So what are Savannah mayor Edna Jackson’s chances for reelection in November?
Short answer: very high.
We could find examples in relatively recent history of incumbent Savannah mayors losing their reelection battles (Rousakis and Weiner in the 1990s), and we could find multiple examples of incumbent aldermen being knocked off by challengers who began the cycle with relatively little name recognition. But a variety of factors suggest that Jackson is in a very strong position as we approach the 2015 elections.
There are obvious advantages to incumbency, especially in an off-year election that will probably attract about a third of registered voters, but that’s hardly the only thing that Jackson has going for her.
First: while Savannah’s city elections are officially nonpartisan, this is an overwhelmingly Democratic town. In 2012, Barack Obama picked up 55.4 percent of the vote in Chatham County, which includes some fairly conservative neighborhoods and communities outside city limits. There may not be a “D” next to Jackson’s name on the November ballot, but lots of party activists are firmly on her side, with get-out-the-vote mechanisms already in place.
Let’s look at the numbers from 2011’s general election, which came at a time of considerable divisiveness in city politics. Two relatively strong black candidates (Floyd Adams and Regina Thomas) joined the fray against Jackson, who had been viewed by many as a rubber stamp in the Otis Johnson administration, and so did two solid white candidates — Ellis Cook, who seemed to energize some older, white, and more conservative voters, and Jeff Felser, a sitting alderman at-large who energized some young, white, and more liberal voters.
Despite that relatively strong slate of candidates, Jackson always felt like the frontrunner in 2011. When it became obvious that the candidacy of former mayor Adams was not taking hold, I thought Jackson even had a shot of reaching 50 percent in the crowded general election field. Of course, she ultimately fell far short of that. A screenshot from the Chatham County Board of Elections:
Jackson was below 40 percent in the general election, but she only needed about a quarter of the votes that went to other candidates to win the runoff against Felser.
Here’s how things played out in the mayoral runoff and in the at-large runoff won by Tom Bordeaux:
The November 2015 electorate will likely be around 55 percent black and will be overwhelmingly liberal/Democratic. A black candidate has a clear advantage over a white one in a citywide race in Savannah, but it’s worth noting that Bordeaux, who is white, handily beat Young, who is black, in that runoff. That’s probably explained in part by an informal understanding among local Democrats that there won’t be any top tier black challengers if there’s a solid white candidate for that post 2 at-large position. (If the black political establishment really wanted to play hardball racial politics, we would have a city council with a 7-2 — or even 8-1 — black majority rather than the 6-3 black-white composition today.) There are a number of seemingly solid candidates who are running for Bordeaux’s position (he announced months ago that he would not seek reelection), but — if form holds — look for a lot of black and Democratic support to coalesce behind Joe Steffen, who has been active in the party and who works as counsel in the president’s cabinet at Savannah State University. More on that race in a future post.
OK, so what? Jackson has the advantage of incumbency, plus she’s a black Democrat in a city where that demographic and those political leanings are obvious advantages, but hasn’t she done a terrible job? Isn’t everyone turning against her?
Important lesson to remember: your Facebook feed is probably not a representative sample of Savannah voters. Yes, Savannah has a high poverty rate and a high crime rate, but those things have been true for decades. Clearly, we need some fresh approaches at City Hall, but that doesn’t mean that Savannah voters will abandon the folks they have been supporting for years.
On the most important issue that could bring down an incumbent mayor — crime — Jackson can point to the hiring of Chief Lumpkin and to her personal involvement in quelling unrest after a fatal police shooting of a handcuffed man.
Also, it’s worth adding that Savannah is seeing strong job growth and business investment. Sure, a lot of that is hotel investment, and many of the jobs are in leisure and hospitality, but other sectors are making strong gains too as we dig out of the hole from the real estate bust. Given the dynamics of the local economy, I bet there are some relatively conservative voters in the local business community who will ultimately support Jackson, and don’t be surprised if she picks up some key endorsements from business organizations.
Jackson is a lousy candidate for the social media age — her campaign Facebook page is pitiful — but she’s widely known, widely liked, and good at the sort of retail campaigning that is crucial to elections in a smallish city like Savannah.
I do think Jackson could be extremely vulnerable if someone challenged her from within the liberal establishment this year. In addition to being vulnerable on a major issue like crime, Jackson could also be challenged for her support of the work of City Manager Stephanie Cutter, whose administration has chosen convoluted paths and has moved at a glacial pace on all sorts of important issues, including the new cultural arts center, the firefighters’ contract, the revised alcohol ordinance, Waters Avenue revitalization, and on and on. (Connect’s Jim Morekis recently had quite a laundry list of issues in a recent column, most of which I agree with.)
Eddie DeLoach, who announced his run for mayor just a few days ago, is certainly a credible candidate, but he will have to prove that he can attract significant numbers of black and liberal voters. Murray Silver announced his candidacy months ago and has been stirring the pot as expected and needed, but it remains to be seen whether he can reach a broad cross-section of voters. I will likely have more to say about their candidacies as we get closer to the general election.
For the record, I didn’t vote for Edna Jackson in 2011 and am incredibly frustrated with our current city administration, but you don’t have to be a Jackson supporter to see that she is a formidable candidate for reelection.