City Councilman Tibby DeJulio pulled his friend Mayor Eva Galambos to his side as they stood before a larger-than-usual crowd in the council chambers. It was Dec. 17, the night of Galambos’ last council meeting as mayor of Sandy Springs.
DeJulio and the mayor have been friends for years. They worked together and turned the community of Sandy Springs into a city. DeJulio, like many of Galambos’ friends, was also her loyal foot soldier in the march toward cityhood.
“When you work with Eva, there is no compromise with quality. Everything has to be done right. Of course, it has to be done right this minute,” DeJulio said with a smirk. “There’s a wrong way, there’s a right way, and there’s Eva’s way.”
At the December council meeting, DeJulio told the mayor that the road leading up to City Hall will be named “Galambos Way.” It’s fitting tribute for a leader who wins more arguments that she loses. In 2005, she won the mother of all her arguments when 94 percent Sandy Springs residents voted to incorporate. She was also elected the city’s first mayor.
The mayor remains a popular figure, winning reelection in 2009 with 84 percent of the vote. Her office gives her power and her reputation gives her influence. Galambos is not shy about using either; defying her means challenging one of the toughest, smartest Georgia politicians.
Galambos said the politician she most admires is former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a leader so uncompromising her critics dubbed her “The Iron Lady.”
“She had determination and she fought for what she believed,” Galambos said. “She was able to change how things were going in Great Britain, so I think she was a wonderful role model.”
While she will forever be known as Sandy Springs first mayor, it is one of the least remarkable things about her.
She’s a Jewish, German immigrant. Her first memories are walking down a street with her mother in Berlin. Her father was a judge in Germany who lost his job when the Nazis rose to power. He escaped with his family to Italy, and from there fled to the U.S. in 1939. She spoke only a “spattering” of English when she arrived in Georgia, but in five years she would graduate as valedictorian of her class at Athens High School.
She obtained a master’s degree and a PhD at a time when few women were expected to have careers outside of the home. With her intellect, and ambition, she could’ve been almost anything she’d wanted. She moved to Sandy Springs in 1960 with her young family.
“We wanted a large lot, and we wanted to be where there was plenty of room around us,” Galambos said. “When we moved on Trimble Road, there was a 14-acre site next to us with cows. It was the edge of development.”
Galambos grew frustrated as development started cropping up in the community around her.
“I realized how mistreated we were by Fulton County and realized that was not what I expected from local government,” Galambos said. “That made me passionate about protecting our neighborhoods. We were being inundated with gas stations and commercial development at every corner.”
That was the beginning of what would become a decades-long fight. Galambos became president of the Committee for Sandy Springs in 1975. The effort to incorporate was also a political struggle, pitting black Democrats in the state Legislature against white Republican lawmakers from in the suburbs.
Galambos said when she was younger she identified as a Democrat, but now identifies as a Republican. She and her husband John, who worked as a physician, resented how government spent taxpayer money.
“The thing that really brought about the change was when we started paying huge income taxes and we realized how much of our income was being redistributed,” Galambos said. “That’s what turns liberals into conservatives. When they see how the money is wasted, you get a different philosophy.”
Galambos had a knack for recruiting talented allies in her fight against big government. She reached out to Karen Meinzen McEnerny around 2001 for help when the state Transportation Department was considering a controversial plan to realign Roswell Road. McEnerny was elected to the city’s first council in 2005, along with Galambos.
Over the years, their relationship showed signs of strain as McEnerny pushed for policies that Galambos didn’t support. The councilwoman frequently found herself in the voting minority on city council.
“Eva is somebody to never underestimate,” McEnerny said. “She is one of the most focused, hardworking women I have ever had the opportunity to meet.”
Trisha Thompson-Fox, a member of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, first met Galambos in the 1990s. Galambos enlisted her to fight zoning in Fulton County to protect Sandy Springs from overdevelopment.
The more time Galambos spent as mayor, the more frequently she found herself at odds with the Council of Neighborhoods. She was criticized for votes in support of commercial and residential developments that some council members opposed.
Galambos said her view on protecting neighborhoods has not changed over the years.
“I still absolutely cherish the neighborhoods and want to maintain them as they are, but when you’ve got commercial development that isn’t impinging on a neighborhood, you have to understand a developer’s viewpoints,” Galambos said. “I don’t think the Council of Neighborhoods often listens to the developers.”
Fox said that the friction between Galambos and the Council of Neighborhoods hasn’t gotten in the way of her relationship with the mayor.
“We have not always seen eye to eye, but I respect her opinions and her abilities and I hope she respects my dedication to the mission she set out,” Fox said.
Even Galambos’ biggest political foes have a grudging respect for her abilities.
State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, was one of the most high-profile opponents of Sandy Springs incorporating. He said he’s still not convinced that the city, with its unique model of outsourcing public services to private companies, is the success Galambos and her supporters claim.
There’s no doubt in his mind about the caliber of his opponent, however.
“You know, she is a worthy adversary. I’ll say that,” Fort said. “I respected her energy and focus and determination.”
Galambos’ focus and determination has won her respect, but also led to accusations that she retaliates against people that disagree with her. In 2011, for example, she convinced the council to delay buying right of way for a streetscape project because some property owners along the road wanted to rent space to billboard companies.
DeJulio said many people have the wrong impression of his friend.
“She has fought for the city for many, many years, and she never gave in and she has given that appearance of being tough,” DeJulio said. “But she’s also a very giving and a very caring person. She cares more for the people of Sandy Springs than you can imagine.”
She showed rare emotion during the Dec. 17 city council meeting.
Galambos read a poem she’d written about her fellow council members. It was a tender moment from someone not known for being sentimental.
She’s less poetic when it comes to discussing her own legacy.
When asked what she’d like people to remember her for, Galambos didn’t flatter herself.
“I don’t prescribe what they should remember about me,” Galambos said. “That’s up to them.”