Not exactly endorsements, but some things to think about before Savannah city elections on Tuesday

I don’t do formal endorsements of political candidates — and I’m not sure that any would want my formal endorsement! — but here’s an extended and somewhat idiosyncratic post taking a look at Savannah’s mayoral and aldermanic races. Some of those races will be decided on Tuesday night, but several seem destined for early December runoffs.

In short, if no candidate gets 50 percent on Tuesday, that race will go into a runoff. (50 percent + 1 vote is enough to win.)

First, a word on racial, neighborhood, and retail politics:

The population of Savannah is somewhere in the ballpark of 55 percent black, 35 percent non-Hispanic white, 5 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent Asian. The percentage of blacks is probably higher among those under 18, so the voting power of Savannah’s African-American population probably isn’t quite as strong as those numbers appear, but there is no doubt that there will be more black voters than white voters in this election.

There is only one council district — District 4, where Julian Miller is challenging Mary Ellen Sprague — where white voters clearly dominate.

There are lots of voters who will split their tickets on Tuesday between white and black candidates, but many voters will vote for an all white or an all black slate. There’s clear evidence of white candidates beating black candidates head-to-head, like Tom Bordeaux’s easy runoff win in 2011 for Alderman At-Large Post 2, but there is still an electoral edge for black candidates.

Savannah is a small, who-do-you-know kind of town. Take a look at the 2011 general election results, and you’ll see that Jeff Felser made the mayoral runoff with just a little over 5,000 votes. John Hall and Estella Shabazz were elected to council with just over 1,600 votes. With numbers that low, one doesn’t need a lot of money or a sophisticated multimedia campaign to win.

Candidates in Savannah need to know a lot of people, know a lot of people who also know a lot of people, and get out into the community as much as they can. I obviously don’t know everything that each campaign has been doing, and I’ve been out of town a lot in recent months, but I have seen little evidence that the 2015 challengers have done the sort of retail politicking required to pick up a few votes here, a few more votes there. For example, if Eddie DeLoach gets into a runoff with Edna Jackson, and if he can win even 10 percent of black support in that runoff, he might very well be Savannah’s next mayor, but I don’t know that he and his supporters have done the type of legwork necessary.

So, here are my more or less final thoughts on each race:


Ok, I’m not even going to talk about crime. I’m going to briefly mention only a few of the other major issues at City Hall right now. I could literally go on and on and on for thousands of words about the failings at the top.

But who is the top?

Savannah has a strong city manager form of government. For part of Jackson’s term, Rochelle Small-Toney was in the top spot, and Jackson deserves credit for pushing Small-Toney out, but now the city manager is Stephanie Cutter, who rose over the years through the ranks. Jackson has repeatedly expressed strong support for Cutter, so a vote for Jackson on Tuesday is probably an endorsement of four more years of a Jackson/Cutter administration. Let’s consider some of the things that combination has brought us:

1) Cultural Arts Center. My Sunday City Talk column tomorrow is mainly about the Cultural Arts Center, which was originally intended to be an economic development tool for MLK. Now we’re putting it on some of the most valuable land in the city.

2) Meldrim Row demolition. What do our leaders think of affordable housing, African American history, classic vernacular architecture, maintaining diversity in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood? Meldrim Row is your answer.





3) Alcohol ordinance. The city has been trying to revise the ordinance since January 2013 (or earlier). In 2014, literally on the business day before the first public meetings, the city released a draft that would have banned any adult between 18 and 20 from being in a restaurant that serves alcohol after 10 p.m., unless that person is with a parent. That means that restaurants like Applebee’s, Vinnie’s, Crystal Beer Parlor, and dozens of others would have to begin carding every single young looking patron who entered the door after 9 p.m. or so, whether or not that patron was ordering alcohol. City officials quickly dropped that provision from their draft, but it is still utterly mind-boggling to me that a group of adults could work on a draft for 18 months and then include a bone-headed idea like that. In fact, officials eventually dropped most of the onerous language of that first draft (and would create new entertainment options for 18+ audiences), but it’s now a year later and there is no ordinance.

4) Food trucks. At the mayoral forum at Armstrong, Mayor Jackson articulated a broadly liberal vision for food trucks — a vision that would allow entrepreneurs a real chance to thrive. But Jackson’s words directly contradicted pretty much everything in the draft ordinance released by the city. So where is the disconnect? At a council workshop session, alderwoman Carol Bell noted that she had started asking the city to move on an ordinance when her term began in early 2012. And here we are.

5) Waters Avenue strip mall. Enough said.

6) A vision for the old arena when new one is built. At that Armstrong forum, Jackson said that she thought that community groups would still want to use the MLK arena even after the new arena is built off West Gwinnett. Huh??????

7) Police merger. The merger may already be over, and city officials have increasingly blamed the county, but many of us blame and have for many months been blaming the city for its hubris.

8) The NewZO. Under this leadership, it will never happen, so I’m not even going to bother making a pitch for it.

So, is that enough? We have a dysfunctional city government, and all signs point to the situation getting worse before getting better, if Jackson is reelected.

Have challengers Eddie DeLoach and Murray Silver done enough retail politicking — appearing at churches, community groups, neighborhood gatherings — to attract the small percentage of black votes necessary to a) force a runoff and b) defeat Jackson in a runoff? Since Louis Wilson looks unlikely to take a significant percentage of the black vote away from Jackson, Jackson is certain to enter a runoff or to win outright on Tuesday. I suspect that she is going to win outright.

And then I can only hope that she will realize that she is at the helm of a sinking ship.


I’d like to take all the at-large candidates — the two for this post and the six for post 2 — and put them all on council. What a smart, diverse, and interesting group that would be.

As I’ve said before, I’m impressed by Carol Bell, but she hasn’t pushed hard enough on the mayor and the city manager. I’m also impressed by challenger Linda Wilder Bryan and will likely vote for her on Tuesday. I’m frankly still trying to decide.


What an interesting race. The establishment support (Chamber-affiliated PAC, Savannah Morning News, Savannah Tribune) for retired bank president Brian Foster has led many of my friends and acquaintances to oppose his candidacy, but I think he’d be an excellent choice, assuming he’s a bit more consistently engaged than Tom Bordeaux, who currently holds the seat.

But Joe Steffen and Travis Coles both seem like better choices, and I have also been impressed with interviews with G. Lind Taylor, Alicia Blakely, and Clinton Young.

This is a really strong field, and each of these six candidates has a shot at making the runoff, although the racial demographics — three are white, three are black — and the lack of polling make this race very tough to call.

UPDATE, 11/2, on at-large races: I will post something more detailed later, but there were flyers distributed on Sunday throughout much of the city that were paid for by Jackson’s and Foster’s campaigns. Those flyers endorsed all incumbents. The Bell campaign was not listed as a funder of the flyer, but she has not responded so far to a message left for her on her official Facebook page.

In light of this flyer and the desperation of supporting all eight incumbents, I recommend supporting Linda Wilder-Bryan for Post 1 and either Joe Steffen or Travis Coles for Post 2 (although at the moment I’d vote for any of the candidates over Foster).


Has Bernetta Lanier done enough retail politicking to knock off incumbent Van Johnson? Are West Savannah residents tired enough of high crime and lack of economic development to vote the incumbent out? Keep in mind that Lanier grew up in the neighborhood and has a huge network.

As I’ve said before, if Van Johnson has designs on the 2019 mayoral election as is widely assumed, then he obviously has to defeat Lanier on Tuesday and has to help make council more effective over the next four years. He’s smart enough to demand better and quicker work from city staff.


District 2 has been significantly redrawn, and it seems very likely that the new voters added to the district, including me, will vote overwhelmingly against incumbent Mary Osborne. I don’t know how anyone who is familiar with the blight, crime, and poverty in the 2nd district could vote for more of the same with Osborne, but some will … Still, I’m confident that we’ll see a runoff between Detric Leggett and Bill Durrence. Andree Patterson is also a strong candidate with real interest in issues like better urban planning and affordable housing.


Wow, Kim Dulek is an impressive candidate. But she’s a relative newcomer to Savannah, and she’s a white candidate in an overwhelmingly black district with an incumbent — John Hall — who has been active in the community for decades. I hope Dulek will continue to be engaged in local politics, even if she can’t overcome the inherent obstacles on Tuesday.


I’ve never quite understood some of the frustrations with Mary Ellen Sprague, who handily won reelection in 2011. Julian Miller is an impressive challenger, for sure, and it looks like he might have a slight edge. If Miller wins, I hope he follows through on holding the mayor and city manager’s feet to the fire on moving more quickly to support the SCMPD and Chief Lovett Lumpkin (I’m not the first to make that mistake!), and I hope that he demands results on all sorts of lingering issues on the city’s plate.


Does the energetic Shaundra McKeithen have the community connections to unseat Estella Shabazz? Like Leggett, McKeithen has been described as representative of a new group of leaders in Savannah’s black community — ones who are willing to break with the entrenched powers — but has she done enough in the 5th district to tip the scales and knock off a well-known incumbent? I hope so, but I wouldn’t bet money on it. Change happens slowly around here.


What else is there to say about Tony Thomas, who is once again picking up key endorsements despite being the target of all sorts of questions and attacks? Many Southside residents love Thomas, but this election poses some special problems for him. His district now has a very slim white majority, and he’s being challenged by two white candidates (Stephen McElveen and David Self) and a strong black candidate (Zena McClain).

Thomas was unopposed in 2011, and he still has a chance of winning outright on Tuesday, but I suspect this race will head to a runoff.