OPINION: A trip to Savannah finds old politics and new

The first stop of the AJCs Georgia Politics Road Trip

SAVANNAH — I decided to head to the coast for the initial stop of my “Georgia Politics Road Trip,” and not just because the first person I reached out to in Savannah sent me his personal list of the best places to eat in the city.

I chose Savannah because it’s a microcosm of the politics we have in Georgia today. The city itself is dominated by Democratic voters, while the suburban and rural areas around it are heavily Republican.

While Joe Biden carried the city in 2020, Donald Trump won the larger area with 55% of the vote.

But the politics across the coast are changing, as snowbird retirees and new corporate hires relocate to the area and bring their less conservative politics with them.

“We’ve seen change. I’ve seen it come and I’ve seen the resistance to change,” said state Rep. Al Williams, a longtime Democrat from nearby Midway. “But it is not stopping anything.”

The very old and the very new live next to each other in Savannah. So do the very wealthy and the very poor.

Although the city itself dates to 1733, the areas nearby in Chatham and Bryan counties are crackling with growth from new industry and innovation.

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, who represents Savannah and the rest of the 1st Congressional District, is the human embodiment of the contradictions there.

He’s a fast-walking, Southern-drawling former pharmacist, the grandson of sharecroppers who was the first in his family to go to college.

Carter was born on Abercorn Street in downtown Savannah, but he joked over a breakfast of oatmeal at Clary’s Cafe that he isn’t exactly well-liked in the liberal stronghold.

The rural and suburban counties are the places where the Republican sweeps up votes. He won with 58% of the vote in 2020.

He’s so far to the right he mostly refers to Democrats as “that other party” or “the majority party,” and he voted in the House on Jan. 6 against certifying the results of the 2020 election that Joe Biden won.

But Carter strays from Fox News orthodoxy, too.

He is so pro-vaccine that he volunteered for Pfizer’s COVID-19 clinical trial. And he says during our interview that representing of Georgia’s coast, he see the effects climate change. He rattles off the state’s national rankings for solar power production (No. 10), but not wind, which he says is less promising.

The fact that he did an interview with me at all speaks to the fact that he’s not exactly Marjorie Taylor Greene when it comes to trashing the press. In fact, we did two interviews, with no topic off limits.

The biggest point of tension in Carter’s job these days may be the fact that his district relies heavily on federal funding, since he represents four military installations, the Georgia Ports Authority, Savannah International Airport and a community with major health care disparities.

A meeting at Savannah’s fast-growing airport included slides about which titles in Biden’s proposed infrastructure bill the airport leadership is hoping expansion projects can be funded through.

While Carter later told me he’s open to the idea of new infrastructure spending, he sounded dour on the idea of supporting Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill.

“Infrastructure should be by parts. We all need roads. We all need bridges,” he said. “The problem is the majority party right now is trying to put so much more in there with their socialist agenda.”

One of the “socialist agenda” pushers in Congress that Carter was talking about is also one of Georgia’s two new senators, Raphael Warnock, a Savannah native, too, and the man Carter hopes to challenge for his Senate seat if Herschel Walker doesn’t get in the race first.

“I’m not interested in political suicide,” Carter laughed, referring to Walker. “I was born at night, but it wasn’t last night.”

When Georgia had two Republican senators and Carter in the House, intown Savannah locals worried aloud about the liberal city falling through the cracks of attention on Capitol Hill.

But Warnock and his fellow senator, Jon Ossoff, have changed that.

“I liked the Republican senators,” said Williams, the state representative from Midway. “But until you’ve walked a mile in my shoes, you don’t know the road I’m on. It makes all the difference.”

At an event with first lady Jill Biden Thursday to encourage people in the majority Black city to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Warnock got a standing ovation welcoming him home.

“He’s from Kayton Homes,” Mayor Van Johnson said, referring to the Savannah public housing project that Warnock grew up in. “And he never forgot where home is.”

Like Atlanta and Georgia’s other cities, Savannah struggles with poverty (22% of people live below the poverty line there). It’s also weathered a recent increase in crime and has a large population that lacks access to reliable health care.

Other issues seem particular to Savannah: The search for a city manager has been hampered by City Council infighting. Climate change is threatening the sea islands that dot the coast.

One thing Savannah seems to do better than most is the way the city’s past and its future live alongside each other, even when friction or tension results.

After World War II, leaders agreed to move the city’s main cargo port just up the Savannah River to Garden City. The new port is a marvel of human logistics that hums and clanks with the goods a growing Georgia buys, sells, and ships to the rest of the world.

The old Savannah port, 10 miles away, once hosted slave auctions. The old and the new tell the city’s story at once.

Dr. Todd Groce is the president of the Georgia Historical Society, which is headquartered in two historic buildings in downtown Savannah that date to the 18th century.

Groce often says the past and history are not the same thing. “The past is what happened, and history is the meaning we give to what happened,” he said.

“But it’s our ability to argue about what the past means to us today, to argue about the future, that makes us who we are,” he said. “And I think it’s ok that we disagree. It is the disagreement that makes it democracy.”

It’s a lesson all of Georgia, especially its political leaders, would do well to learn.

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