EARLY VOTING is now underway throughout Chatham County. And just like that — the election is upon us.
This year, we vote in municipal elections. If you live in any of the cities and towns in Chatham County — Savannah, Tybee Island, Pooler, Garden City, Port Wentworth, Bloomingdale, Thunderbolt, Vernonburg — you can vote for that city or town’s offices.
If you live in unincorporated Chatham County, there is still something important to vote for or against: Another round of the one-percent SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax).
Municipal elections are the real lifeblood of democracy, and the closest thing in 2019 to a more or less pure form of it.
Whether it’s the ancient Greeks and their individualistic form of direct democracy, or the old New England town hall system, the smaller the universe of voters, the more likely you are to have your voice truly heard from the grassroots.
This time four years ago, we were in the middle of an extraordinarily contentious Savannah City election, bitterly fought from the Mayor’s office on down to all the Council seats.
First and foremost, there was great public concern over crime. (If you said that those of us in the local media were partially responsible for contributing to the overheated atmosphere... you might not be entirely wrong.)
There was concern that the administration of then-Mayor Edna Jackson wasn’t up to the task of coping with the huge spike in homicides over the preceding year.
There were various other challenges, from dissatisfaction with then-City Manager Stephanie Cutter, to the inexplicable $3 million Fairgrounds purchase (where nothing’s been done four years later), to the Keystone Kops-style mismanagement of the now-defunct police merger of Savannah and Chatham County.
In an almost unheard-of development, voter turnout for the runoff between Jackson and challenger Eddie DeLoach was actually higher than in the general election, with DeLoach garnering the vast bulk of the voter support from the candidates who didn’t make the runoff.
Four years later, other than in a couple of down-ballot alderman races, there seems to be significantly less interest in this City of Savannah election.
Like, nearly crickets compared to 2015.
I’m far from the only one to make this observation. Many others are wondering, where’s the sense of urgency? Not just from voters, but from the candidates themselves.
Incumbent Mayor Eddie DeLoach is confidently defending his record, and not backing down from criticism. But frankly, he just doesn’t seem all that enthused about another four years holding the gavel.
Those who know him will tell you that’s just his laidback, unassuming style. But there’s an old political phrase about “having fire in the belly.” And I’m just not sensing a whole lot of it from DeLoach.
I’d say the same thing about Van Johnson, DeLoach’s main challenger. Johnson has been prepping a run for mayor for years, potentially ever since being first elected to Council 16 years ago.
You’d think if ever he had a moment, this would be it. But even Johnson seems a bit tentative in his campaigning, thorough as it might be.
Again, those who know him might tell you it’s not his style to be hysterical. Anyone who’s watched Johnson at work in City Council meetings or interacted with him on Facebook knows he is very measured and rational in his public statements.
But where’s the fire? I don’t see much spark from either of the top two contenders.
The other two mayoral contenders, Regina Thomas and Louis Wilson, have run for mayor previously and are largely running on the same platforms as before.
Those who remember the rancor and bitter vitriol of 2015 might say all this calmness, bordering on stoic resignation, is a good thing, or at least preferable to the alternative.
But I have to ask the question:
Does anyone really want this job?
Down ballot, things don’t get much more electrifying.
Two districts, the Fourth and the Fifth, are already decided, with Nick Palumbo and Estella Shabazz running unopposed, respectively. And if we’re being honest, the First District is almost as much of a foregone conclusion for Bernetta Lanier.
So that means half of the district seats will see either no or very little competition.
Even Savannah’s answer to Donald Trump, Tony Thomas, seems to be in a fairly low-key race to defend his Sixth District seat against challenger Kurtis Purtee, who for his part has refused to get down in the mud with Thomas.
If you’re looking for 2015-style fireworks, that would be in the Third District race between incumbent John Hall and Linda Wilder-Bryan, and the Alderman at Large race between incumbent Carol Bell and Kesha Gibson-Carter.
Both of these races will likely be close, and also worth closely watching for the clear Status Quo vs. Reform divide involved in both.
But what about the issues, you ask? Isn’t that what matters?
Certainly. Issues matter the most.
But in this case most everyone is aware of the one overarching challenge facing Savannah government: The City now spends more money than it takes in.
In order to solve or even attempt to solve any of the other issues facing Savannah — crime, poverty, transportation, balancing tourism vs. quality of life, to name a few — the budget first has to be balanced, and able to handle the expenses.
As incumbent Second District Alderman Bill Durrence said at a recent Council meeting: “The council that sits around this table in January is going to have some real hard decisions moving forward in the four years they’re going to be facing.”
Some of these hard decisions will be so hard, in fact, that they could easily threaten the political future, and legacy, of anyone involved in making them.
A potential tax hike is just one of many potentially very unpopular moves that might arise.
Maybe that’s one reason why that ol’ fire in the belly is so hard to come by this election season.
Would you want the job?