The newly elected Kennesaw councilwoman will be sworn into office Monday night, taking over Matthew Riedemann’s seat. But it’s a role she will have to grow into.
She enjoys working with groups to bring about change, she says, but shuns publicity and the spotlight. A successful public relations professional and the founder and owner of Kennesaw-based Total PR, Williams is used to helping others get the attention she brings to them.
“I would rather be in the background than in front of the camera,” she said.
Williams, 51, was born in Lancaster, S.C., to R.B. and Pat Ashley.
Her father was a traveling Southern Baptist preacher. She has an older sister, Robin Alion, who lives in Fort Mill S.C., and a younger sister, Vicki Strange, who lives in Columbia, S.C.
Growing up, the Ashley family was close, and Williams learned a lot about the duties and roles of elected officials from her parents, who closely followed local politics.
She learned to appreciate elected officials who did what they said they would do and were honest with the media, something she values to this day and hopes to do while in office.
When she called to tell her father of her council victory he gave her a crucial piece of advice she plans to live by while in office: It’s not about you.
Both her parents will be at her swearing-in ceremony Monday, she said.
After graduating from Conway High School in Conway, S.C., Williams enrolled in the Millie Lewis Model and Talent School in Columbia, and trained to become a model.
She modeled belts, accessories and clothing from local clothing stores but, ultimately, was considered to be too short for the job. At 5-foot-4, Williams fell 3 inches below the expected 5-foot-7 height for a model.
In 1981, Williams moved back home to Lancaster with her parents and worked in the education department of a local hospital.
She held seminars, scheduled speakers, conferences and ran employee educational training, her first experience managing groups of people.
A nurse at the hospital set Williams up on a blind date with Ken Williams, who became her husband five months later on Oct. 10, 1981. And 31 years later, they’re still together.
A taste of public relations
The couple lived in Charlotte, N.C., where Ken worked as an engineer. Debra enrolled in Lucas Travel School in Charlotte to become a travel agent. She graduated in 1984, and the evening of the ceremony she went into labor with her first son, Adam.
The family moved to New Orleans when Adam was a year old, because Ken was hired as a project manager on an ethanol plant in Gretna, La. There, Williams gave birth to her second son, Luke, in 1986.
They moved to Montgomery, Ala., and she enrolled in Auburn University and earned a communications degree while her sons were in middle school.
In 1988, Williams was named Mrs. Montgomery County, and participated in the Miss Alabama pageant.
Shortly after graduation, Williams took over as the public relations director of the Alabama State Council on the Arts in 2000, after serving as an intern there.
Former Alabama Gov. Don Seigelman offered Williams a job on his cabinet to help with PR, but she turned it down, she said.
Williams served as the president for her sons’ school’s PTAs and then as the president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs. The group under Williams’ leadership was recognized with 17 awards by the state PTA.
She learned that she loved working with groups, and with people from various backgrounds.
“A leader knows how to build a group of people, encourage them and then let them do their thing, not micromanage,” she said.
Moving to Georgia, and starting Total PR
Ken was offered a job as the civil engineer for the Dobbins Air Reserve Base, and the family moved to Kennesaw in 2002.
Williams wanted to continue working in PR, but after sitting in three hours of traffic coming home from Atlanta one evening, she decided to open up her own business closer to home.
In 2005, she launched Total PR out of her house, and has run successful campaigns and events for residents, including council members Cris Welsh and Bruce Jenkins.
“I love what I do because it is always different. I write. I design websites. I do event management. I train people to speak, write speeches. It’s always different and it’s always fun,” she said.
Tight-knit family life
The Williams family remains close and enjoys spending time together.
Williams’ son, Adam, got married in September and lives with his wife, Lauren, in Suwanee.
Her other son, Luke, attends the University of West Georgia in Carrollton and is majoring in business marketing.
On the weekends, Williams and her husband can be found hiking, camping and biking in local parks and trails. Williams especially loves coloring and putting together puzzles, as well as strategic word games.
“From our first date until this morning, we enjoy being around each other,” she said.
The couple attends Burnt Hickory Baptist Church in Powder Springs.
Williams enjoys eating any and every sort of pasta dish, she said, but her favorite meal is Granny Smith apples with extra-crunchy JIF peanut butter.
Plans for the council, city
Williams’ years of experience working with various people in different places has given her the background and expertise to serve on the Kennesaw City Council, she said.
“Leaders need to know who they are themselves before they can be effective and bring any type of change,” she said.
Running for office was never in Williams’ plans, but she is excited to help be a part of the future of Kennesaw now that she has been elected.
On the top of her list is to award and thank the city’s current downtown businesses with more incentives to stay in the city.
She is also focused on drawing in the right experienced residents to serve on the city’s boards and committees.
“The people made it very clear they want to see a change. I am honoring that. I am talking to people I know have a background in what is needed for the committees,” she said. “We need to make a concerted effort to go out and get those people and bring them in, not wait until they are upset before they get involved.”