THE SAVANNAH ELECTIONS aren’t quite over. There are two runoffs Dec. 3 – one for Mayor, between incumbent Eddie DeLoach and Van Johnson, and one for Sixth District Alderman, between incumbent Tony Thomas and Kurtis Purtee.
Thomas has represented the Sixth District, comprising most of Savannah’s Southside, for 20 years.
When he was first elected, there was no such thing as Facebook, Twitter, or smartphones.
Thomas quickly adapted to the new era, and has since maintained one of the most toxic social media presences in the local area — which is saying quite a lot.
He has an “official” Facebook page as Alderman, and a personal page on which all manner of scorn and vitriol are poured not just on political opponents, but on anyone who criticizes him, including many of his own constituents.
There are vast collections of screenshots of these posts and comments, should the Alderman or any of his supporters be disposed to differ with my account.
Long before Donald Trump got elected on the schtick of being the most bellicose and abusive person on the public stage, Tony Thomas almost patented the concept.
From grand jury hearings on alleged sexual abuse of minors, to being publicly intoxicated on St. Patrick’s Day while representing the City, to calling an African American woman reporter the C-word on camera, to celebrating the death of a local man in a house fire whom he had disagreed with (also screenshotted), to having his shop evicted from Savannah Mall for non-payment of rent (after which he attempted to use his political office to blame the landlord), to blaming a Fortune 500 company for the deaths of several of his puppies... Thomas has run the gamut.
One of the most frequently asked questions in Savannah is, “How does this guy keep getting re-elected?”
The usual response is, “He comes through for his constituents, I guess.”
Thomas does try hard to deliver pragmatic solutions for district-level concerns of people who haven’t crossed him. It’s hard to argue with that.
But that answer conveniently leaves out that city resident who died in the house fire, or the constituent who literally had to leave town because of online harassment from Thomas, or the stiffed Savannah Mall itself, which is in his district (ironically where Thomas often points out businesses that have trouble keeping tenants), to name just a few examples.
One of the next most frequent questions is harder to answer: “Why don’t more people stand up to him?”
It’s a conundrum.
Following Thomas’s official censure in 2017 on grounds of public drunkenness and his misogynist attack on the WTOC reporter, I wrote a column wondering “Where are all the local activists when we really need them?”
The usual group of people who spend all day on Facebook decrying and dissecting the ridiculous tweet of the day from Donald Trump, or maybe urging a boycott of a national company because of an insensitive ad campaign, were conspicuously silent about their own local version of Trump right on the Southside.
“It’s not my district,” some respond. When did that ever stop them from having an opinion on literally anything or anyone else?
“It’s up to the voters,” others say. Of course it is — that’s true everywhere. Again, did that ever stop someone from having a position or voicing an opinion before?
“Many of his constituents like him,” say others. That’s true of literally every long-time incumbent that people were insisting needed to be voted out.
Unfortunately, I could have written nearly the same column this election season, as some local progressive activists who were extremely vocal and passionate about every other race in town — in their district or not — were again notably silent about Savannah’s Sixth District.
Except this time there was even less of an excuse from the progressive point of view: Thomas is running against an openly gay candidate, fully endorsed by Georgia Equality.
In the #MeToo era, in the wake of Thomas’s questionable personal and professional behavior, in the wake of widespread outrage about Trump’s also questionable behavior — why the crickets on this one local election, out of all of them? Why the shrugged shoulders?
I don’t think there’s a conspiracy theory. The answer, I think, is simple: People are afraid of Tony Thomas.
It’s a legitimate concern. Thomas can and will devote enormous time and energy to going after political and personal opponents.
It can be exhausting at a minimum, and dangerous at worst.
I have had Thomas demand that my employer fire me because of critical but accurate coverage of him, a public official. If he wins, I expect more of the same. Who knows, he may even be successful one day.
Many, many others have similar stories to tell. But they sometimes have a hard time finding allies.
Thomas, however, has powerful allies.
Openly defending him at his censure hearing in 2017, for public drunkenness and calling an African American woman the C-word, was none other than......
Van Johnson. Who, if you’re a betting person, is probably going to be the next Mayor of Savannah.
(DeLoach, who called for the censure, was reduced afterward to appearing in YouTube videos helping Thomas promote various park projects — while Thomas continued to savage him in public.)
Former Mayors Otis Johnson and Edna Jackson have both endorsed Thomas.
Any previous ethics or legal complaints against Thomas by constituents have all been dismissed.
Even the Savannah Morning News declined to endorse either of Thomas’s challengers in the general election, instead issuing no endorsement at all.
Think of all this. Think of all these obstacles.
And now think of the courage it takes to actually run against Thomas.
Think of the abuse you set yourself up for when you aren’t just writing about Thomas, but trying to unseat him from the office he’s held for two decades.
It’s quite a daunting task, which in and of itself says a lot about anyone who takes it on.
Early voting begins this week and runs through Nov. 27.
The runoff election day is Dec. 3.
Note: You do NOT need to have voted in the general election to be eligible to vote in the runoff.