July 10, 2019

This Millennial mayor—now a U.S. Senate candidate—is building an inclusive community in suburban Atlanta

The youngest mayor in the history of Clarkston, Georgia, 36-year-old Ted Terry believes in the power of collaboration. He wants to take these skills to Washington.

Ted Terry is the youngest ever mayor of Clarkston, Georgia, one of the most ethnically diverse communities in America. Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty.

Editor's note

Here on The Renewal Project, we like to feature the local leaders who are getting things done in their communities. Who better to talk to than mayors? That’s why we’re launching a series of conversations with mayors from cities big and small, and from coast to coast. Tell us why we should talk to your mayor. Email us at: margaret@therenewalproject.com. —The Renewal Project Editor Margaret Myers

UPDATE: Since we first published this piece on July 3, Clarkston, Georgia, Mayor Ted Terry announced his 2020 bid for the U.S. Senate. Terry made the announcement on July 10. In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he said he would use his experience as the mayor of Clarkston as a template for his Senate platform. Read our interview with Terry below, where we discuss his approach to being a collaborative leader.

First elected in 2013, Mayor Ted Terry is currently in the middle of his second term as the mayor of Clarkston, Georgia. Known as the Ellis Island of the South, the Georgia town has received 40,000 refugees over the past 25 years. The town’s youngest ever mayor, Terry, a Democrat, takes a more casual approach. Following his election, Terry decided to give up his traditional office at Clarkston City Hall, and instead does his mayoral work out in the community—in coffee shops and parks—to connect with his constituents and neighbors. That doesn’t mean he isn’t serious about his role.

During his time in office, Terry has helped make Election Day a holiday, raised the minimum wage for city workers to $15 an hour, and supported initiatives to empower residents to get more involved and collaborate with local government.

You might also know Terry from his appearance on the Netflix show Queer Eye. But more recently he took the time to speak with The Renewal Project on what makes Clarkston special. Read our brief Q&A with the mayor, edited for length and clarity, and follow him on Twitter @tedterry1.

The Renewal Project: Name three words to describe your town?

Mayor Ted Terry: Diverse, welcoming, and forward-thinking.

What’s your city’s most underutilized resource?

The most valuable resource in any community is the people. There’s always room for improvement for how we utilize people.

What local nonprofits are solving problems for your residents?

Friends of Refugees is working on more long-term work in the refugee community … [they are] doing really amazing work and are providing a service to not just refugees but all Clarkston residents. There’s also the Refugee Sewing Society.

What’s your favorite place in town to hang out when you’re not performing your official duties?

I come to Refuge Coffee to have mayoral meetings but also to hang out. (Editor’s note: Terry spoke to us from inside Refuge Coffee after ordering a morning bun and an Americano.)

What is the job that best prepared you for being mayor?

I worked with Congressman John Barrow for two and a half years. I literally spent two and a half years side-by-side with him. You learn a lot by being in the presence of a veteran public official about the commitment to public service.

Is there another mayor who inspires you?

I recently read Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s book. I was really inspired by the things he stands for and has done in South Bend, Indiana. I also recently attended a Mayors meeting where I met Ian Baltutis, mayor of Burlington, North Carolina. He started a co-op brewery there. We’re working with a group right now to re-do an old abandoned auto repair shop for city hall and bring in a brewery attached to it. That’s my dream: a brewery attached to city hall.

What’s your next big goal as mayor?

We’re halfway through a $30 million infrastructure project connecting parts of Clarkston to each other through walking trails, pocket parks, greenscapes. It’s really important for Clarkston. We were designed in a car culture way. We’re trying to take back the asphalt and make things more walkable and livable for the community.

What surprised you the most about the job once you took office?

That politics is a team sport. As is legislation. It didn’t matter if I won if the council members weren’t on board with everything. You have to have coalitions. You have to work with people you may not necessarily like very much.

We were designed in a car culture way. We’re trying to take back the asphalt and make things more walkable and livable for the community.

What is last great book that you read?

That would have to be The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. It’s a really fascinating book that tells the history of the world through trade and commerce.

Favorite historical figure?

Do I have to pick just one? I love the dynamic between Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and how that relationship began, suffered and rebounded later in their lives. You have the campaign, you have the bold vision, but then you have to figure out how to make it work.

Which college football team do you support?

Why would you ask me that? I worked on a campaign in Athens and drive a red and black pickup truck so I’ll say UGA. But I don’t want to upset my Georgia Tech, Georgia Southern, and Georgia State friends. It’s a real lose-lose question there!

Fresh peaches or boiled peanuts (Both Georgia delicacies)?

Honestly, I love boiled peanuts. I’ll pick them up at a gas station if they’re there, but a roadside stand is always the best.

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the deputy editor of The Renewal Project.