Savannah elections about two months away; mayor’s race unpredictable

I’m planning to chime in from time to time here about Savannah’s elections, now just over two months away.

I do not plan to endorse particular candidates. That’s just not a role that metro columnists should play, I don’t think. Yes, this is my blog and not my column, but the rules seem the same.

But there are lots of other ways — better ways — to provide meaningful commentary. That’s what I’ll try to do.

On her blog at SavannahNow, Lesley Conn’s most recent post focuses on the nearly simultaneous opening of offices for Edna Jackson and Regina Thomas. I’m sure we’ll be reading all sorts of interesting posts and articles from Lesley in the coming weeks.

The post emphasizes some of the “heavy-hitters” supporting Jackson — it’s a long list — but elections are one-person, one-vote. Will that support from a cross-racial coalition of powerful Savannahians filter down to enough voters? A year and a half ago, I would have said yes — that Edna Jackson was a lock to replace Otis Johnson as mayor. But we’ve had so much contentiousness and so much racially based political tension muddying the picture. Add in the entry of Thomas and former mayor Floyd Adams, two well-respected black politicians with great name recognition, and Jackson is no lock.

Also, there’s the hot button issue out there: which candidates will make a campaign issue of Rochelle Small-Toney’s future? Some voters will only opt for a candidate who plans to replace the controversial city manager, but so far no candidates have clearly stated their intentions. Her current contract expires in January, so one of the first actions of the new council will be to decide her fate. I’m assuming that’s a question that reporters and voters will be asking soon.

I’m surprised they haven’t been asking it already.

I have no idea how things will play out in the race, primarily because of the racial dimensions and the large number of credible candidates. Since it’s unlikely that any of the six candidates (Thomas, Jackson, Adams, Ellis Cook, Jeff Felser, and James Dewberry) will get more than 50% on the first ballot, the first goal will be to get into the runoff.

I think Jackson is still the frontrunner, but will she get more than 30% on the first ballot? And how would that other 70% of the vote be divided up? As an alderman-at-large that Savannahians citywide are accustomed to voting for, Jeff Felser seems like a good bet to be in the top two, but so does Ellis Cook, who might be able to attract a very high percentage of Republican and other conservative or moderate voters. In a wide open race like this, it’s entirely possible that someone who gets less than 25% of the vote will be launched into the runoff.

And while there are obvious racial dimensions and while Savannahians tend to vote for candidates of their own race, it’s worth noting that those patterns have been breaking down slowly but surely. (For decades, of course, local machine politics had black residents routinely voting for white mayoral candidates.) In 2003, Otis Johnson got 33% of the vote on the first ballot, while three white candidates combined for 67%. But then Johnson took 51% of the vote against Pete Liakakis in the runoff. There’s no way to make those numbers add up without assuming considerable racial crossover.

I’ll be following up regularly.