Like most other local political observers, I fully expected Joe Steffen to make it into a runoff with J. Craig Gordon, his young opponent in the recent Democratic primary for the 162nd State House seat vacated by the retired Tom Bordeaux.
And like everybody else — including apparently everyone but Gordon himself — I was totally wrong.
Steffen had more signs, more money and more endorsements. But it all came to naught, with Gordon posting a winning percentage well in excess of the 50 percent-plus-one needed to win outright. (He faces no Republican opposition in November.)
Conventional wisdom holds that this was strictly a white vs. black thing, with Joe Steffen representing the classic white liberal attorney a la Bordeaux, and Craig Gordon representing a newer generation of fairly conservative young black Democrats.
Indeed, the Morning News tried its best to shoehorn the race into a convenient racial shoebox. Before the election, a provocative piece headlined “Is it time to put a black person in this seat?” sought out — and lo and behold, found! — a number of African-American residents of the 162nd who answered the titular question strongly in the affirmative.
(In its election post-mortem, the daily claimed some credit for Gordon’s victory by pointing to the initial article’s impact on black voters — this despite the fact that the paper itself endorsed Steffen. Talk about chutzpah!)
Clearly African-American turnout was high, and clearly to Gordon’s benefit. The 162nd, ranging from Ardsley Park to Cloverdale, is 53 percent black, but Gordon received well over 53 percent of the vote.
But that’s no surprise at all. In the deep South, it’s a given that African-American voters will turn out reliably for Democratic primaries. Talking about high black turnout in a Georgia primary is a real “dog bites man” story, i.e., no news there.
If one insists on viewing the election in racial terms, the more accurate headline would read “Low white turnout sinks Steffen,” rather than “Black voters put Gordon over the top.”
Me, I have my own ideas as to why Gordon won. Four, to be specific, not one of which has to do with skin color:
1) Gordon and his family are well-established in Chatham County. Joe Steffen is not only a racial minority in the 162nd District, he’s originally from another state and goes to church outside the district. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you can’t say none of that’s a factor. This is Savannah, after all. Gordon, by contrast, is a native who went to school at Beach High, always a plus in local politics (our current mayor is a graduate as well).
2) Gordon didn’t rest on his laurels. Unlike the ironically nicknamed “Champ” Walker, whose father Charles Walker carved out a new congressional district specifically for his son and who subsequently imploded in a miserably incompetent campaign against Max Burns in 2002, Gordon didn’t sit back and let his father, Charles Gordon, run his race for him. By all accounts, the younger Gordon walked onto porches in the summer heat, knocked on doors and did what all successful politicians do: Asked for votes. He could have hidden behind his well-known dad like “Champ” Walker, but didn’t — and that’s an indicator of character.
3) Gordon isn’t an attorney. Not just another cheap shot at lawyers. The Democratic Party, particularly the white liberal wing, has become entirely too dependent not only on campaign contributions from attorneys, but on running attorneys as candidates. Personally I’ve got no problems with attorneys running for office, but let’s face it: To the general public, a businessperson is a much better face to have out there than a lawyer. No offence to my many good attorney friends — including Joe Steffen himself, who is a hell of a guy and who will definitely be back on the scene.
4) Two words: Regina Thomas. One African-American Steffen supporter I talked to said, “When I saw that commercial with Regina endorsing Craig, my heart sank. I knew it was all over.” Indeed, there is no political name in Chatham County more golden than Regina Thomas. Her appeal crosses racial and party lines. Get Regina on your side, and your skin can be purple for all that it matters.
For years I’ve heard local pundits sound the death knell for white Democratic officeholders in Savannah. But what the pundits forget is that African-Americans in Chatham County have much deeper roots in the area than most white people here, and therefore black candidates can generally draw on correspondingly larger circles of community for support.
The bottom line is this: All things being equal, a good black candidate will always beat a good white candidate in Savannah. But the determining factor is still the quality of the candidate, not the color of his or her skin.