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Editor's Note: Change hits the coast — Special Election Edition 

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TURNOUT may have been low, but sweeping change will nonetheless come to Savannah City Council as a result of yesterday's election.

The change wasn't limited to Savannah, as voters in other municipalities in Chatham County also made strong statements favoring a fresh start.

While a runoff is routine for Savannah Mayor, not everyone anticipated this particular scenario.

In a flip version of four years ago, incumbent Mayor Eddie DeLoach found himself at a significant vote deficit against his main challenger, Van Johnson.

While Johnson didn't get the fifty percent-plus-one needed to win outright, he easily bested DeLoach's vote total, garnering 46 percent of the vote vs. the mayor's 40 percent.

The two meet in a Dec. 3 runoff, which will also see a rematch between incumbent Alderman Tony Thomas and challenger Kurtis Purtee in the Sixth District.

My key takeaways:

Regardless of runoff results, there will be a new progressive majority on City Council. With incumbents Bill Durrence falling to Detric Leggett, John Hall falling to Linda Wilder Bryan, and Carol Bell falling to Kesha Gibson-Carter, and Alicia Blakely Miller easily taking the open at-large seat, there literally couldn't be a more different Council.

The DeLoach majority slate — whose shared ideology seemed to revolve around money  and supporting deep pockets, with a whiff of condescension, is gone, replaced by mostly younger non-politicians whose main experience has been in community activism and the nonprofit world.

Most importantly, the new majority isn't beholden to any particular financial interests.

It is hard to overstate the shock wave this will send through the powers-that-be in Chatham County. 

The new Council majority will more closely reflect the face of Savannah. One is understandably tempted to say the new slate on Council represents major change. In a way it obviously does, but in another way we see that the election four years ago was the actual anomaly.

The simple truth is that the outgoing Council, comprising a white-male majority with a Mayor from Pooler, was always an outlier by Savannah standards.

Savannah is a majority African American, majority female city, and the new Council boasts not only a large black majority, but it is the first majority woman Council in Savannah history.

Whether or not DeLoach is re-elected won't change these fundamentals. And if Van Johnson prevails on Dec. 3, you will see an even stronger mandate for progressive change.

They will need every bit of that strong mandate, as the City faces very serious budget issues out of the gate.

Big money lost big time. Mayor DeLoach had an almost absurdly large war chest, about a quarter million dollars, for the small size of the Savannah market. His political soulmate Carol Bell also raised huge funds, from mostly the same donors.

All that money got DeLoach a mere 40 percent of the vote, and earned Carol Bell a straight-up loss.

Indeed, DeLoach seemed to literally have more money than he knew what to do with, judging by the copious number of DeLoach signs around town, some of them illegally located in front of polling places on election day.

Late breaking news that DeLoach accepted several illegal campaign donations — since returned — soured his aw-shucks reputation and gave his opponent Van Johnson something to really sink his teeth into in the latter days of the race.

Other well-funded incumbents, such as Bill Durrence, saw their bath of money go down the drain.

Estella Shabazz is now a kingmaker. A vocal member of the troika of dissenting votes on City Council for four years — along with Van Johnson and Tony Thomas — Dr. Estella Shabazz of the Fifth District now finds herself rewarded for sticking to her guns that whole time, frequently making a stand when she knew she would be on the losing side of the vote.

Running unopposed in this campaign, she can claim a firm mandate for her positions moving forward.

If Eddie wins? Should Mayor DeLoach prevail in the runoff, as he did against former Mayor Edna Jackson, he will find himself largely inert and reduced to holding the gavel, forced to go along to get along, no longer in the majority.

DeLoach had made baby steps toward the left already, such as his vocal stance supporting gun control with the rest of Council (which may have cost him votes in his home district).

But if he gets a second term, he will be playing defense the whole time. A cynic might wonder why he will even bother to contest the runoff.

If Tony wins? The always-controversial Alderman Tony Thomas — beloved by many in his district, widely loathed outside of it — faces another referendum on his performance and his personal behavior.

He has a capable challenger this time, Kurtis Purtee. But while the so-called "anti-Thomas" vote amounted to about 53 percent of the total, runoffs are a different beast entirely.

A nasty race will just get nastier as Thomas sees another term in his grasp and pulls out all the stops.

And if he emerges victorious in the December runoff, Thomas will finally have the bragging rights he has long sought, seeing his nemesis DeLoach either vanquished or reduced to ineffectiveness.

With no restraint on him either politically or personally, expect a reckoning as Thomas seeks to settle the score with his many, many detractors, both in and out of the media.

It ain't gonna be pretty.

Future Mayors? Expect the names Kesha Gibson-Carter and Nick Palumbo — the new Fourth District Alderman, who ran unopposed — to be mentioned by pundits as possible mayors of Savannah in the future.

Change came to Tybee and Pooler as well. Tybee Island will have its first woman mayor, Shirley Sessions. She has big shoes to fill in the wake of outgoing Jason Buelterman, but the consensus is the personable and widely admired Sessions is up to the task.

Pooler also took a big step toward more transparent and accountable government, as the old guard of very pro-development Council members was washed away.

A Pooler insider tells me the election was "a breath of fresh air for Pooler which has gone down the road of excessive development without true planning in terms of traffic control tree management or services."

Savannah folks, don't scoff that I'm talking about Pooler — that's where the bulk of growth in Chatham County is.

Pooler might not really be cooler, but the center of economic gravity is moving inexorably west. Get used to it.

SPLOST passed, again. But by not so overwhelming a vote this time. Opponents of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax can take solace that it was mostly their vocal dissent that prompted City officials to reboot the project list this year to include more infrastructure rather than sexy, shiny projects for tourists to coo over. 
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About The Author

Jim Morekis

Jim Morekis

Bio:
A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for 15 years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series... more

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Connect Today 11.19.2019

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