Terry Alexis Cummings is a Democratic candidate for Georgia state House District 39. She hopes to unseat incumbent Erica Thomas in the Democratic primary on June 9.
The Courier recently had a phone conversation with Cummings.
Cummings was asked to tell a little about her background.
“I am a wife, mother, attorney, and retired federal law enforcement officer,” she said. “My husband is a Marine veteran, and seven of my uncles served in the military. I’m a big supporter of initiatives that support and respect veterans and give them the quality medical care and assistance that they deserve.”
“I am an attorney and retired federal law enforcement officer,” she said.
“I grew up with my two sisters in Teaneck, New Jersey. My father was a jazz drummer, and he traveled a lot,” she said, “My mother taught pediatric nursing over in New York City.”
“She was one of the first African American women to join the New York visiting nurses service,” she said. “My grandfather was a professor at Howard University. He wrote the book on the destruction of the black civilization.”
“Three aunts were public school teachers and my youngest sister has taught in the Georgia public school system for 30 years,” she said.
“We grew up an environment where we learned education is vital, it’s critically important, but that your titles in your life do not define who you are,” she said “It makes you no better, or no worse than anybody else.”
“It’s how you treat other people, and how you contribute to your community that really defines who you are. And that’s how I grew up,” she said.
“I attended Douglass College at Rutgers University, and there I majored in political science,” she said. “While in college, I joined and became the president of the Douglass Black Student Congress.
She remained active in that organization plus many other community organizations, she said.
Cummings said that a friend she grew up with had faced intense discrimination at Cook College, another part of Rutgers.
“She was the first black woman to attend Cook College to major in landscape architecture,” she said. “They did everything they could to get her out of that school, to the point of destroying her car and doing a whole lot of other things. So that really sparked in me the importance of getting involved in things, and watching out for things and just being very active.”
Cummings said while in college she interned in Sen. Bill Bradley’s office, and after college worked as a clerk in what was then the Washington D.C. Superior Court.
She attended law school at night while she worked full time. She was active in the Black Student Law Association,
She worked for a landlord-tenant clinic, and with the law firm that represented D.C. Mayor Marion Barry during his legal troubles.
Her progress was delayed by the sudden death of her father, but with the support of family and friends, she graduated.
“After graduation, I came back to D.C. Superior Court, and I clerked for a judge,” she said. “I applied for and was accepted into the Department of Justice Honors Attorneys Program, and that’s how I ended up going to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.”
She then served in two prisons.
The first was the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago, where she worked on the high profile case against the El Rukn gang,
“It was the largest in Chicago’s history. It literally fell apart because of accusations of wrongdoing by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I learned a lot from working on that case,” she said.
She then came to the Atlanta Penitentiary.
“I moved down here shortly after a correctional officer was killed over there,” she said. “I worked on that criminal case also, which happened to be the first criminal death penalty case in Georgia for the murder of a correctional officer.”
“I worked with the agency for 25 years. And during that time, I gained a reputation for my tenacity, my ability to think outside the box, my strong advocacy skills, (and) knowing when to fight and when to sit back,” Cummings said.
“But one of the biggest things I also got out of it, and I feel that I contributed, was being an African-American woman on the executive staff,” she said. “Because things are different now, but there was a time where you really didn’t see African-Americans as part of any executive staff in prison.”
“And obviously, with so many African-American men being in prison, I think it was very important for them to see more people that look like them,” she said.
“I know for a fact that I was able to resolve a lot of issues before it got to the point of someone being hurt or worse,” she said.
Cummings said that when she reached mandatory retirement, she decided to work on an issue she observed while working for the Bureau of Prisons.
“One of the things I’ve always been keenly aware of (is) the war on drugs was a complete failure,” Cummings said. “And I didn’t like the fact that so many people were locked up, because they entered a guilty plea or had a bad attorney. Oftentimes they returned to their communities and continued to be punished. and were totally unprepared.”
“I had the opportunity before I left to start working on some returning citizens job fairs.”
“These are job fairs that focus on people that are returning to the community,” she said.
When people who had been incarcerated enter the community, she said, they often can’t find jobs, and as a consequence can’t get housing or take care of their families.
She said that she had approached Michael Murphy, the special assistant to BOC chairman Mike Boyce, about lining up employers for a jobs event she was organizing at Clayton State University.
“Murphy suggested organizing an event for South Cobb, and when Cobb District Attorney Joyette Holmes initiated a record-restriction event, I coordinated the job fair portion of the event for the county, which took place in South Cobb,” Cummings said.
“I’m really proud of Cobb Restore 360, which was the first such event in South Cobb,” Cummings said.
“I’m still involved in a lot of different organizations,” she said.
She is currently a Post Seat Holder (voting member) of the Cobb County Democratic Committee, and a member of the Cobb Progressives, the Mableton Improvement Coalition, her homeowner’s association, the Austell Community Task Force,the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys and the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice, and the American Bar Association.
The Courier asked Cummings if she had thoughts about the imbalance between the rights of tenants and the rights of landlords in Georgia, an issue that has been front-and-center because of the conditions in some of the apartments in the district, along Riverside Parkway.
“What I did as a participant in the landlord-tenant clinic at law school was represent tenants when they had to go to court, down to the point of going to the apartments taking pictures,” she said. “I was a little bit surprised that Georgia doesn’t more programs because a lot of people cannot afford an attorney. And if you don’t happen to get someone to work pro bono, or someone with the ACLU … you’re kind of like, in there by yourself,” she said. “I would like to see more law schools create clinics to provide legal support across the state”.
“And if you don’t happen to get someone to work pro bono, or someone with the ACLU … you’re kind of like, in there by yourself,” she said.
“I’ve been over there to the Riverside apartments, and I’ve seen some of the conditions for myself,” she said. “And some of the conditions were actually deplorable.”
“And what made the matter even worse to me is that from my understanding, talking to (BOC Chairman) Mike Boyce, because I actually went there with him one time, was that he had been told that the problems had been resolved but they had not been.”
“I certainly applaud House Bill 346, which protects tenants from retaliation from the landlord,” she said.
Cummings said that if she’s elected she will introduce legislation to prohibit landlords from leaving the tenant’s property on the street after an eviction.
“I think it’s a very cruel process,” she said.
“Several states have laws that require the landlord to either leave the property in the apartment with a lock box until they until they can safely remove that property, or to put the property in a secure storage facility until the issues are resolved,” Cummings said.
Cummings was asked her position on the reopening of the controversial Sterigenics facility near Atlanta Road on the outskirts of Smyrna.
The Sterigenics plant became a focus of community concern in Smyrna and surrounding areas after an article jointly published by Georgia Health News and WebMD reported that three census tracts, two in the Smyrna area and one in Covington, had unacceptable levels of cancer risk by EPA standards, due to elevated amounts of ethylene oxide in the air.
During a period of voluntary shutdown for the testing of new equipment intended to address the emissions safety concerns, the county ordered Sterigenics to stay closed for review of its certificate of occupancy and fire protection standards.
Pressure from the FDA caused the county to allow the facility to reopen on a limited basis, and a federal court expanded that to give Sterigenics the full ability to operate their plant pending a final legal decision.
Cummings said she was disappointed by the way the company had handled the controversy.
“What strikes me is that it’s not just our one area of Cobb County,” she said. “It’s in other areas of Georgia.”
“Then I found out that the chemical is not only is ethylene oxide cancerous, it’s highly explosive, and right smack in the middle of our neighborhoods,” she said.
She said if there is an explosion, it could affect the area up to a half mile from the plant, and there’s no invisible barrier between Smyrna and Mableton.
She supports legislation from Rep. Erick Allen and Sen. Jen Jordan, particularly legislation proposed by Allen, which would oversee permitting, testing and monitoring the use of ethylene oxide.
“I think at this point, Sterigenics cannot be trusted to do their own self-reporting. I think that there should be mandatory reporting and monitoring,” she said. “And I think that the residents should not have to be paying for that oversight and tests.”
“But my real problem is the lack of protection and notification by both the EPA and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division,” she said. “I don’t know where would we be today if it were not for those articles in Georgia Health News and WebMD. It seems to me that they,(the Georgia EPD), really have no intention of notifying us, and to me that’s a big problem.”
State legislation of local design guidelines
A bill, HB 302 was introduced in the Georgia House that would prohibit local communities from setting design guidelines for one or two-family dwellings. The bill has received widespread opposition from local governments, and has been referred to committee.
Cummings was asked what she thought of the attempt to prohibit local design guidelines.
“I actually worked on the zoning committee with the Mableton Improvement Coalition for a little bit, and I really think that it’s imperative that local communities and cities retain the design rights,” she said.
“I don’t think that it should be left to the Georgia assembly to just step in and tell cities and counties what they can and can’t approve,” she said.
Cummings said that when she sat in zoning meetings some of the proposed designs for subdivision were obviously intended to be cheaply made with cheap materials and poor aesthetics.
“I understand the frustration of the Homebuilders Association because they put a lot of time into those design plans, and then they come and submit it and it gets red-lined. I get that. I think the way to handle that is for these builders and developers to meet with these zoning committees ahead of time to get a sense of what we’re looking for,” Cummings said.
She said that the purpose of design guidelines is so that properties hold up, and that the value of the property in the Mableton area is maintained.
Nursing home oversight
Asked if there were any issues important to her that we had not yet covered, Cummings mention nursing home oversight.
“One reasons I moved to Mableton was to be closer to my mother who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease,” she said. “She lived in three different facilities prior to moving in with me when I left the Department of Justice.”
“I moved my mother in with me and I was the primary caretaker until he passed,” she said. “I’m lucky that I don’t live here by myself. I have my both my sisters, and we have some other family members. We created a team to watch out for my mother, and make sure that nothing happened to her while she was in those facilities.”
“She wasn’t moved three times because of bad care, I should really clarify that,” she said. “Alzheimer’s is progressive. I guess we all were in denial about it.”
“But the first facility she was at, she thought it was it was too black. The second facility she was at, she thought it was too white,” she said. “The third facility had the diversity that she liked, which is mixed, and that’s where she liked, and what she was used to.”
“But the other thing that made the third facility special was that they were in a position to handle somebody like my mother. She wasn’t ready to be locked up in memory care,” Cummings said.
“If you know anything about Alzheimer’s, you can stay in assisted living to a certain point, but when you start trying to leave the facility they want you to go into memory care, which is behind a locked door,” she said. “We were trying to keep my mother out of there for as long as possible.”
“I took my mom to my place every weekend,” she said.
Cummings said she would monitor her mother to make sure there were no marks on her, and that she and her sisters worked out a plan to drop by the nursing facility at random time of day or night to check on her mother’s care.
“I so applauded House Bill 987 when it came out, because it’s such a hard decision. to place your parent in a facility.”
“When you have to deal with them being abused, and not properly taken care of, or heaven forbid, dying, because of something that could have been prevented, it’s heart-wrenching,” Cummings said.
“We went to extraordinary efforts to the point that we were taking gifts to the staff”, she said. “They had our cell phone numbers so they could give us a heads up if anything was going on. It was a mission Larry, to make sure this little lady the love of our life, that no harm came to her”.
“But not everybody can do that,” Cummings said.
“While, I was really happy with HB 987, it’s only dealing with facilities that have more than 25 beds. One of the things that that I would like to see if elected, is some legislation that impacts the smaller facilities too,” Cummings said. “I think their staff should have the same level of training. I think that they should have the same requirement for reporting.”
“One of the things that that I would like to see if elected, is some legislation that impacts the smaller facilities too,” Cummings said. “I think their staff should have the same level of training. I think that they should have the same requirement for reporting.”
“And under the bill, the the resident now has to get a 14-day minimum notice of impending ownership change, she said. “I can tell you from personal experience, 14 days is not enough time to move a loved one.”
“It is not enough time to tour that facility, and you can’t go by the day official tour. You have to come back at night and on weekends when the administrators aren’t there to find out what’s really going on,” she said.
She said that after you’ve decided on a facility, an assessment has to be made to figure out the level of care needed, which determines cost, and that 14 days isn’t sufficient time to complete the process.
Reasons for running
Cumming said that a number of things made her decide to run, including what she sees as a lack of transparency and responsiveness from the incumbent.
“It’s disheartening when you see the rest of your county growing and flourishing,” she said. “And then you come to your side of the community and it’s not.”
“That’s not really one person’s fault,” she said. “But it’s certainly the duty, in my opinion, both of your state representative and your senator, to be fighting for that, and to be working to bring interested stakeholders together so that your area can develop the way it’s supposed to be and help attract sustainable businesses to the area.”
Cummings’ closing words
The Courier asked Cummings to give a brief statement on why voters in HD-39 should vote for her.
“To bring opportunities to and improve the quality of life for all residents in Cobb County,” she said.
“My history of public service and consensus building spans government, community and civic involvement,” Cummings said. “My guiding principle is clear. I will make District 39 the priority.”
“I will work to serve South Cobb with integrity, transparency, compassion and purpose,” she said. “I will work to make South Cobb thrive for all of us, not just a few.”
“My husband is a Marine veteran, and I’m a big supporter of initiatives that support and respect veterans and give them the quality medical care and assistance that they deserve,” she said.
“I envision partnerships across the board that look to sustainable development for our community, and move South Cobb forward to its’ potential as a first ranked community. she said.
For more information about her campaign, visit her website at http://terry4ga.com/