July 19, 2003
By CARLA CROWDER
Jessie Tehranchi is in love with democracy.
Even when it threatens to break her heart, like when the Legislature is in session, she gives it another chance.
Since 1995, Tehranchi has been working, rallying, phone-calling, lobbying, organizing, cajoling, talking, and talking some more to anyone who will listen about the necessity of better public transportation, more bus routes and high-occupancy lanes in metro Birmingham.
Inspiration to some, irritant to others, she is passionate about public +transit+ as well as fairer health care, the power of grassroots organizing, smarter city planning and Vulcan.
Crunch time for +transit+ funding has arrived. So that's where her heart is now.
Tehranchi, 54, serves on the Alternative Transportation Alliance Committee and the Citizens for +Transit+ Coalition. She's transportation chair for the League of Women voters and she's testified before the U.S. Senate subcommittee on Urban Housing and Transportation.
Tehranchi is neither poor, nor carless, as snubbers of mass +transit+ might assume of an +advocate+. She's a former school teacher who lives in a lovely home in Vestavia Hills with a pool and a stunning view south across Hoover's puffy green treetops.
Her husband is an engineer. Her sons are grown. The muscles in her legs don't work anymore because of multiple sclerosis.
Now she's got to take a breather for chemotherapy. Colon cancer, she's hoping, will be but a brief detour.
"I've been dealing with MS for a long time. But to all of a sudden have cancer on the list is really crazy," she says.
She does not want to talk about cancer for long. There's too much ground to cover with this mass +transit+ crisis.
"I see it as an economic thing for the city. It's not a one-person issue. It's not a para-+transit+ issue," Tehranchi says. For visitors, "If you have to rent a car or take a taxi to get around in Birmingham, that's bad. I just can't stand that. We're the same size city as Charlotte. Charlotte has that service."
More than $85 million in federal +transit+ money is at risk, funds secured by U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby. But without a local match and changes in the board that oversees +transit+, the money will be gone by October, freed up for other cities.
A rare intersection of interests, groups as diverse as the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce and Greater Birmingham Ministries, supported this year's +transit+ bill in the Alabama legislature. As Tehranchi put it "this beautiful unity."
She fired up the computer. "I hope that everyone that receives this e-mail will call these representatives. TIME IS RUNNING OUT! WE MUST ACT NOW! if you have questions call me..." reads a recent missive urging +advocates+ to contact four Jefferson County representatives whose hesitancy threatened the bill that would have paved the way for expanded +transit+.
She included the legislators' names, and multiple phone numbers for each one. Her e-mail also included little asides referencing events and/or speeches where these politicians had supported the cause. Maybe nobody else was listening, but Tehranchi was.
The +transit+ bill fizzled. The session ended. About $85 million in federal +transit+ funding is in jeopardy. And Tehranchi's brutal love affair with democracy still blazes.
On a stormy Friday in June, a day after the bill's death, her husband gives her a lift to a Region 20/20 meeting about livable communities and smart growth.
The auditorium where it's held at the Birmingham Museum of Art is full of stairs and no ramps. She sits way in the back, the basket of her wheelchair packed with pamphlets and handouts. It's her first public appearance since having five inches of her colon removed.
City planners talk about greenways and public art and the ideal mix of retail and residential, the stuff of an activist's dreams.
"Places like this, I know I've got some sort of voice," Tehranchi says.
Chamber of Commerce Vice President Barry Copeland is a regular on the receiving end of Tehranchi's organizing.
She once called him from Shelby's office to ask the chamber's position on something. Despite obstacles, Copeland said he has faith that better +transit+ is on the way for the area. "And among those who will get credit will be Jessie Tehranchi."
Her +transit+ advocacy is tied to her work with the Alabama Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
"She started going to these forums even before the MS Society got involved," said Shannon Weston, program manager for the Alabama Chapter, which has 4,500 clients, including almost 1,500 in the metro area.
"If everyone was like Jessie and had the same spirit and drive, this whole state would be a different scenario," Weston said.
At home in Vestavia Hills, Tehranchi's husband Jim, a patient man of Iranian ancestry, tolerates the piles of papers, files and clutter that bloom in the pathways of activists.
"I have a copy of our Constitution over there if you need it," she offers in an interview.
There are transcripts of speeches she's made, issue briefs from the U.S. Department of Transportation, and stray "Live the Dream" Birmingham bumper stickers.
A new addition is a photo of her taken with Shelby and a note from him wishing her well with her latest health problem. "Isn't that the nicest letter?" she asks.
She worries that this area is disappointing the senator with its foot-dragging on matching funds.
Her Rolodex is bipartisan, her conversations rarely brief. "I'm wandering again, but this is relevant," she often interrupts herself.
It's stream of consciousness social consciousness. And for all the committees, coalitions and mailing lists Tehranchi is on, it would seem this slight woman with the grayish blonde bun is running for office. No, she just cares about things most people won't bother with unless someone pays them, or they have a personal interest.
"I really want to get that face off of it people with disabilities, poor people. If we want to have a tourist industry or a convention industry, we have to have it," she says.
Chemotherapy is just ahead. She's got a book picked out to read while she's resting. She heard about it on public television "Diminished Democracy," 384 pages about the post-1960s demise in civic volunteerism.
Then there's the campaign for the Riley tax and accountability package.
"Oh yeah, I'll do that. That'll be a League of Women Voters thing."
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