Some thoughts on the Savannah Morning News endorsement of Edna Jackson for Savannah mayor

All my posts about the 2011 Savannah elections can be found here.

This morning, the Savannah Morning News editorial page endorsed Edna Jackson over Jeff Felser for mayor of Savannah. The runoff is Tuesday, Dec. 6th, when somewhere around 24,000 people — or less — will decide who will be the next leader of our diverse, beautiful, complex city of about 135,000 people.

I don’t know either Edna or Jeff well — but I’m going to call them by their first names here. I know Jeff slightly better: we served together on the technical committee reviewing the work of the MPC on the Unified Zoning Ordinance and would occasionally have brief but substantive conversations after those meetings. I chatted with him twice recently at public events. I can’t even guarantee that Edna knows exactly who I am when I run into her once every year or so, but she’s always gracious and warm. In my own experience, the most passionate and engaged I have seen her firsthand was at a well-attended public meeting to consider plans for the removal of the I-16 flyover.

I like both of them. And I think either could turn out to be a solid mayor — “could” being the operative word.

I was not surprised by the SMN’s endorsement. I would have been surprised if the paper had not endorsed Edna.

An aside: although many people identify me closely with the paper for obvious reasons, keep in mind that I’m a freelancer. I have a great relationship with the Savannah Morning News, but I pretty much never go to the newsroom.

From the time she announced her candidacy, Edna has been the candidate of “the establishment” — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Lots of influential Democrats and various important businesspeople got behind her candidacy early. She has been an alderman-at-large for 12 years. She would almost certainly have sailed into the mayor’s position if the divisiveness of the city manager search had not prompted others to run against her, including her fellow alderman-at-large Jeff, former alderman Ellis Cook, and two of the most recognizable names and faces in local politics: Floyd Adams and Regina Thomas.

In addition to the endorsement by the newspaper, Edna has been endorsed by conservative former state senator Eric Johnson (who does not live in the city) and the Savannah Area Business Political Action Committee, which has very close ties with the Chamber of Commerce.

Even though he has been on council for 8 years, Jeff is now essentially the underdog outsider. As others have noted ad infinitum, the demographics of Savannah favor a black candidate in a 2-person race like this, but — as I keep saying — it’s easy to overplay the issue of race. While Edna is clearly the odds-on favorite to win next Tuesday, so too is Tom Bordeaux, a white candidate in the runoff for alderman-at-large.

All that said, I want to focus on a few specifics in today’s lengthy SMN endorsement of Jackson, which is worth reading in its entirety.

The endorsement says that Edna “understands Savannah’s social, economic and racial dynamics, having come of age during the civil rights era. But while acknowledging the past, she doesn’t appear to let it bog her down. She seems to rightly understand that what matters is living in the present and acting on the future.”

From what I know of Edna, I agree with all that, but I wonder about the specific mention of the importance of having grown up during the civil rights era.

I teach at Armstrong Atlantic State University, and I come into direct contact and have detailed conversations with an incredibly diverse group of people, most of whom are half my age — or less. I consistently find that people my age and older generally have a very poor grasp of the degree to which all of those dynamics — social, economic, and racial — have changed and are changing.

In terms of race, Savannah has had a black-majority city council since 2000 and a black mayor since 1996. Barack Obama got 57% of the countywide vote in 2008, with much higher numbers in the Savannah city limits. Racism is certainly still out there — it’s easy to find — but times are dramatically different than they were even 20 years ago.

In terms of the economy, the Savannah metro area still has about 9% fewer jobs than at the pre-recession peak. According to the October data from the Georgia Department of Labor, we have 2,000 fewer jobs than a year ago. The city of Savannah had a September unemployment rate of 11.1%, up sharply from 10.4% a year earlier. I mention those numbers in my City Talk column today.

These problems disproportionately affect younger workers.

At almost all levels of government, we are failing the generation that is coming of age right now.

As I have previously detailed, Savannah continues to lose residents to surrounding municipalities and counties. The 2010 census data clearly shows that the city has had more residents move out than move in; the marginal increase in population is less than one would expect just from the birth and death rates. Both whites and blacks have moved away in greater numbers than they have moved into the city.

Savannah faces daunting challenges. Those challenges predate the recession, and they certainly predate the racial rifts in the wake of the city manager search.

The SMN endorsement takes an optimistic view of Edna’s ability to enact her agenda: “job creation, a more business-friendly city bureaucracy, greater fiscal responsibility, more transparency and a better working relationship between the mayor and council and City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney.”

That sounds like a good agenda to me. If Edna is elected next Tuesday, she’ll be under a lot of pressure to achieve those goals. If she doesn’t, we could see our current problems exacerbated.

The SMN endorsement says little about Jeff beyond this characterization: “a feisty attorney who’s not afraid to rock the boat.” It’s fair to say that Jeff has been more combative, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And I’ll add that Jeff’s agenda is upbeat and forward-looking.

You can read more about Jeff’s agenda on this page of his website.

Edna’s platform can be found on this page of her website.

No matter what happens next Tuesday, I hope local citizens will try to work with the new mayor and council to establish a positive agenda.