Change sweeps into Savannah, toppling Democratic stronghold

To say conventional political wisdom in Savannah was upended by this month’s elections is like saying this city near the sea has only a passing fascination with St. Patrick’s Day festivities.

Edna Jackson, the city’s first black female leader, became the first incumbent mayor defeated here in 20 years, beaten by a conservative business owner. Two other black female contenders for the City Council were rejected by voters. They, too, fell to a pair of graying, white candidates.

That's a seismic electoral shift in a city with a population that's 55 percent black — minority voters who typically overwhelmingly support Democrats in Georgia — and hadn't elected a Republican-leaning mayor since 1991. Sea change, indeed.

If national elections are typically about the economy, Savannah contests have long revolved around public safety. And the incoming mayor, Eddie DeLoach, capitalized on concerns about crime to build a new coalition he hopes will endure.

“Maybe I’m Don Quixote tilting at windmills. But I feel like this is a time where the black community looked at a white candidate and said, ‘I’m willing to give that guy a chance,’ ” DeLoach said in an interview.

“I think it’s a break in tradition. If all things are equal, they’re going to vote for their candidate,” he continued. “But this is a turning point. And if we deliver like we should, we have an opportunity to continue to serve.”

Just a few months ago, Jackson seemed destined for a second term. She was known for repairing strained racial ties that surfaced during the administration of her predecessor, Otis Johnson. She fired an unpopular city manager and replaced a police chief convicted of commercial gambling and extortion charges.

She seemed to have mastered the Atlanta Way — the tried-and-tested model in the capital city of white business leaders and black community figures uniting behind an African-American candidate with strong appeal across the aisles.

Crime, crime and crime

That changed quickly. Crime rates that had leveled off during Jackson's first three years in office soared in 2015. The number of homicides nearly doubled over the past year, making it Savannah's bloodiest since 1991, and violent crime grew by more than 20 percent.

The nature of some of the crimes horrified the citizenry. In one jarring episode, two Savannah officers were injured in shootings a few miles from downtown. In another, a longtime councilwoman was mugged by two men while sitting on her front porch.

"I have the highest respect for Edna. But we really needed big changes," said Phillip Sellers, who owns the Old City Walks touring company. "Public safety for me is the major challenge. And it came down to that."

DeLoach pounced on those concerns. At the first debate, when asked to name the city’s top three challenges, he answered succinctly: crime, crime and crime. He vowed to fill the number of vacancies in the Police Department — at one point, the number had swelled to 100 openings — and pledged to hire 15 additional officers to a new violent crime unit.

His campaign — helmed by a 19-year-old who deferred her acceptance to Brown University — hoisted a billboard above Jackson’s re-election headquarters with a running ticker of the number of gunshots detected in the city. It served as a constant, raw reminder of the city’s public safety fears.

That a Republican won the contest is no small feat. The mayor’s race is a nonpartisan contest, but DeLoach, who built a tiny landscaping outfit into a national business, is a well-known Republican who was a reliably conservative voice on the Chatham County Commission from 1992 to 2000.

“It’s shocking. Talk about a contrast in a majority-black city,” said Bruce Mallard, a Savannah State University political scientist. “Even though it’s a nonpartisan race, Edna Jackson had all the trappings of a Democrat and DeLoach a Republican.”

The big broom extended to races down the ticket. Alderwoman Mary Osborne, the council member who was mugged, was soundly defeated by Bill Durrence. The retired photographer won 63 percent of the vote against Osborne, a longtime activist in the black community. And newcomer Brian Foster beat Alicia Blakely, who heads a chapter of a national civil rights chapter, for an open at-large seat on the council.

The shift cannot be blamed on a sleepy Democratic base. For weeks, party leaders rallied behind Jackson and other Democrats — and tried to make the most of missteps from DeLoach supporters who burned a Jackson sign in effigy and boasted of "taking our city back."

Otis Johnson, Jackson’s predecessor in City Hall, said the latter was “code speak” for white rule.

"Whether this group accepts the fact or not, Savannah is a majority African American city," he wrote in an opinion piece in The Savannah Morning News endorsing Jackson for another term. "The face of Savannah has been black for the last 20 years."

Blakely put the blame on some Democrats, including black ministers and activists, who were so fed up with Jackson that they endorsed the conservatives. She also accused Jackson, who declined to comment for this story, of tacitly endorsing her opponent. Her race should have been an “automatic win,” Blakely said, predicting that black voters will regret the vote.

“These are white men that came into the black community and asked for votes. You never heard of them, you never saw them,” said Blakely, who heads the local chapter of the National Action Network. “It’s pathetic. And it’s really sad that folks fell for the hokey-doke because they were so thirsty for change.”

Chance for ‘racial harmony’

DeLoach is mindful of the electoral fate of the last Republican to ride to office on a law-and-order platform.

John Rousakis, a beloved five-term mayor of Savannah, was undone by the rise of crack cocaine gangster Ricky Jivens in the early 1990s. He was ousted by Susan Weiner — a Jewish Republican from New York — in a 1991 campaign that featured billboards with faux bullet holes and radio ads crackling with gunfire in the background.

“If it wasn’t for crack,” Rousakis said then, “I’d be getting ready to begin my sixth term in office.”

Weiner’s reign didn’t last long. With the help of Savannah’s white elite and burgeoning black community, she was defeated after a single term by Floyd Adams, who would become the city’s first African-American mayor.

Influential black leaders say DeLoach has a chance to be a transformational leader. Lorenzo McDonald, a 46-year-old real estate agent who formed an anti-crime group called Savannah Lives Matter, said DeLoach has the chance to set a new tone for the city.

“To say crime is out of hand is an understatement. And citizens were tired of it,” said McDonald, who stayed neutral in the race. “I believe this is an opportunity. If he can make the city safer, he can move in a direction of racial harmony.”

DeLoach has big plans for his first year, including a strategy to bring a “small-business” mind-set to government with a new approach to customer service, as well as living up to promises to beef up the police force. With the changes on the council, he counts about six or seven allies on the nine-member board when he takes office in January.

“There was a tipping point and voters realized, regardless of who it is, they want results,” DeLoach said. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time. We offered ideas that sounded good to folks, and they had not had the results they should have had.”

His challenge, though, may have only just begun.

“There were a lot of promises made about making government more efficient, reducing crime and increasing economic opportunity. Those promises were made with little details,” said Johnson, the former mayor who led the city from 2004 to 2012.

“They wanted it, they got it,” he said. “Now we’ll see what they do with it.”