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Categories: COMMUNITY & NEWS, Feb/March 2022

‘I am built for this’

LaRhonda Patrick becomes first black, first elected female and youngest mayor in Warner Robins history
By Jami Gaudet
Photography by Matt Odom

It’s a political Cinderella story. A first-time candidate, an unknown Black female, unseats a two-term incumbent, shattering the glass ceiling while notching several firsts: First Black mayor. First elected female mayor. And, at 38 years old, LaRhonda Williams Patrick is the youngest mayor ever to grace city hall in Warner Robins.
She’s got a lot to prove, but this multi-tasker, who until late December, juggled duties as Fort Valley’s part-time city attorney and solicitor while maintaining a private law practice in Warner Robins, says running for office was always in the cards and she was built for this.
However, Patrick never envisioned launching her political career with a mayoral run until a local group persuaded her to vie for the International City’s top job. Basically, they wouldn’t take no for an answer, despite her best attempts to steer them elsewhere.
In Warner Robins’ non-partisan mayoral contest on Nov. 2, Patrick faced incumbent mayor Randy Toms and accountant Stephen Baughier. In the general election, Toms nipped Patrick by 93 votes, 45 percent to 44 percent, with Baughier a distant third. Since no candidate garnered 50 percent of the vote, Toms and Patrick squared off in a Nov. 30 runoff.
According to Patrick, that’s when the race heated up: “I ran as a non-partisan candidate and my resources were limited. It wasn’t until the runoff that I got an infusion of cash, support and volunteers.” Despite her underdog status and a barrage of negative mailers sent by her opponent’s camp, she won by nearly 4 percentage points.
Patrick is quick to credit her victory to that small, politically diverse group who encouraged her candidacy and backed her every step of the way.
Admired personally and professionally, those familiar with Patrick’s work are effusive in their praise for her research and decision-making skills. She’s branded as diligent and someone who goes the extra mile for folks — whether they are clients, colleagues, family or friends. Weeks before her swearing in on Jan. 3, Patrick spoke with Macon Magazine.


Jami Gaudet: You decided to run for mayor in May 2021. Tell me about the group that encouraged your candidacy and had your back once you jumped into the race.
Mayor Patrick: This local group was formed to find good people to run for offices that touch Warner Robins on city, state and national levels. It’s a sample of people who know about government. They either held elective offices or served on boards or authorities.
They’re Democrats and Republicans, strong liberals, strong conservatives, Black, white and a mix of ethnicities and genders. Some were Trump supporters, and that warmed my heart. But they saw me for me, not an R or D; not B or W, not M or F. They grilled me, but were open-minded. And they knew I supported veterans.

JG: How did you know they are Trump loyalists?
Mayor: We talked about it. Every week I met with a group of Vietnam veterans, and I continue to meet with them. We’re complete opposites, but I believe in being a non-partisan candidate, because that’s who I am. On the Friday after the election, I walked into the restaurant where they hold their meetings and they gave me a standing ovation. I gave a little speech and three of them were crying. Their reaction filled me with pride.

JG: It’s tough to picture a group so diverse during a time of such divisiveness.
Mayor: The group told me three different times in 2021 they wanted me to run for mayor. I resisted the first two times, but when they asked a third time, I started meeting with people who ran the city. I paid homage. I made sure I knew them; they got to know me, and I finally decided to run.

JG: Who was more surprised by your victory, you or Randy Toms?
I was surprised, but I’m a results person, and I ran because I thought I could win. With my background and experience, I’ve been preparing for something like this since 2005, so it’s been a long journey.
In the general election, I knew I had a chance to be in the top two, but never let myself get over-confident. I was surprised that I was so close because I didn’t have a lot of resources then. A couple of friends and I did nearly everything. Although I had the group, they operated behind the scenes. I called them my backfield, which was very strong.
I felt I could win the runoff until the mudslinging started. Then, I thought my opponent’s use of national stereotypes against me would hurt me and my chances.

JG: What was the worst thing that was said about you by your opponent or his camp?
Mayor: During the runoff, negative mailers were sent to voters. I was called a radical liberal.
JG: I was surprised that only 17 percent of the population voted in such a consequential election, especially in a patriotic, military-based city like Warner Robins.
Mayor: But it was the largest turnout ever for a municipal election.


JG: Tell me about your upbringing.
Mayor: I’m a military brat born at Andrews Air Force Base. My dad was stationed in San Bernardino, California, and twice at Lajes Air Force Base in the Azores, Portugal. He served for 22 years, mostly in COMS (communications) and CE (civil engineering). Both my grandfathers, one of my brothers and my husband served our country, and my parents still live in Warner Robins today.
I attended Tabor Middle School and Northside High School in Warner Robins and spent a year at Georgia Southern before graduating from Georgia State University. I earned my juris doctor degree from North Carolina Central University in Durham and took a year off between college and law school to work at the Georgia General Assembly.

JG: How do you mesh your personal and professional life?
Mayor: I’ve always been big on family. That’s why we reside in Warner Robins, to be near my family. I was always preoccupied with work. I got married later and became a mother after my friends. They were always talking about their kids. When I became a mother, I got it.
My husband, Aaron, who spent 15 years in the Army, has five degrees and runs his own government contracting firm specializing in construction and IT management. We’ve been married for seven years and I love being a wife and hands-on mom to our 4-year-old son, Laine.

JG: Describe your ambition and work ethic.
Mayor: I’m a dreamer, but I’m very ambitious and all about results. My work ethic matches my ambition, but I’m not a workaholic. I value personal and family time and try to balance everything.

JG: What strengths do you bring to the mayor’s office?
Mayor: My legal and negotiation skills, and ability to evaluate risk. I’m a compliance buff. I want to know the rules and whether they’re working, or if they need an overhaul or adjustments so they make sense. I learn from leaders and I’m able to work with a variety of personalities.

JG: How about your weaknesses?
Mayor: Time management. If I have five minutes, I try to accomplish 80 things. I need to work on organization and maintaining a schedule. There are more weaknesses, but those are three I’d never dispute.


JG: How will your distinctions — neophyte, youngest, first Black and first elected female mayor — inform your priorities and determine how you’ll operate?
“First” will follow me throughout my career, so I’ve got a lot to live up to, stereotypes to break down and expectations to meet. Everybody’s watching, especially people in the same category. They want to see the example I’ll set and whether I’ll open doors for others. There’s pressure, but I can withstand it. As my husband says, “Pressure makes diamonds.”

JG: I read that one of your first priorities after your election and before taking office was to meet and get to know the department heads and staff at city hall. How’d that go?
Mayor: I met with each department head individually. I pride myself on being a team player. I see them leading with me, not working for me. I want them to understand that we’re doing this together. If department heads feel good about the working environment, then the staff will, too. I consider myself a leader among leaders.

JG: What are your early plans for your administration?
The number one priority is building relationships. I don’t believe in coming in on day one and making changes. I would never do that, unless it’s a matter of safety. I think in 30-, 60- and 90-day intervals.
However, as the new mayor, I have the right to choose my own executive assistant. I chose someone with a lot of experience who was highly recommended by my team, and made sure the previous executive assistant was moved to an equivalent position in another city department.
In the first 90 days, I’ll be observing and strategizing, but there could be shifts in the way things are done if I see deficiencies.

JG: How big is the city hall staff?
Mayor: There are 12 department heads. There were 13 before my arrival, but the city council removed one. More than 600 people work at city hall.


JG: Given the military service that runs through generations of your family, what are your plans for working with and for Robins Air Force Base?
Mayor: Initially, Houston County Commission Chairman Thomas Stallnaker is setting up a meeting with Brig. Gen. Jennifer Hammerstedt and 78th Air Base Wing Commander Col. Lindsay Droz.
A strong relationship with Robins is extremely important, just as having a strong relationship with the leadership of Houston County, Perry and Centerville is important. Their success depends on the City of Warner Robins, and our survival depends on Robins.

JG: How do you plan to lure business and industry to Warner Robins and create jobs?
Mayor: I plan to utilize our Engage Warner Robins team and the Houston County Development Authority. We need to apply for grant money. I’ve written proposals for government contracts and have won $250 million in contracts for companies across the country, and plan to tap into as many funding resources as possible.

JG: There’s been an uptick in crime nationally and in Warner Robins. Have you met with your Police Chief John Wagner and if so, what’s your strategy to reduce crime?
Mayor: Chief Wagner has an excellent reputation. I met with him to make sure he understood that I support police. Being understaffed is a problem.
Police presence can deter crime, but we need additional strategies and community involvement. I’m interested in starting a program similar to Georgetown University’s Street Law program. Law students teach high school students to become better citizens and they operate a legal clinic that doesn’t cost us or the schools anything but benefits everyone.

JG: Warner Robins changed police chiefs a few years ago. Do you plan to retain Chief Wagner, especially given the recent retirement of Fort Valley’s Public Safety Director?
Mayor: Yes. Absolutely. That retirement is unrelated to my becoming the mayor of Warner Robins.

JG: Warner Robins has huge financial challenges — the $800,000 tax lien, plus the half million dollars in fines from the IRS. How will you tackle those two enormous financial liabilities?
Mayor: Number one is fact-finding because there are conflicting stories about both. We need to contact the IRS and learn the status of each and our options. Is leniency available? Can we right the wrong? Worst case scenario, we must find money in the budget to pay them off. And we must do it quickly, before the next rating for the city.

JG: What’s the current rating for Warner Robins and what bond rating will you work toward?
Mayor: The current is Double A (AA) and we will work toward AAA.
JG: When did the lien controversy arise?
Mayor: In 2015, when the city didn’t properly pay tax revenue to the IRS.

JG: The city also faces a gas management issue.
Mayor: The City of Warner Robins, which owns its gas, was warned about inadequacies and non-compliance, but didn’t fix them. There were leaks that could have caused an explosion. So, we’ve been fined by the Georgia Public Service Commission, which took away our right to manage our own gas. That’s another area that needs attention.

JG: What’s your approach to the city budget?
Mayor: The city has a history of submitting budgets late. That will stop. I’ve gotten updates from the finance department on all projects. We’ll begin work on the budget in February. Our fiscal year is July 1-June 30. I’m considering having a forensic audit done, which requires the council’s approval. But they’re very expensive. The majority of council members ran for office on the need for an audit, but it hasn’t gotten done, so that’s something to consider.


JG: Do you have a plan for public transit in Warner Robins?
Mayor: We must think about our future. Public transit is an issue of concern and a need for many people. I look forward to some kind of public transit for Warner Robins. Some people fear that it will bring bad people to the good side of town. But I can’t think of good people and bad people. I have to think of our people and about our whole city.
We may need to start out small, but we can grow transit as demand increases. Maybe it’s a pick-up service, and my goal is to obtain eco-friendly buses, perhaps, through a grant or program.

JG: Warner Robins has so much going for it, but the rub is, there’s no downtown — and that was part of your platform heading into the campaign.
Mayor: We’re interested in creating a downtown in Commercial Circle, at the intersection of Watson Boulevard and Davis Drive, Warner Robins’ historic downtown.

JG: What are the challenges of
re-creating the city’s downtown?
Mayor: The property is privately owned and the owners must agree to sell. We’ll start with Commercial Circle, and if that location doesn’t work out, we can choose another area for a city center applying the same concept. We’d start fresh on a large piece of land, preferably one the city already owns.

JG: Do you have a dream or signature project?
Mayor: I want Warner Robins to finally have a downtown of our own. I learned during the mayor’s race that people don’t care about what you do behind closed doors. They care about what they can see, so they know you’re doing something.
I will strive to be the best leader I can be so that our city can be the best it can be. I’ve faced challenges throughout my legal career, as a working mother and as a female attorney on her own. But I’ve got tough skin. I am built for this.

“I was called to the church where LaRhonda has been a member for 26 years. She is an amicable, mild-mannered woman, but a strong one. Her strength comes from her upbringing in a strong military family where there was a lot of discipline, and from her legal training. LaRhonda is a light in the world and she will make her mark in the city. There is a lot of excitement about how she will lead.” — Pastor Tolan Morgan, Fellowship Bible Baptist Church

“The honeymoon period is real quick. LaRhonda will have to roll up her sleeves and solve problems — and she will, with transparency. I first met and became impressed with her through committee work. She is very smart, and researches everything. LaRhonda has a strong skill set and people look up to her as a professional. She intends to represent all the people in the city. I’m glad that Warner Robins is diverse enough to elect our first African-American female mayor.” — Chuck Shaheen, former Warner Robins mayor

“LaRhonda served as chief compliance officer, contracts administrator and proposal manager for Standard Technology. She is hard-charging and focused. She knows what she wants and wants to execute it. LaRhonda is very diligent and really does her research. In our office she was approachable, well-liked and always focused on the best interest of our company.” — Deborah Washington, former employer at Standard Technology

“I call LaRhonda an ultimate professional. She’s very community oriented, a great public servant and great choice for Warner Robins. Initially, she handled some litigation for us and on the heels of that, worked on some community initiatives. I hated to lose her.” — Barbara Williams, Former Fort Valley mayor under whom LaRhonda served

This family photo: Rashaad Williams (brother); Laquetta Williams (mother); LaRhonda Patrick; Rondy Williams, Sr. (father);
Jacqueline Thompson (grandmother); Rondy Williams, Jr. (brother).