Chatham County voters thought that the entire focus of this primary season was going to be on the race to replace Jack Kingston as First District Congressman. However they have been surprised that what is normally a lackluster boring run for Savannah Chatham County Public School System President has turned into a political slugfest stealing the headlines and most of the voters attention. While five candidates are running, the race is between veteran Republican Political operative David Simons, and educator and college professor Jolene Byrne, a political unknown at the beginning of the race. Not so much today.
Simons announced with a cast of supporters including most of the state and local elected officials and clients he works for, and a broad assumption that as the “Republican” candidate in a non-partisan race, he would walk in on the coattails of Jack Kingston’s race for Senate and Buddy Carter’s race for Congress (Simons is a consultant for Carter’s Campaign and was the subject of a charge by opponent Bob Johnson). Boasting a war chest that exceeded the assets of the other four candidates combined, Simons assumed that the race was his and anticipated endorsement by the Chamber of Commerce.
Simon’s troubles began almost immediately with his refusal to participate in the first two candidate debates. At the second debate large “chicken” signs appeared as well a signs featuring a mug shot from when Simons was arrested for fighting with an automatic door at the Courthouse and an ensuing altercation with the security guard. Simons appeared at the League of Women Voter’s debate and verbally accosted two audience questioners, refusing to answer questions about his contracts representing large construction companies, and his position on evening meetings for the School Board. It was at this debate that Simon’s said that his two children are in private school and that he would not discuss that issue.
While Simons touted his military service, a no taxes pledge, and his business acumen, the latter has served to be a sea anchor around the neck of his campaign. Clint Murphy has filed two separate Ethics Complaints alleging he was in violation of Georgia Ethics law that requires registration as a lobbyist in order to represent folks wanting to do business with governments. Cited was lobbying activity with the white members of the School Board as recently as April, 2014. A separate complaint was filed with similar allegations over lobbying the Chatham County Commission on behalf of a Texas firm seeking incentives to build a hotel. The initial complaint also generated a law suit from a minority contractor.
His opponent, Jolene Byrne, an unknown at the beginning of the campaign, has amassed diverse support from both staunchly conservative Republicans and strong Democrats, veteran educators, business leaders, and the public. Her campaign has been guided by volunteers and has incorporated social media, YouTube, and very targeted media. Byrne, whose son attends public school, has had a consistent message strong on detail and consistency, whereas in the last debate, Simons repeatedly asserted that “I am not an educator” and touted his educational experience in terms of the School Board members whose campaigns he managed.
While Simons and his inner core assumed the Chamber endorsement, it has not materialized, and many of his supporters have disappeared in the mist. The Savannah Morning News, while not endorsing any candidate, essentially endorsed Byrne as the best candidate.
Far from being lackluster, this contest has dominated the political scene, driving the Congressional races from front page of the newspaper. And in the process Byrne has defied the political assumptions and emerged as the front runner in this important race to head the School System in Savannah Chatham County.