Challenger Eddie DeLoach, a former Chatham County Commissioner, defeated Savannah’s incumbent mayor Edna Jackson 53 percent to 47 percent in Tuesday’s runoff. Remarkably, there were more voters in the runoff election than in the general election, and the energy was definitely with the challengers.
In the race for an open alderman at-large seat, retired banker Brian Foster defeated activist and longshorewoman Alicia Blakely 52.8 percent to 47.2 percent.
In the runoff for the 2nd district aldermanic seat, retired photographer and community activist Bill Durrence soundly defeated incumbent Mary Osborne 61.6 percent to 38.4 percent.
The campaign season had turned increasingly ugly and racially polarized in recent weeks — seriously, there were more incidents and controversies than I can even list — and in the final days it seemed like the three black candidates (Jackson, Blakely, and Osborne) were pinning their hopes on a solid black turnout in this majority black city. But turnout surged in some largely white neighborhoods, and Savannah city council has flipped from a 6-3 black majority to a 5-4 white majority.
In 1995, Floyd Adams was elected Savannah’s first black mayor, and he was reelected four years later with no opposition. Otis Johnson barely won the mayor’s race in 2003, but he was handily reelected in 2007 with nearly 70 percent of the vote. Jackson breezed into her first term with 57 percent of the vote in 2011.
But Jackson’s reelection campaign was weighed down from the beginning by growing concerns about crime, about police corruption (former chief Willie Lovett is in prison), about the currently understaffed police force, and about a host of other issues, including remarkable mismanagement of property purchases. Despite the creeping sense among many of us that Jackson was at the helm of a sinking ship, the mayor dismissively defended the work of City Manager Stephanie Cutter and offered little hope that the next four years would be any better than the last four.
The hard work begins now for the newcomers. They will have to try to repair some of the racial rifts exacerbated during the campaigns, and they will have to get themselves up to speed on all sorts of policy issues in addition to crime, like the alcohol ordinance revision and the zoning overhaul that have been mysteriously stalled for many months.
And here’s hoping the new team calls timeout on an incredibly ill-advised cultural arts center project — we are about to spend $20 million on a flagship building to showcase the arts that won’t even have a true theater.
It’s also worth noting that the 2015 election season was the first time that I can recall that voters have paid sustained attention to Savannah’s high poverty rate — about a quarter of all residents live in households in poverty — and many voters will be looking for progress there too.
The three winners from Tuesday are joined on city council by former police spokesperson Julian Miller, who knocked off fourth district incumbent Mary Ellen Sprague in November, and five incumbents: alderman at-large Carol Bell, Van Johnson from the first district, John Hall from the third district, Estella Shabazz from the fifth district, and Tony Thomas from the sixth district.