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Coleman: The music of politics and law

A Table With a View -- Tommy Coleman


Tommy Coleman, center, enjoys grandchildren, Davis Coleman, 8, left, and Harper Coleman, 6.

Tommy Coleman, center, enjoys grandchildren, Davis Coleman, 8, left, and Harper Coleman, 6.

Danny Carter

ALBANY — If you were casting Tommy Coleman in a movie, it wouldn’t be a stretch for him to play his real life role — an attorney. Thin, bespectacled and most always conservatively attired in a business suit, Coleman has an Atticus Finch persona.

He usually speaks in a low, calm voice, causing you to lean forward slightly as you await his words.

What few people know is that Coleman, in his youthful years, appeared on national television strumming his guitar and singing folk songs hoping to become his generation’s version of Phillip Phillips.

Coleman appeared three times on the Sunday night “Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour.” The show featured amateur talent acts from across the country who competed to win an applause meter contest and the top vote totals.

His initial appearance was with a group, the Starlighters, which included Sarah Phillips, Claire Dupree and Linda Jones, and came when he was just 15 years old.

“We sang folk music, which was big back then,” said Coleman during a recent lunch appointment at Lemon Grass. “It still is for me, even if it’s not for anyone else.”

The Starlighters did well enough to win the competition and return for a second try. The second performance in New York City ended with the victory going to a group of Bavarian dancers, Coleman recalled.

LEMOM GRASS RESTAURANT

2820 Meredyth Dr.

When I called Tommy Coleman to ask him if he would consent to meeting with me for our Table With a View interview, I told him the restaurant choice would be entirely his.

He immediately picked Lemon Grass, a relatively new restaurant featuring Thai cuisine. I had heard great things from friends who had already visited the eating establishment located just off Westover Boulevard.

Of course, I agreed to his choice, but it was a little disconcerting for me. My choices rarely venture too far from standard fare.

But, I ventured bravely and was pleasantly surprised. Taking Coleman’s advice I order the basil stir-fry chicken. He ordered masaman stew with beef. We both had unsweeten tea. The bill was $22.47.

It was a perfect gathering spot for lunch with a pleasant interior. It was crowded with lunch patrons, but the noise level was such that you could easily carry on a conversation.

Did I enjoy it? The best evidence is that I have returned since the interview.

His third appearance was with a five-member group called the Bittersweets. Coleman, who was 19 at the time, played with Phillips, Dupree, Butch Hayes and Sammy Lofton. They did not win.

“The thing was rigged to some degree,” Coleman said. “If you had a lot of people in your group, you probably would win.”

The exposure meant more than the victory, Coleman reasoned.

“It got you on TV and a lot of notoriety, so you could charge money when you performed,” he said.

More than notoriety, the performance got Coleman his first political job.

Joe Sports, who was a newscaster before he switched careers and became a political staffer, called Coleman after his Ted Mack appearance and hired him to work for Bill Stuckey when Stuckey ran for Congress.

“They hired me and Pam Hudgens to sing for the crowds before Bill would speak,” Coleman said. “We were the biggest thing to hit Willacoochee and Homerville.

“If not for this, I probably would have been a band director.”

Coleman was exposed to music from the beginning. His mother, Freddie, sang in the choir at Porterfield United Methodist Church for 60 years. She is now 89 and lives in Albany. His father, Franklin, owned Coleman Opticians and was an optometrist by day and a trumpet player by night.

“It was expected that I would join the band,” Coleman said. “And I did. I was drum major at Albany High.”

Coleman said he can remember a photo his mother kept that shows him in a choir robe around the age of “4 or 5” singing before members of the Women’s Club.

The Coleman family’s musical ability has been passed to another generation. One of his daughters, Claire, has a master’s degree in vocal performance from Mercer University and is a music teacher at Live Oak Elementary School in the Dougherty County School System.

“I picked up the ukulele and was a big fan of the Kingston Trio,” Coleman said. “I could sit there and listen to the Kingston Trio and I would imitate them. I got reasonably good at it.

“That probably hurt improving my musical skill. I got good enough that people thought it was wonderful at the time, so I stopped. I was state-of-the-art in ‘64, but it kinda passed me by.”

He credits music with helping him win his first political race at Albany Junior College, now Darton State College.

After working for Stuckey one summer, Coleman decided that politics was “kinda neat,” leading him to seek office as vice president of the student council.

Now comfortable when speaking to groups of any size, Coleman said he was extremely nervous during his campaign in college. He used his musical skills on the guitar to get him through the nervousness.

“Part of the campaign was giving a speech, and I was so nervous,” he said. “But I wrote a theme, which I sang to the crowd, kind of a folk rap.”

Coleman immediately recalled the lyrics more than four decades later.

“If you elect me, I’ll do my best. I promise you I’ll pass the test. I’ll do the very best I can to make this college the best in the land,” he sang.

“It was a big hit and I won,” he grinned. “I gained a lot of comfort from having that guitar.”

Although he never took lessons, Coleman said he loves performing music.

Asked if he had written any songs other than the college ditty, Coleman said he was not very good at writing songs. He wrote one, and he and Lofton collaborated on another, he said.

“I just didn’t have the imagination,” he said. “I wish I could.”

Although he wasn’t proud of his songwriting efforts, Coleman wrote words well enough to get a master’s degree in journalism. His goal was to be a political press secretary.

After college, Coleman said he got a call from fellow Albanian Hamilton Jordan, who asked him to work for former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, who was planning a run for president.

Stuckey was going to run for Congress, and Coleman was going to work with his campaign. He asked Stuckey for advice about the Carter offer.

“He said, ‘Don’t mess with him, he’s not going to win,’” Coleman recalled. “I’ve had a lot of near misses.”

Coleman stayed with Stuckey and worked for him before returning to Albany to join Citizens and Southern Bank as an investment banker.

“I was doing bond deals for schools, cities and counties,” he said. “It wasn’t that I knew how to do it, but I knew everybody in Georgia at that point.”

He took a few months break from the bank in 1983 to work on former astronaut John Glenn’s presidential campaign in 1983.

“You remember President Glenn, of course,” Coleman said, tongue in cheek.

Coleman stayed with the bank for about 10 years but acknowledged he never was a “real” banker. “I came back to C&S here with the intention to run for mayor,” he said.

He ran for Albany City Commission and was elected when he was 26. Coleman stayed on the commission almost five years before accepting an offer from former Gov. George Busbee, another Albanian.

Coleman said Busbee initially offered him two jobs that he did not accept. The third offer was one he couldn’t refuse. He was chosen to direct the Democratic Party in Georgia.

Coleman was elected mayor in 1990 and served four separate terms. He said he considers the rebuilding of the city following the Flood of ‘94 his major achievement.

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Dougherty County Attorney Tommy Coleman and Special Counsel Willie Weaver speak before a school board meeting recently.

“The city put together a redevelopment plan, and we got a huge amount of money to fund it,” Coleman said. “It fell to me to make sure the plan went through. We spent that money pretty efficiently.

“Lots of people, maybe a thousand or more, have quality housing now because we spent that money wisely and nobody stole any of it.”

After leaving the bank, Coleman decided he wanted to become a practicing attorney, a decision he’s never regretted. He went to school at night while working and helping raise three children to earn a law degree from Woodrow Wilson School of Law in Atlanta.

“It was the greatest thing for me,” he said. “It has worked out well.”

Coleman has carved out his niche in the legal world by representing governmental agencies — currently “33 or 34,” he thinks.

“There are a lot of people who represent multiple cities and counties, but nobody in Georgia represents as many as I do and to the point that I do,” Coleman said. “I actually go to the meetings.”

Coleman said he attends meetings days and nights every weekday with breaks on Wednesday nights.

“I don’t have meetings on Wednesdays,” he said. “They all claim to go to church on Wednesday nights, but I’m not sure they are actually there.”

With one exception in Valdosta, Coleman said all of his governmental clients are within a 60-mile drive.

“It gets tough after about 60 miles,” he said.

Despite the constant travel and being away from his family, Coleman said the work is rewarding.

“Different people do different things well,” he said. “I have limited skills, but I do know how to run cities and government. It is rewarding to be able to do that. I generally go into a town and they know that I know what I am doing.”

That ability to operate a governmental entity would be the key theme, Coleman said, if he were writing his memoir. It’s his way of contributing to the community.

“Some people fulfill their responsibility to the community by working for United Way,” he said. “Some do it by being a journalist. I just know how to run a government. I am not an elected official now, but I am still, in some ways, doing it.

“I have much more influence now than I did when I was mayor. I give the best advice I can from my experience and legal background so they can make the best decisions. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.”

Although his family has been supportive of his political career, Coleman said the first advice he got was a bit startling.

“When I first told my grandmother that I was going to run for the City Commission, she told me: ‘You go in a Christian and come out a criminal,’” he said.

Ultimately, his grandmother gave Coleman her backing and ended up campaigning vigorously for him, he said.

Coleman has been in the public eye for most of his life and is comfortable in his associations with the media. You would expect that from someone who has a master’s in journalism and speaks to the media virtually every week as he goes about his job.

“My view is to tell them (media) the truth,” Coleman said. “I have tried to get that through to my clients. Talk about problems and deal with them. If you try to hold back, it will get worse.”

However, a rocky relationship between a former Herald publisher and reporter many years ago was a low point in his career, Coleman admits.

Coleman said he had a great relationship with the late Albany Mayor James H. Gray, a bond that did not extend to Gray’s son. He’s convinced that the late Jimmy Gray Jr. and city beat reporter Mike Shepard were out to destroy his career.

“He (Jimmy Gray Jr.) didn’t want me to be mayor,” Coleman said. “To him, I was a pretender. I have a history with you guys, sometimes good and sometimes bad.

“It really was a low point in my life. It was their game plan to have a story in the paper every Sunday, a story that damaged me without regard for the truth. I would wake up every Sunday morning around 3 and not wanting to go out and get the paper, but being drawn out to the yard to see what was being said about me.”

Fortunately, Coleman says that has not been the case for many years. His relationship with the media now is without that type of drama, he said.

A former member of the print and broadcast media, Phoebe executive Jackie Ryan is one of Coleman’s best friends. He and Ryan share a love of folk music and performed together for many years.

“I think we were the first to perform at Harvest Moon,” Coleman recalls.

Their performances, though, have mostly ended because of career and family conflicts.

“Plus, there are a diminishing number of people interesting in listening to that kind of music,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve learned a new song since 1964. That’s an exaggeration, but not by far.”

Coleman, 64, says politics has changed significantly during his career.

“It’s more aggressive now,” he said. “People’s opinions are much more strident, and we’re less able to compromise. People are more likely to think negatively about people.”

Because of those changes, Coleman said it is more difficult to convince capable people to run for political office.

Despite his hectic schedule, Coleman said he and his wife, Charlotte, enjoy their home life. Since Coleman left elected office, they have gone to Europe once a year. The former high school sweethearts have been married for 42 years.

Attending a school system conference in San Francisco ignited his love of travel.

“I felt culturally deprived by not seeing the great sights of the world,” Coleman said. “We’ve been all over. There’s nothing scheduled yet this year, but one grandson wants to go to London. He also wants to go to Normandy. He’s at the age that he wants to see what we talk about.”

Grandchildren take up much of Coleman’s free time on the weekend. His son, Flin, has two children, Davis, 8, and Harper, 6. Coleman grew up the only child of only children and enjoys having an expanded family. Flin Coleman is also an attorney and practices with his father. He handles much of the courtroom litigation associated with the practice.

In addition to the daughter who is employed with the Dougherty school system, Coleman has a second daughter, Whitney, who is an attorney in Raleigh, N.C.

One of his grandsons is a history buff. He has coerced his granddad into driving to Columbus on several occasions to visit the National Infantry Museum. Grandfather and grandson also share a love for reading about history.

Coleman says there are no political campaigns in his future. He also has no plans to retire from his legal practice.

“I like what I do,” he said.

While he may stop practicing law one day, it’s doubtful he’ll ever abandon music.

“Even when I was mayor, I had a lot of what I call ‘night’ friends — people with long hair, tattoos and beards,” he said. “We’d get off somewhere and play music.”