Unterman's heartache gives rise to compassion in role as senator

Georgia State Senator Renee Unterman is spending this week preparing for the Georgia Legislative session that goes into session next week.

Georgia State Senator Renee Unterman is spending this week preparing for the Georgia Legislative session that goes into session next week.


Georgia State Senator Renee Unterman awaits the opening of the Georgia state legislature next week. Unterman is shown in the Georgia State Senate chambers.


Georgia State Senator Renee Unterman is preparing for the next session of the Georgia state legislature to begin next week.

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BUFORD -- The last decade has been tough for Renee Unterman.

A long, public divorce, marked by a domestic dispute that caused her to lose custody of her daughter. A battle with depression, including some in-patient care. A car accident that left her son with a broken neck.

Then finally the worst tragedy possible, the death of her son.

Through it all, Unterman, a lifelong politician, has continued her role as a state senator, slogging through the rough times and the public glare.

In the past year, though, Unterman has staged a major comeback, accomplishing goals she has worked on for years and gathering accolades along the way.

"I had always been involved in suicide prevention, but I had no idea it would be applicable to my own family," Unterman said of her son Zak's death bringing more purpose to her role in the General Assembly.

The former nurse is in charge of a subcommittee that governs spending for much of Georgia's health care. Her son, as well as her own battle with depression was on her mind as she wrote a bill that crafted the new Department of Behavioral Health.

"It's just first-hand experience," Unterman said of the life circumstances that have created even more compassion in her. "I thought divorce was the worst thing in the world; then I lost my child. It makes you want to struggle and get through it."

That sense of empathy with her constituents will be with her again as legislators reconvene at the General Assembly on Monday.

"When you suffer, you realize what it's like to suffer," she said of bringing a new understanding to her conversations with constituents.

For her work last year, Unterman received her second Public Health Hero Award from the Georgia Public Health Association and the 2011 Star of Life Legislator Award from the Georgia Association of Emergency Medical Services.

But the Buford woman's proudest accomplishment in the last 12 months has been the passage of legislation combatting the sexual exploitation of children.

It is a cause she has championed for four years, and it was also a passion of her son's.

"I'm working for two people, not just for one," she said of taking on his cause as well.

Because of her work, the Georgia senator has been asked to be a part of a lecture series at Princeton on the topic.

Through Unterman's worst times, many of the friends she built in political circles stayed by her side, allowing her to maintain her leadership positions.

Charlotte Nash, Gwinnett's commission chairwoman, said she knew Unterman would rise from the circumstances.

"Renee is a tough lady," said Nash, who worked for the government when Unterman served as a county commisisoner in the early 1990s. "I've watched her go through a lot of difficult things in her life."

The tenacity was evident when Unterman played on state championship contending basketball teams at Berkmar High School, Nash said, and even more by a near-death experience 20 years ago, when Unterman was trampled by a cow on her Loganville farm.

Unterman said she doesn't remember the trampling, but she draws heart from the fact that she had battled to keep one of two helicopters in the county government and that one remaining chopper was the one that life-flighted her to a hospital, saving her life.

"That's pretty symbolic of me," she said.

And that high school coach, she said, has meant a lot in terms of teaching her fortitude and strength.

"I've always been very competitive," Unterman said. "It was understanding that life has brought many changes and you have to endure those and go forward. ... It's just been devastating, but I've tried to fill the void with working."

And while Unterman still spends days at the cemetery visiting Zak's grave, she has found a new joy in her life.

She reconnected with her high school sweetheart, Phil Coker -- the man she shared a short-lived marriage with at the age of 18 before a dream to go to college got in the way. The two remarried a year ago.

"She's had a good year," Nash said. "I tend to be an optimist and believe that hard things, if you can get through them, can make you stronger. I believed she would get through, knowing her character and her strength of will. I was convinced she would get through it."


ACC12_SEC13Booster 3 years, 9 months ago

"Unterman said she doesn't remember the trampling, but she draws heart from the fact that she had battled to keep one of two helicopters in the county government and that one remaining chopper was the one that life-flighted her to a hospital, saving her life."

Interesting, one of the lives that she ended up saving was her very own.

Glad to hear that State Senator Unterman is, through faith and personal strength, endured a lot to become one of the most principled lawmakers in Georgia and one of the most valued public servants and member of the Gwinnett community.

Many thanks to Senator Unterman for her advocacy on combatting the sexual exploitation of children, which is a very big problem in Georgia.

Also, a big thanks to Senator Unterman for going to bat on behalf of Gwinnettians during the HOT lane debacle. Senator Unterman's actions may not have gotten the I-85 HOT lane, yet, but has helped to stop the implementation of more wasteful and ineffective HOT lanes on North Georgia roads as has been demonstrated with the cancellation of the $1 billion I-75/I-575 HOT lane project in Cobb and Cherokee Counties.

Senator Unterman, thank you for your service to the people of Gwinnett and the state of Georgia. Keep up the good work, it is greatly appreciated.


BuzzG 3 years, 9 months ago

It is easy to be compassionate when spending other people's money. Let's see her waive her government salary so the government will have more money to do good things with. No, she has the power to raid the bank accounts of the taxpayers and that is what she will do. And Camie Young will label her compassionate for doing so. Sad.


JV 3 years, 9 months ago

A great lady and the best state senator I've ever had. Thank you Senator Unterman!


GwinnettGirl 3 years, 9 months ago

Thank you Senator Unterman. This is a wonderful article and as a mom who has lost a son, I understand how difficult it is to carry on, have the strength, energy and courage to move forward with life and make a difference. Coping with grief and sorrow, and still working for the good of the people of Georgia takes a huge amount of personal motivation and dedication. Glad to see her efforts have been noticed.


RayL_Buford 3 years, 9 months ago

BuzzG, you must be buzzed. I happen to know Sen. Unterman and she happens to be a good steward of other peoples money. She is also a class act. It should give you something to aspire to be when you grow up.


HonestIngine 3 years, 9 months ago

Lifelong Politicians is one of the problems we have in GA government. Coleman Brooks and Tom Rice are two Gwinnett politicians that have seen their better day.They are last weeks news and it's time to vote them out of office.


Cleanupguy 3 years, 9 months ago

BuzzG – I assume that you are foregoing your salary / retirement benefits or whatever to do likewise as you have recommended. Your suggestion that what she has been through is easy for her is downright repulsive.

HonestIngine – I can find no reference to Brooks or Rice in this article.

You go, Renee – we’re proud of you!


kevin 3 years, 9 months ago

I am sorry to hear of all her problems. However, this takes a heavy toll on functioning and a legislator and we need someone full time. Since she has been in health care issues, she should be looking at Gwinnett Medical Center. They use so many sub-contractors that everytime someone goes to that hospital, they get big bills because the sub-contractor was not in the network. GMC doesn't bother to sheck for you or even ask you if you want to use that contractor/doctor. Even their ER uses doctors that are not on their staff. Sorry hospital. I wonder how our Insurance Commissioner lets this go on.


Cleanupguy 3 years, 9 months ago

Again, I know Renee personally, and she hasn't missed a beat in serving her constituency. Note that our annual legislative sessions are quite short (40 days, I think), not 365 days a year, and FYI, there is a pile of federal regulation in the way behind what you're griping about. I'd suggest you get involved, set up a meeting and speak with her as we have.


Cleanupguy 3 years, 9 months ago

Afterthought – I did some quick checking around, and have concluded that like any business, it is ALWAYS the customer’s (patient’s) responsibility to verify that services being rendered will in fact be covered by their own private insurance plan. Clark Howard did a story about a surgical procedure a family member had done years ago – the anesthesiologist was asked if he was in their network, he wasn’t, so a different one was used to ensure payment. There is no substitute for taking personal responsibility, and it is definitely NOT the business of government to be our nanny, substituted for our own common sense.


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