had already transferred elsewhere. The old board had ceased recruiting so there technically wasn’t an incoming class.

The fact that Sweet Briar re-opened the next month with 248 students —including 36 freshmen — was nothing short of miraculous. Phil Stone, the retired Bridgewater College president who had been brought in on short notice to lead the rescue mission, did much of that work. But Tomlinson certainly deserves credit for guiding the school during its precarious re-launch. There are legions of board members at colleges and universities who are figureheads. Tomlinson was no figurehead. She was hands-on — digging into the budget to make the numbers work. When Stone retired, again, after two years, Tomlinson personally lead the search committee that installed Meredith Woo as the new president. You’d be hard-pressed to find another college board chairman who has been as involved in their institution’s operations —and in such unusual circumstances.

Big picture: Under Tomlinson’s chairmanship, Sweet Briar not only came back to life; it’s also grown enrollment (expected to about 400 this fall) and endowment. This week, Wall Street upgraded its bond rating for the third year in a row. We don’t know whether that counts for anything in Georgia. But it counts for something here in Virginia.

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