Deborah Bowie is the senior director of public policy and communications for the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce.
ALBANY -- As she's settled into her job as senior director of public policy and communications with the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce, Deborah Bowie keeps getting the same question.
Why would you leave Birmingham to take a job in Albany?
Bowie's answer, while obviously genuine, is straight out of the chamber's guidebook.
"I don't think a lot of people who live here realize some of the good things you have going on in Albany," said Bowie, a native of Miami who spent most of her adult life in Birmingham before taking the position with the Albany Area Chamber two months ago. "There's a connectedness in Albany that's made me feel more welcome in the short time I've been here than in all the years I spent in Birmingham.
"And my kids are happy here. I can't tell you how important that is."
Bowie's children are triplets, one of whom is autistic. (Her older daughter will remain in Birmingham for her senior year of high school.) She said the educational opportunity she discovered in Albany played a large role in convincing her she should make the move here.
"Alabama has no access to state-funded preschool," the new chamber official said. "Not only do my kids have access to preschool here, they're in an environment where they all can attend school together. My (autistic) son is not ostracized here; he gets to be at the same school with his sisters."
Chamber President/CEO Catherine Glover said she's not surprised that Bowie's professional and personal experiences in Albany have been positive thus far. Making sure potential employees are a "good fit" is, after all, part of the chamber's hiring process.
"For a position at that level, it is extremely important that we take our time and find the right candidate," Glover said. "The duties of the position are vital to our organization, so we posted it nationally and locally, we did thorough background checks and we convened a number of panels to interview the candidates.
"And because of the nature of the position, one of the things I try to do personally is make sure the personality of the candidate is a good fit with the staff in place. That's a big part of what is an extensive process. Deborah impressed everyone. In fact, one of the panelists told me after interviewing her, 'I couldn't believe you didn't hire her on the spot.'"
IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNICATING
Personality aside, it's hard to imagine a position being more geared to a candidate's qualifications than the chamber's public policy/communications position is to Bowie's. The daughter of a Ukranian Jewish mother and Bahamian father, she earned her degree in communications at Xavier University in New Orleans but spent two years studying at Duke University as part of a prestigious fellowship funded by the Charles Dana Foundation.
Bowie "fell in love" with a pharmacist from Birmingham and settled with him in Alabama, working as the youngest reporter ever to cover City Hall for the Birmingham Post-Herald.
"That job was probably the most important of my career; I learned the importance of communicating on so many levels," she said.
Bowie also learned the importance of checking preconceived notions.
"I thought with the history of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, it was endemic to the city," she said. "I was sent to do a story on a lady who lived in one of the city's mud homes. The lady was 90-something, and she lived with her 70-something daughter.
"I'd set up the interview over the phone, and those women knew nothing about me. When I knocked on the door, I heard the daughter say, 'Mama, there's a colored girl at the door.' I got a little angry and defensive, and I had to fight through that to realize what a beautiful person this woman was."
Bowie's younger sister was murdered during a home invasion in Fort Lauderdale, and that tragedy -- along with the pending birth of her first child -- played a part in Bowie "crossing over to the dark side."
"There was not the kind of competition between the print and TV reporters that you see in a lot of places," Bowie said. "A friend of mine who worked in TV convinced me I should make the move, and I did.
"I was dealing with a lot in my personal life, and I wanted to get away from the rigid requirements of newspaper journalism. I worked as a special projects producer, did a lot of writing for TV broadcasts, and even worked as a contract employee with WLS in Chicago when their staff went on strike. But during one of my first days there, an armed guard was killed and the next day a baby was left on the doorstep of a church and died. I decided I no longer wanted to be in news."
BACK TO CITY HALL
Bowie did well selling TV advertising for a period, but she ended up back at City Hall in Birmingham, as a public information officer for the Birmingham City Council, again at the urging of a friend.
"People look at the jobs I've had, and they seem disparate," Bowie said. "But I look at them as connected, and I've been able to continue to add to my communications experiences with each job."
After two years at City Hall, Bowie was recruited by the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce and was hired as vice president of community development. She served four productive years with the chamber before being recruited to return to -- where else -- City Hall to serve as chief of staff for Mayor Larry Langford.
Bowie had heard rumors of corruption swirling around the city government, and Langford in particular, but she considered him a friend and decided to work with him.
"I'd been through a divorce, gotten remarried, had triplets and went through a long period in which my son was hospitalized, so that was a chaotic time already," Bowie said. "But I'm one of those persons who, for better or worse, is deathly committed to finishing what I started, so I stood beside Larry in that climate of public corruption."
Langford and others were eventually indicted, and the former mayor is now in federal prison. And while Bowie, who became the lone voice in government willing to speak to the media in the circuslike atmosphere, was by association "cast with the broad brush" that condemned the politicians, she left City Hall -- presumably for the last time -- with her integrity intact.
"The Birmingham News actually wrote an editorial that was very supportive of me after all of this went down, and in hindsight I'm very grateful," she said. "Not everything about that whole episode was reported truthfully."
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Out of the limelight, Bowie spent the next year and a half at home with her kids, "thinking about what I really wanted to do."
"I looked back over my professional career, and so much of what I had done had been at the urging of other people," she said. "I really thought about what I wanted to do. During that time it dawned on me that I was happiest working in the chamber industry. I had some friends looking out for me, and one of them told me I ought to look into the Albany job.
"I was intrigued because the job description was one that read like it had been drawn up for me. Demographically, Albany is similar to Birmingham, so I became interested. And it turned out there were advantages many Georgians don't see."
Glover brought Bowie on board in a position and atmosphere that have allowed her to hit the ground running.
"The first thing I did was ask her to become a certified lobbyist with the state, and she's done that," Glover said. "Her duties here are vital: marketing and communications strategies, membership outreach and public policy. She had to hit the ground running, but I knew that's what she'd do."
Bowie is well aware that her position in Albany opened with the recent death of her predecessor, long-time chamber official Wendy Martin. But Bowie said she hopes to carry on the work that Martin did.
"The chamber staff here is very close, like a family, and I'm aware that there are still signs of grieving," she said. "That's part of the process. But I've been welcomed by this very diverse staff, and I'm looking forward to becoming part of Albany and the chamber. I think it can be home for me and my family.
"I kind of got that feeling a short while ago, when we hadn't been here but a few days, and I got a text from my husband. I was working out of town, and he sent me a picture of our son drinking from a cup. He's almost 3, and we hadn't been able to get him to put down the bottle. When I saw that picture, I knew he was comfortable here. And I knew we were going to be OK."