ALBANY — There are people who don’t know Cheryl Calhoun very well who talk of her “sweet, polite, almost shy personality,” who find her 1,000-watt smile charming and disarming.
That’s before they see her transformation into a rousing, passionate speaker who is as at home preaching from a pulpit as she is talking to voters about the issues that plague Albany in her quest to claim the Ward III seat on the Albany City Commission.
“I’ve been cursed out, talked bad about, put down, hurt and been splattered all over Facebook,” Calhoun, a bus driver with the Dougherty County School System, said. “I look at it like that prepared me for this race.
“But I’m above all that. I’m in this to make our community a better place to live, and if I have to put up with that, I will. Through it all, I’m going to be me. That’s all I know how to do.”
Calhoun has taken her message to the people of Ward III in her efforts to unseat incumbent Christopher Pike, an entrepreneur, and fellow challenger businesswoman B.J. Fletcher. And she makes no bones that crime is the issue that concerns her most.
“My brother-in-law is the dean of the library at Albany Technical College, and he had one of his students ask him where I lived,” said Calhoun, who his making her first run for elected office after being denied an opportunity to challenge for the commission’s Ward II seat after city officials misread the GIS location of her residence in 2010. “When he told her, she said she lived nearby and was scared to walk the streets in our neighborhood.
“I live here, and I pick up students in this area. I know exactly what she’s talking about. Crime is everywhere, and when it hit me how much it’s impacting our community, a passion came over me to run for office and try to do something about it.”
Calhoun said crime prevention and working with young people are the primary issues of her campaign, but she noted that there are plenty of other problems that plague the city. She said a position on the commission would allow her to “safeguard” the city’s budget, and she admits to being anxious to work with others to create economic development — and better-paying job — opportunities in the community.
Calhoun said she’d like to work with other officials to bring attractions and entertainment events that would appeal to youngsters of all ages.
“Our infrastructure has to improve; if it doesn’t, our city is going down,” she said. “And we’ve got to do everything we can to mentor and motivate our young people. They’re our future. I mean no disrespect to Darton College and Albany State (University), because a college education is so important these days. But for kids who are not prepared — or can’t afford — to go to college, we really need to push Albany Tech(nical College) more. These kids who don’t go to college need to learn skills and a trade.
“I think Albany has the worst customer service I’ve ever seen, and a lot of that is because the people (working at local businesses) don’t get proper training. We need to set up some kind of program to train them. When I worked at Disney World, we went through two complete weeks of customer service training. That’s why Disney became such a huge success in Florida. We need to teach our workers those same principles.”
Calhoun said she has nothing but respect for her two opponents in the Ward III race, admitting that she likes qualities displayed by both on the campaign trail. But she said she is the candidate most willing to “work with a spirit of cooperation” with others on the commission to bring about positive change in the community. And she said the time has come for change.
“My husband has this thing he says that I think is appropriate,” the Ward III candidate said. “He makes the comparison of an instant cake that comes in a box and a homemade cake. If you stay with the same ingredients like those that come in an instant cake, you keep getting the same thing. But that homemade cake — which may take a little more effort and a little more time — is genuine.
“We need to go back to the wisdom we got when we learned to make those homemade cakes. We don’t need more of the same thing.”
Calhoun, a mother of four, said driving a school bus is only part of her interaction with young people in the community. She also works with at-risk youths with the Parents for Change organization. She said that has afforded her opportunities to see amazing and heartbreaking outcomes.
“There was one young man in particular that I worked with along with his school principal, his teachers, his parents and a (DCSS) police officer,” she said. “I saw him change his attitude, get back involved in school. That was so rewarding.
“But then in this other particular group of five young people I was working with, four had successful outcomes but one took his own life. You never forget that.”
In her work and in her campaigning, Calhoun said she’s noticed a growing frustration in the community. She attributes that frustration to a lack of service-driven leadership by elected and appointed officials.
“I want to be a commissioner, but I just don’t understand this thing about becoming ‘power-hungry’ when you get elected,” she said. “You’re elected to be a servant of the people. The only way you get power-hungry is to think only of me. As a servant, my job is to serve you, to be your voice. I can’t imagine that it ever would, but I pray that if I am elected I will never change.
“I’ve been a pastor for the past seven years, and my father was a pastor. I’ve known about the importance of service my whole life. My father would come home from services and go out and talk to the people who didn’t go to church. He still walks the community today. He’s a server. I learned that quality from him, and I am involved in this campaign because I want to serve the people of Ward III.”