Dorothy Felton was the first Republican woman elected to the Georgia General Assembly and eventually became the longest-serving Republican and the longest-serving woman of either party in the state legislature. She also worked for more than a quarter of a century for the right of the Sandy Springs community of Fulton County to incorporate as a municipality, a goal that was not achieved until four years after she retired from elective office.
Dorothy Jean Wood was born on March 1, 1929, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Ima Sue Chronister and George F. Wood. She received a bachelor’s degree in 1950 from the University of Arkansas and then worked as a freelance writer and a journalist for the Tulsa Tribune. In 1953 she married Jethro Jerome Felton Jr., and they later moved to the Atlanta area. The couple had two sons, Jethro Jerome III and Frank Bryan.
Long active in community affairs, Felton was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 1974 from a district in Sandy Springs, an affluent, predominantly white suburban area situated just north of the Atlanta city limits in Fulton County. Atlanta made an attempt to annex Sandy Springs in the late 1960s, but the move was successfully resisted by residents who did not want to be part of a city that was becoming majority Black. Sandy Springs residents also resented the actions of the Fulton County Commission, which rezoned much of the property along Roswell Road, the main north-south traffic artery, for a hodgepodge of commercial developments.
From the time Felton was first elected to the house, her primary political goal was to pass legislation that would authorize a local referendum for citizens to vote on the question of incorporating Sandy Springs as a municipality. Her efforts were defeated each time by Democratic legislators from Fulton County who hoped to see Sandy Springs one day become part of Atlanta. “This is what the Cold War is all about,” she said later, recalling one of the first meetings in which she made an unsuccessful pitch to Democratic colleagues for cityhood. “You have to be armed to force compromise.” Under the rules enforced by house Speaker Tom Murphy, local legislation could not be adopted unless a majority of the lawmakers in the affected county signed the bill. Democratic house members, whose party controlled the General Assembly, stymied Felton’s attempts at cityhood by declining to sign her bills.
She did have some successes during her years in the house, including legislation to move to an elected school board and an appointed superintendent for the Fulton County School System. She also was appointed to some of the most powerful house committees, including Rules, Appropriations, and Ways and Means.
Another cause for Felton was her attempt to prevent the Democratic leadership from spending $12 million in the 1980s to renovate a state building near the capitol that was to be used as offices for legislators. Felton and the Republican leader in the state senate, Paul Coverdell, were among the Republican lawmakers who opposed Speaker Murphy’s efforts to put funding in the state budget for what became the Legislative Office Building. Murphy, with a Democratic majority backing him, eventually prevailed and the money was spent. Ironically, after Republicans gained control of the house and senate in 2005, one of their first actions was to name the Legislative Office Building after Coverdell, who had tried to prevent the structure from being renovated.
Felton served thirteen terms in the state house before deciding to retire after the 2000 legislative session, with Sandy Springs cityhood still an unrealized dream. The representative elected to replace her, Joe Wilkinson, and Wendell Willard coauthored Sandy Springs legislation that finally passed in 2005, after the Republican Party won majority control of the house. Sandy Springs residents voted overwhelmingly for incorporation later that year, and the first city government took office in December.
In addition to seeing Sandy Springs become an incorporated city, Felton was also honored when the Roswell Road exit of Interstate 285 was named after her.
Felton died on February 19, 2008.