Lisa Sulka

Hear Me Roar

January 2020 Issue
Photography by Christian Lee

Lisa Sulka
Hometown: Prosperity, SC
Lives in: Bluffton
Career: Realtor – Carson Realty & Mayor of Bluffton

Lisa Sulka was elected Mayor of Bluffton, SC in 2008. She has lead the fast-growing community ever since, not with a heart for politics, but with a heart for people and community. We caught up with Lisa to find out what’s currently making her heart sing and what she is “roaring” about in this Hear Me Roar Q & A session.

Our theme this issue is #Motivated, and everyone knows how high your energy level is for serving Bluffton and all you do. We have to know what motivates you to embrace this public servant job with such heart?
This is easy—I love love love this town, and I have no personal agenda other than doing what it takes to make it a place where our children will either move back to or stay. I grew up with parents who believed in giving back and helping others. They are a major influence in my life as they also loved my hometown, Prosperity, SC, and were always part of the success of it. My mom actually ran for mayor in the 1970’s. A little bit of the reason I ran was totally to honor her and all she wanted to do for our hometown. I am so happy she was alive when I won and also for many years after. Whenever I feel a slip of energy, all I have to do is go anywhere in town (from historic Bluffton, to the river, to New Riverside barn) and talk to residents, or just see how much we have accomplished and my motivational level jumps to a new high.

In leading a bustling, growing town, one has to really put themselves out there, dealing with many issues that are both positive and negative. How or where did you find the courage to run for Mayor?

Running for council was horrifying for me, but all the credit goes to my dearest friend, Oscar Frazier. He and Jacob Preston (both on town council at the time) corralled me every day at the post office, and when I signed up, a day didn’t go by without Oscar calling me to walk door to door and he would ask residents to vote for me. I will be forever grateful for this friendship. Regarding the run for Mayor: I remember this day like it was yesterday. Honestly I was horrified when Mayor Johnston asked if I would consider a run for this position. We were indeed growing as a town, but nowhere near the population we have today. In 2008 (2 years before the next census) we were working with population numbers derived from the mid-decade census of 2005, which was in the 4500 range. Mayor Johnston was a genius at looking 10 to 15 years down the road, when I could hardly see what was happening 10-15 days into the future. The icing on the cake was when my husband and three children sat me down and assured me I could do this. Why? I asked, and quickly they all told me because of the passion I have for our young people, and the love I have for Bluffton. I have truly grown up with this town and have matured along the way, as the town has.

There is a lack of females in elected positions, what would you say to women to encourage them to step up and run for an office?

This continues to be frustrating for me. At the time I ran for council and later mayor, I never thought about me being a lone female in this political scene. Speed forward to today, and every time I walk into council, a meeting or other elected official situation, I’m usually the minority in the room.  When I speak to groups, this is a request I make of other females—to begin giving back in some capacity, from a town committee to town council. I think we are changing, and it may take another generation, but I do see more young women are taking leadership roles in the schools. It is heartwarming to go and talk to schools and colleges about leadership, and I want them to know what a great feeling it is to have the ability to make a difference. I’m going to mention our former Governor and Ambassador other times in this article, but former Ambassador (Governor) Nikki Haley has been an incredible role model for me as mayor. I have read both of her books, and I have followed her throughout her career. In a small way I can understand her difficulties in national leadership roles and have so much respect for her taking on challenges where women weren’t welcome at the table.

After 11 years of service, your voice has grown more powerful and confident. Tell us about a time you really found your voice and felt wonderful about it.
When I was first elected to town council in 2004, this was a time when developers were lined up to get developments approved. To say this was intimidating is putting it lightly. I would have multiple bound documents each month, and I would sit a week ahead of council and read every page, highlighting areas I had questions on or didn’t understand. I would come to meetings prepared to ask my questions, but for the first few meetings, was horrified to ask questions. After a few meetings, I realized that other ‘seasoned’ council members asked the very questions I wanted to ask. This was how I grew more powerful and confident, as I do feel that once you go past the fear hurdle and realize what you said was a representation of what so many felt, you have a great feeling of success. I just finished former Ambassador Haley’s latest book, “With All Due Respect”, and she confirmed this for me, as she went on further to say, ‘Once you push past your fear and succeed, your confidence, your strength and your abilities grow beyond what you every thought possible’… AMEN to that! She also confirmed my feelings that being women, we manage so many roles everyday. My roles are (in order) wife, mom, mayor, professional, and I am sure you can add other roles to your list. The special thing with women, is that we have the innate ability to balance our lives and establish priorities.

Many people choose one word to embrace and live by for the year. What is your one word for 2020 and why?

This year, I am choosing two words: Attentive and Appreciative. As my friend and fellow councilman Fred Hamilton says, “We know better so we should do better.”  Thousands of people move to Bluffton every year, either moving into an existing home, or building a new one. Either way, our town constantly sees new faces and new voices. This causes a lot of confusion on what the town is doing, as well as has done in the past. I work tirelessly to educate all residents on the history of our town, and how we grew from 1-square mile to over 54-square miles, and what was approved along the way. So as Mayor, my first word ‘attentive’ is based on that. I need to remember so many of our residents have lived here for less than 10 years, however so many of our decisions on our development of Bluffton occurred 15 to 20 years ago. Being attentive to their concerns, as well as the laws we have to abide by, is very important. The second word ‘appreciative’ is more personal. I don’t think any of us are as appreciative as we should be, and this is something I will be better at in 2020 and will make sure I relay this to my loved ones and to the town of Bluffton.

2020 marks 100 years since American women gained the right to vote. If you could tell women one thing, what would it be?

I think we need to remember the pain and suffering that took place to allow that first woman to go to the ballot box and vote. My grandmother was just married and beginning to have children 100 years ago, and I wish I could ask her what her thoughts were, because of the 5 children she had, three were daughters, and they were the strongest women I ever knew. So I would tell women today to think about their own families, and to honor the women in their lives who worked hard to allow us the privileges we have today.

If you could travel in time, what year would you go back to, or forward to, and why?
I would go back to 2013, the year before my mom passed away. I have a book of questions I never asked her. I guess I never thought she would leave us, and I always took for granted she would be here for many years to come. I feel like I have shadowed her life in so many ways: her run for mayor in a time that women were not supposed to do anything but stay home with their children; she opened her own business when we were very young, and at the same time raised an incredible family; she was one of the first female real estate brokers in SC, and worked until the day she died; she was very involved in a civic way. I never asked her why and how she was able to do what she did, and for that I will be forever regretful.

What is an “old-fashioned” value, or way of life, you don’t ever want to go away?

Way of Life: I think this has gone away, but I wish people would still write letters to each other. I have drawers of letters I received while in college, and I also have letters my mom and dad wrote to each other while they were dating. I do still write thank you notes, (stamped and mailed) and have tried to teach our children to do the same. There is nothing more special than a random note (thank you and otherwise). My old fashioned value: family values. In today’s environment, family takes on a different meaning than when my parents were young. People live all over the world, so it is even more important that we all find family connection in our circle of friends. I live at least three hours from my parents and siblings, so my close friends haven somewhat taken this role. I don’t know how I would have survived the years when our children were young without family and friends to help guide me along the way.

You are known for having a love of:

Coffee! I could not exist without coffee… it is the beverage that keeps me going from sun up to sun down.

I am woman, and I'm currently ROARING about:

Hands-Free SC! There are great perks in being an elected official and specifically Mayor. But with the good comes the not so good, in which during tragedies, your town expects to see the Mayor attend, or have an opinion on the situation. I have attended wakes, vigils and/or funerals of more young people than I care to count. In the years my children attended high school, there were eight plus deaths of students, all due to distracted driving of some sort. In addition to this, I have had a personal experience with losing loved ones at too early of an age, so I have a deep connection and understanding when I am with others who have dealt with the same loss. Several years ago, I pushed forward a ‘no texting while driving’ ordinance in our town (ahead of the State doing the same thing). After that was passed, I started a distracted driving campaign with students from Bluffton and May River High Schools. This really took off when we partnered with the Lutzie43 Foundation that has a program set up to talk about the need to drive hands free. It was really an eye opener when our chief of police, Chris Chapmond, came to town and drove around for a few days. He was astounded at the number of drivers either using their phone, putting on makeup and eating with both hands. He had never seen anything like it, and this reinforced that our county and state ‘knows better and should do better!’ Just in July of this year, our officers handed out over 500 cards to drivers pulled over for driving distracted; this shows a minimum amount of drivers we need to reach. South Carolina is one of only a few states that has not passed a hands-free law, and I am taking this on to finally get this voted on this year. We need everyone’s voice to make this a reality!

4-Wheeler or Golf Cart:
Always a golf cart—leaving your car at home and taking a golf cart around town gives you such a feeling of freedom and a connection with all that is going on in old town.

DisneyWorld or Dollywood:
I've never been to Dollywood but I think I would really like it, so I will have to say DisneyWorld, and would love to go back now thatour children are adults.

Steak or Fish:
any fresh fish, grilled. But I'll will take fried May River Oysters every day of the week for any meal.

Reading or Television:
my friends who know and love me will giggle when I say reading...It is something I plan on doing more of later in life, but I do love books on the beach or sandbar. I would like to think my children have a love of reading because they saw me with a book at every vacation

Black or Cream/sugar
– the best way coffee should be served—black

Cold or Hot (weather):
Hot hot hot! I could never live where the temp is below 50—Brrrrrr:(

Morning Person or Night Owl:
I got this trait from my mom… definitely night owl! The best part of my day is after 10:00 pm—major creativity occurs (and I have control of the remote)

Rhett Butler or Scarlett O’Hara:
Absolutely Scarlett—a great role model to be able to handle all she did and create the phrase—“After all, tomorrow is another day.”

Cake or Pie:
My grandmother’s apple pie – THE BEST EVER!

Romantic Comedies or Mysteries:
Hallmark Movies actually, especially during the holidays, so, romantic comedies

Diet or Exercise:
Exercise—it clears my mind and releases any guilt from eating dessert