While political and governmental organizations don’t take reservations to honorably sit at the tables of decision makers, many women are stepping up and rightfully claiming their seats. They are becoming our trusted leaders and decision makers.
And, as women strive to make a difference in their communities, their states, the nation, and the world, their place at the table will become more common and more respected.
Peachtree City government is fortunate to have a small, but mighty, dedicated woman leader who has taken her seat at the head of the City Council’s table. Meet Mayor Vanessa Fleisch, a warm woman of self-directed energy and purpose.
Vanessa grew up half a continent away from her eventual southern home in Peachtree City. Her childhood was spent in Vineland, New Jersey, with her sister, Valerie, and brother William. Vanessa and her siblings grew up working in their parents’ hardware store; learning life-lessons about hard work, community involvement, and customer service.
After attending American University in Washington, D.C., and earning a degree in international relations and communications (as well as a real estate license), this ambitious graduate landed a job in Ocean City, New Jersey, with WMGM-TV, doing research and directing the six and eleven o’clock news. She also used her innovative spirit and savvy real estate experience to broker Ocean City rental houses to vacationers—perhaps this was a forerunner to VRBOs or Airbnbs, but with Vanessa’s personal touch.
In 1986, Vanessa accepted a job with CNN in Atlanta and left the East Coast. “That was a frightening experience to pack up and move to Atlanta,” she remembers. “I was a young woman and I knew no one.” But, her outgoing personality, organizational skills, talent, and personal drive proved valuable assets. Not only did she excel professionally in a tough industry, but she also met her future husband, Michael. Their whirlwind courtship and marriage brought her to Peachtree City in 1991, where she and Michael have raised two sons, John and Christian.
While raising her family, Vanessa worked as a real estate agent. This pursuit led her to take an active interest in her community and its government. “When driving clients around the city, I noticed that Peachtree City was going downhill.” She reflects, “Maybe as a realtor, I was more aware of property values than others. I saw our area and infrastructure declining. Park and street maintenance were neglected and pockets of the city were in disrepair.” She remembers thinking, “How can I tell my clients this is a great place to live?”
One of Vanessa’s pet peeves is the person who complains about an issue or problem but then does nothing to rectify it. “I believe that rather than complain about a situation, it is important to be proactive and be a part of the solution. If you don’t like it, fix it!”
So, rather than sit back and wish things would change, she chose to make a difference. “I’m not a ‘letter to the editor’ kind of activist,” she admits, “so I came up with a plan.” She attended city council meetings and listened to the city’s issues and how they were being addressed and handled. She was a visible presence. And, she did research—she asked questions, poured over documents, and sought answers.
“After educating myself about city and state issues and policies, and talking to other residents, I thought I could make a difference. I was confident I could help make Peachtree City better for our populace, so I ran for City Council in 2009.” Unsurprisingly, she ran a successful campaign and was sworn in as a council member in 2010. She had a place at the table, along with three other council members and the mayor.
After serving four years on the council, Vanessa, in her true ambitious style, was up for another challenge and decided to run for Mayor. “I was confident in my knowledge by that time and was heavily invested in Peachtree City,” she remembers. This conviction, her past success on the council, and a supportive community resulted in her being elected mayor in a December 2013 runoff against former mayor, Harold Logsdon. As a result, Vanessa broke a proverbial glass ceiling barrier; she became the first woman mayor elected in Peachtree City and in Fayette County. She earned the respected center seat at the council table. The gavel was in her hands.
Building on her recognized success, Vanessa ran for re-election in 2017 and received 56% of the votes to defeat former councilman, Eric Imker. Because of term limits in Peachtree City, her tenure will conclude at the end of 2021.
Vanessa and other elected officials have made a difference in the city while she has been at the helm. “I currently have the best council I have ever worked with and the city’s employees’ morale is at the highest level since I began in 2010,” she remarks. “While we are five individuals and have our differences of opinion at times, we have worked together and made improvements to the city’s infrastructure.” A key project was the installation of the unique Piano Key Weir spillway on Lake Peachtree. Another significant undertaking was Drake Field. It was totally revamped with contributions and the help of volunteers. Vanessa proudly notes, “Now we have an area for events that brings the community together. I like seeing people enjoying it.”
The job has not been without its trials. The Highway 54/74 intersection traffic issue has been one of the biggest challenges of her term. She notes that the resolution will be forthcoming in a displaced left turn plan which will allow for continuous flow of some of the traffic. Other issues the city government continues to address is that the city is aging and will need to redevelop some areas.
The mayor, however, is quick to point out that “the city is on the right path for the future. We have fixed a lot of the mistakes and issues that should have been dealt with years ago.” She adds, “The grass is being cut, trash is being picked up and everything is looking so much better. It makes me happy to see the city looking so good!”
Will she miss her seat at the table when her tenure is done? “It will be very difficult to leave after having seen how much progress has been made,” she admits. “My goal was to leave it better than I found it and lay a strong foundation for the future.”
When asked if she thinks of herself as a role model, Vanessa modestly remarks, “I don’t think of myself that way,” although she has played an integral part in government that most women never do. When pressed why she thinks more women don’t get involved in politics, she speculates that maybe they just don’t want to be in a highly scrutinized position. (Don’t get her started on how many opinions and comments are driven by social media!) She is quick to encourage young women to get involved in activities that hone leadership skills. She emphasizes that more women need to realize that many of the skills they use daily in the home or workplace transfer to the political arena. These abilities can be the stepping stones to community involvement and leadership. Although she doesn’t consider herself a mentor, it’s quite apparent that taking her place at the political table qualifies her as a leader among women.
And, what does the future hold for this trailblazer? Vanessa quickly answers that she will go back to selling houses, but, when queried if she has any future political ambitions, Vanessa gives a shrug of the shoulders, flashes a quick, embracing smile, and replies, “I don’t know what God has planned for me yet.”
Sources for women considering running for political office:
Fayette Democratic Women is an organization that empowers progressive Democratic women to be leaders and decision-makers in their county and beyond. www.Fayettedemocraticwomen.org
Greater Fayette Republican Women’s Club is an organization that encourages Republican women to run for office. www.myfayettegop.org/republican-women
NewPower PAC is a nonpartisan team of women dedicated to the mission of empowering, endorsing and electing qualified women in Georgia. www.newpowerpacga.org
Georgia WIN List is a grassroots political action committee that recruits, trains and supports Democratic women to run for office in Georgia. www.gawinlist.com