IN THE MIDDLE of my interview with Murray Silver Jr. at Johnny Harris Restaurant—his self-proclaimed campaign headquarters—the power goes out.
“That’s a sign, Jimmy. The lights are going out in Savannah, Georgia,” Silver says without missing a beat.
“What did Bob Dylan say—‘it’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there’..... I swear I didn’t pay them to do this,” he laughs.
A large, intense man who combines a voluminous grasp of detail with an actor’s skill at mimicry and timing, Silver is doing what many say is futile: Daring to run for mayor against the entrenched, well-funded City Hall machine devoted to securing a second term for incumbent Mayor Edna Jackson.
Silver frankly thrives on the idea that he is taking on the impossible. As he jokes, “When you’re down to me, you know you’re in trouble.”
When I mentioned I was recording the interview and if he wanted anything off the record he would have to say so specifically, he immediately answered, "It's too late for off-the-record. This is all too important."
We spoke to Silver last week. And yes, the lights eventually came back on.
So how did we get to this place of discontent in Savannah?
Murray Silver: We've always been there, we just didn't know it. I'll say this—and please don't take offense—if the media did a better job of investigating and reporting the news, I'd win this election in a landslide. The problem is that much of what goes on isn't reported in the Savannah Morning News.
When I announced my candidacy, my phone started ringing off the hook. It just blew up. I had no idea.
As much as I thought I knew, it’s nothing in comparison to what you find out once you’re running for office. So we’ve always been here, we just didn’t know it.
Let’s talk about what exactly we mean by “here.” What’s Savannah’s problem in a nutshell?
Murray Silver: By "here," I mean the town is broken. It's always been corrupt. You're talking to a man with seven generations of my family living here. It was corrupt in my father's time. It was corrupt in my grandfather's time.
The only thing that’s changed is the players. And the fact that now they operate so openly and notoriously. As if to say this is how we do business, welcome to Savannah.
That’s the story here. We are broken by design, because that’s how they take advantage. There’s no intention to fix what’s broken. You have to connect the dots. Fortunately they make it easy for you, they don’t try to hide it anymore.
All you have to do is look at who contributes to the campaigns. It’s the same companies doing business with the City.
What troubles me is that those are the same people who back both my opponents, Edna Jackson and Eddie DeLoach. I think if people knew who’s contributing to campaigns, then the public would understand who is actually running the town.
Here’s a perfect example of how broken it is: When you qualify you sign a document saying you live in the City of Savannah. Now, everybody knows Edna Jackson’s primary residence is on Wilmington Island. Yet nobody wants to prosecute it.
The Clerk of Council allowed her to file anyway. The District Attorney’s office says, “uuhh, we’re not touching that one.”
So if you’ll lie about that—do you think that’s the only place they lie about things, or attempt to go around the rules?
Does Van Johnson’s conflict of interest factor into this? Where he works for Chatham County and also sits on City Council?
Murray Silver: Van Johnson represents the future, sir. The future is to merge the City and the County. There's already a plan on the table, it's a five-year plan, and the plan is that five years out we will consolidate and Van Johnson will be your mayor.
Van’s already there, he has already personally merged City with County. And he’s the only person in this part of the world that’s been allowed to do so. They grandfathered him in when they passed the rule.
Van is already waiting in the end zone waving his hands, saying “I’m open, throw me the ball.”
So the party line is, give us one more Edna Jackson administration, then we’ll do a little gerrymandering, move some people around, then we’ll ramrod this through in five years.
That’s the plan, and I’m in the way of it. I’m the only damn fool in Savannah who didn’t get the memo.
You've said Eddie DeLoach is stealing your platform, but so far he hasn’t mentioned much about poverty or jobs.
Murray Silver: You know why? Do you know what the all-time buzzkill conversation stopper is in Savannah? Run around town and talk about the homeless and see what people say to you: "Screw 'em," is what they say.
So when I blogged about the plight of the homeless, the heroic job that Cindy Kelley is attempting to do, underfunded, understaffed, the biggest blowback I got was people who said to me about the homeless, “Screw ‘em. And screw poor people too, we’re tired of hearing about poverty.”
If you’re talking to affluent people, 99 out of 100 times they say, what are you gonna do about crime? If I’m talking to the working class or the working poor, they say, what are you gonna do about jobs?
So for nine months I’ve been trying to moderate the discussion, because Edna Jackson and the City Council have stopped having town hall meetings. They are afraid of the people.
That said.... Certainly you have ideas on how to fix the police department?
Murray Silver: All that said, I do have a way to fix the police department. And if I succeed in doing just that—even just that one thing—it will be more than has been done in the past 20 years.
I’ve simply asked the police what they want. The reason you’re not hearing about it from the police themselves is they’re scared to death of losing their jobs. They can’t say anything publicly, not even Chief Lumpkin. When even the cops are scared, there’s something wrong.
In this case they’re scared of a little lady called the City Manager. The detective who arrested the City Manager’s son for dealing drugs had to find a job somewhere else!
Game over. It’s broken.
So we need a Mayor who will make public safety job one from day one. You need a City Manager who speaks the language of law enforcement.
Stephanie Cutter is out of her depth. Stephanie Cutter had to hire an outside consultant at public expense to tell her what she should have already known and in some cases knew and did nothing about.
At Edna Jackson’s last town hall meeting she stood up in front of the citizens and said, “This situation in the police department was the result of our having ignored the situation for years.”
Sixteen years she was on City Council! It’s disingenuous for her now to claim she knows how to fix what she allowed to become broken on her watch.
Where do you start?
Murray Silver: We help the City Manager by empanelling a police commission, made up of former law enforcement people who can help the department root out corruption. Police departments cannot investigate themselves. Our last head of Internal Affairs committed suicide!
Ask Julian Miller, who worked for the Police Department, about a Police Commission. He was like, "Yeah I've heard you talk about that. What do you mean by a Police Commission?" I said, "Uh, have you ever seen Serpico?"
What do you think of Chief Lumpkin so far?
Murray Silver: Everybody likes the Chief, but the Chief hasn't been allowed to run his own department. On the day they hired him they should have said, OK, choose your command. Look at the majors, look at the captains, choose your people.
Because a couple of them should have gone with the old chief. And the reason some are still there is because.... they’re related to people in office. Cousins.
So if you ask the rank and file, the rank and file says “We want management gone.”
If you ask management, the management has filed suit against the City for hostile work environment!
It’s broken, top to bottom and back up again. So we keep the Chief, tell him it’s your department, nobody’s gonna tell you how to run it. Now do it! You put your people in place because this is now on you!
You’ve been vocal about the police pay situation, and the new raise.
Murray Silver: Whatever imbecile came up with that should be fired. This is dead on arrival. This is a pay raise that pays new hires the equivalent of a corporal, and anyone who has been on the force less than two years gets no raise at all.
It is the only pay raise I’ve ever seen where if you get a promotion in the SCMPD, you take a pay cut.
The cops are furious with this thing. All the new hires tell me, “I’m gonna stick around here for a year or two, and then go apply someplace they want experience and will pay more for a lot less work than we’re doing in Savannah.”
All we are is the minor leagues for other departments. The few remaining people of talent and ability who are still in the department are saying to me, “I’m getting the hell out of here.”
Did you know if you’re a cop and you get shot on the job, you’ve got ten days to put yourself back together? And then you gotta go on your vacation time. And if you run out of vacation time, you gotta borrow some from another officer. You got ten days, Superman, to put yourself back together.
In my administration you get the finest medical care money can buy, you tell us when you’re ready to come back to work. And if you ain’t ready to go back to work we’ll put you behind a desk. Unless you’ve been shot in the ass and then we’ll give you a job as a crossing guard somewhere!
Look, ask any cop how you fight crime. It ain’t a secret how you cut down on crime: You hire a bunch of cops.
The ratio we use for our staff is outdated. There should be three officers per thousand people in a metropolitan area. But that has to include your transients and your visitors, which we have on average 33,000 a day. And we don’t include the 12,000 SCAD residents.
They say we need 600 officers? I got news for ya: We need at least 800 officers. You want to stop crime? Eight hundred cops will stop crime. Have we got the money for it? Only if you stop spending $25 million on Cultural Arts Centers.
And now we come to the issue of crony contracts.
Murray Silver: One thing every single one of these deals has in common: Paying friends.
From the purchase of the property, which is always at top dollar, to the fact that there is a stated purpose for the purchase and later you find out it’s not suitable for that purpose, to the fact that the people called in to design and build are always somebody’s friend.
[Architect] Pat Shay’s wife was Edna Jackson’s campaign manager. This is how Pat Shay performs these classic end-around plays. It isn’t hard to understand what’s happening. What’s so embarrassing is it’s so open and notorious. As if to say, “You gonna stop us? Go ahead, try it.”
What was the tipping point where it all came out in the open so blatantly?
Murray Silver: You would look to the point in time people looked around at everyone who was feeding at the trough, and it was just about everybody. And they said, "Hey, the gang's all here."
Where it was broken for me was when they hired Brooks Stillwell for City Attorney. Stillwell had been Mayor Pro Tem on Council. He said, “Hmm, I could be Mayor, but who’s more powerful than the Mayor, or even the City Manager?” City Attorney, because you have the key to the vault.
When Council said to Brooks Stillwell recently, we’d like to know how much has been spent on legal fees the last three years, he went, “Uh, I don’t know.” They said, “No, no, we’re asking you how much you authorized for legal fees.”
He said, well I can tell how much was spent the last year. They said, no, take us back to Day One. And he goes, “Oooh, that’s gonna be hard.”
Come to find out the lawyers have been knocking us dead. And Brooks Stillwell, his first day on the job, said, “You know, the biggest case we have in Savannah, I can’t handle it because it’s a conflict of interest.”
You're talking about the Batson-Cook case.
Murray Silver: If I’m the Mayor I say, sorry we can’t hire you sir. If you can’t represent us because of a conflict of interest, I’m sorry. Next candidate, please!
It was a sad day in Savannah history when Brooks Stillwell waltzed a senior partner of his old firm before City Council and they got permission to build a new hotel on River Street by totally circumventing the process everyone else goes through for historic preservation.
At that point I said, well, it’s now broken to where even the lawyers are doin’ it to us. At that point you have no rule of law.
I’ve concluded that SPLOST sales taxes have really enabled corruption to be taken to the next level here.
Murray Silver: They convince people to vote for SPLOST by saying, this money's not coming out of your pocket, what do you care? This isn't your money, they say, but you get the benefit of it.
What’s at stake? $500 million in construction contracts. They don’t care where the money comes from. They think there’s an endless supply because they’re told that more and more tourists are coming every year, and that’s $2 billion a year. So they say, well we have two billion to spend.
What I find egregious is they’re starting to spend the money on projects people haven’t voted on. The eminent domain land grab in Sandfly is a classic example.
They told the people of Sandfly they had to turn their main road into a “hurricane evacuation route.” And by the way this will involve taking some of your property to expand the road.
And they went to these black churches and said, “Hey, the road’s gonna be at your doorstep, you know what you ought to do? Sell your property before it’s worthless.”
What they didn’t know is these same people had gone to Walgreen’s and struck a deal to build on that land after they tear the church down.
Regardless, it's sort of conventional wisdom here that any white candidacy for mayor of Savannah is doomed from the start.
Murray Silver: I want to be Savannah's first post-racial mayor. It ain't about the blackest or the whitest, it's about the best and the brightest. That's how I want to run the town. Just once. Just once!
You’re hiring me to push the reset button. I’m not the change, I’m the agent of change that will be delivered to you by the Detric Leggetts of the world. Detric Leggett’s the future. I’m 62. For me it’s one and done, get it, fix it and go.
What is Edna Jackson saying now? “I heard about a website called Change Savannah. Change Savannah to what—back to segregation?”
You’re talking to the son of Martin Luther King’s lawyer, lady. My wife is a brown-skinned girl from Brazil. Who the hell are you talking about? You think I’m gonna take us back to segregation? Are you out of your mind? I used to write speeches for Coretta Scott King!
Now, my daddy being MLK’s lawyer doesn’t mean I need to be the next mayor. But what it does say is the Silvers aren’t late to the table when it comes to civil rights. That's all it says.
Nobody owns me. Nobody runs me. All you’re gonna get is somebody that’s unbought and unbossed. That’s all you’re gonna get.
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"And you deserve better."
Thanks, Jim, for my new campaign slogan.