By Dave Williams
ATLANTA - For the first time in Georgia history, a woman will head the state Department of Transportation.
The agency's governing board Wednesday narrowly selected Gena Abraham, a division director for Gov. Sonny Perdue's administration since 2003, to become the DOT's 14th commissioner.
She will succeed the retiring Harold Linnenkohl on Dec. 1, taking over a department with 5,800 employees and a $2 billion annual budget.
Abraham, 39, of Sharpsburg, edged Rep. Vance Smith (R-Pine Mountain) in a 7-6 vote taken by board members during a brief public meeting that followed closed-door interviews with the two finalists.
Abraham, director of the Construction Division of the Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission, is the right person to run the DOT at a time when the agency is trying to bring more private financing to bear on major transportation projects, board Chairman Mike Evans said following the vote.
"Finance is becoming more important," he said. "She has a strong background in finance."
Evans said that while being an engineer is not as important for a DOT commissioner as a financial background, Abraham brings that experience, too.
Her resume includes a stint as chief engineer for the Georgia Building Authority, and, before joining state government, she was a civil engineering professor at Georgia Tech.
The DOT vacancy stirred up another rift between Perdue and House Speaker Glenn Richardson (R-Hiram), who waged an intense battle over tax policy during this year's legislative session.
While Perdue got behind Abraham during the weeks since Linnenkohl announced his retirement, Richardson went to bat for Smith.
The veteran lawmaker is chairman of the House Transportation Committee and co-chairman of a legislative study committee that met this summer and fall to look for solutions to Georgia's huge transportation funding shortfall.
Board member David Doss, who supported Smith, said the board made a mistake in crossing House leaders just when the funding issue is coming to the forefront.
"We've got the pump primed for the House and Senate to act ... and we've just made angry 90 percent of the folks in the legislature," he said.
Before Wednesday's vote, Doss questioned whether board member Robert L. Brown, Jr., an Abraham supporter, should recuse himself because of past business dealings Brown's architectural firm had with the state agency Abraham ran.
But Brown said he hadn't done business with the state in more than two years, and back when he did, Abraham wasn't in charge of the agency.
"The decision needed to be based on what's best for 9 million Georgians," Brown said. "And that's how I based my decision."
PROFILE: DOT COMMISSIONER
Education: Doctoral and bachelor's degrees in civil engineering, Georgia Tech
Experience: State property officer, 2006-present; director, construction division, Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission, 2003-present; assistant professor of civil engineering, Georgia Tech (dates unavailable); construction manager, LaSalle Partners (dates unavailable)
Family: One son