A young Valencia Seay, growing up in Herndon Homes, the 520-unit Atlanta public housing community demolished in 2010, might never imagined at the age of 70 she would be retiring from a three-decade career of public service, including 20 years as a Georgia Senator.
In fact, in her early years, there were no Black women or men in the Georgia Senate.
Senator Seay’s remarkable rise is documented in her memoir: From Herndon Homes to the State Capitol. In the early pages, she recalls her first childhood job was helping her brother collect Coke bottles in his wagon to “sell” for the then required bottle deposit. “Living in the projects was a wholesome experience,” she recalled in the memoir. “Everybody knew everybody and attending vacation bible school at Antioch Baptist Church on Northside Drive was the highlight of our summer.”
Senator Seay took a few moments recently to reflect on what she calls a life “blessed beyond measure” following her recent 70th birthday celebration. To celebrate, she was joined by her family – including Walter, her husband of 48 years, her two children and her four grandchildren, Senate colleagues, and a host of friends and fellow church members.
She credits her deep faith and her pastor as a guiding force for her life’s journey. When she first contemplated running for office, the pastor prayed with her and gave her a slim volume about Biblical promises which she has consulted many times. Copies of this book were a “party favor” for all who attended her recent birthday celebration. “My faith has sustained me through many challenges,” she said.
A bill she sponsored during her first term prompted recognition as the Black Caucus “Legislator of the Year” – the first of many accolades she has received. She turned her experience as a 1971 high school senior at Frederick Douglass High school into legislation. “We all registered to vote in the school cafeteria during my senior year and I wanted to make it possible for all high school seniors statewide to register at their school before high school graduation,” she said.
While she grew up in the heart of Atlanta, the district she now represents includes portions of Clayton and Fayette counties. She served on the Clayton Board of Education as its first Black member from 1992 to 2000 and then one term in the Georgia House before moving up to the Georgia Senate from 2003 to the present. She has already announced she will not seek re-election in 2024.
Currently, her committee assignments include Appropriations, Government Oversight, Public Safety and the Senate Science & Technology Committee, where she is secretary.
A sixth generation Georgian, she knew little about the state’s agricultural economy when she was first appointed to serve on the Agriculture Committee early on. As the “city girl” on a committee filled with rural legislators, she was asked at her first committee meeting what she know about agriculture. She quickly answered, “pigs are pink” based on her experiences watching cartoons and riding Atlanta’s famous “Pink Pig” every Christmas season. Much laughter followed along with invitations to visit farms, to drive a tractor with much coaching and to attend a memorable agricultural conference in Iowa.
Her “pink pigs” comment became a running joke for Agriculture Committee colleagues, but she turned her naivete about a driving force for the state economy into a successful push for a very modern interactive exhibit highlighting Georgia’s agricultural heritage on the fourth floor of the Capitol building. The exhibit has become popular with visiting schoolchildren from urban school districts who will now know real pigs come in many colors – but not pink!
When Senator Seay was first elected, Democrats still controlled the Governor’s mansion and both House and Senate. However, power would soon shift to a Republican Trifecta at the Governor’s mansion and both House and Senate. Bi-partisan relationships which were once convivial have become strained under Republican control. As an example, she cited how difficult Republicans recently made it for her to pass a simple non-controversial “privileged resolution” of a purely ceremonial nature.
“We don’t have the same across the aisle relationships we once had,’ she said with regret. “The Republicans are truly showing party lines are party lines. I am tired of playing their games. Between my age and some recent health challenges, it is just time for me to leave on my own accord.”
Her advice to young women thinking about running for office? “Run! And, run hard for the office you seek. The seats are waiting for us,” she said. “When women are at the table, we get things done – great things for the people and communities we serve!“
She credits WIN List training and support for helping her throughout her public service career, including a time years ago when she was in the hospital at the height of a competitive campaign. Her political opponent floated the rumor she had died. WIN List quickly produced a video which proved she was indeed quite alive. WIN List interns shored up her campaign operation and she won resoundingly.
“I always send women your way,” she said. “Because I know how much WIN List has helped me throughout my career.”