Editor’s Note: Story was updated to remove reference to a specific address.
Any lingering doubts that Savannah’s establishment has lined up behind the reelection bid of Mayor Van Johnson were put to rest last week at the posh downtown home of Greg Parker, founder and CEO of Parker’s and Parker’s Kitchen.
There, the city’s political, business, and financial elite gathered for a fundraiser Thursday for Johnson’s contest in November against At-Large Post 1 Alderwoman Kesha Gibson-Carter to decide who will lead Georgia’s 5th-largest city.
Besides Parker, the fundraiser’s organizers included state Rep. Edna Jackson (D-Savannah), Savannah-Chatham County School Board Chairman Roger Moss, HB Group CEO Joe Bell and former Carver Bank president Bob James.
And listed on the invitation as hosts was an equally formidable group of 57 of the city’s wealthy and powerful, including Richard Kessler, chairman and CEO of Kessler Enterprise, Inc.; Don Waters, chairman, president, and CEO of Brasseler USA; and John Cay III, chairman of Palmer & Cay.
Johnson’s campaign manager, Moncello Stewart, said Monday that checks were still coming in following last week’s fundraiser and that the total amount of money generated by the event wouldn’t be known until the end of this week.
Chances are the haul was substantial: Suggested contributions were $2,500 for hosts, followed by co-hosts at $1,000, friends at $500; and guests at $250, according to the invitation.
As of April 30, Johnson has raised over $350,000 in campaign contributions, while Gibson-Carter has brought in $6,320, according to campaign finance reports.
In today’s politics, the total amount of money raised, as well as the size of each contribution, are seen as a crucial barometer of how well a candidate’s campaign is faring and a key indicator of where in the electorate a candidate enjoys most support.
Yet while money is essential to operate a political campaign, Johnson’s enormous fundraising advantage may not be entirely unwelcome to Gibson-Carter, a self-styled disrupter, as she made clear last month in her remarks at a Juneteenth commemoration in Forsyth Park.
“We are not free until the people you send to local government who look like you actually represent you,” she told the crowd, in an apparent swipe at Johnson.
“We’re not here to negotiate. We’re not here to collaborate. We’re here to take what is rightfully ours,” she added.
Scolding the district attorney
For his part, the mayor appears to have embraced the “Establishment v. disrupter” contours of November’s mayoral contest.
Last month, Johnson, a Democrat, took the unusual step of appearing as the headline speaker at a meeting of the Skidaway Island Republican Club at the Palmetto Club in The Landings, a gated community outside the city limits.
There, along with Savannah City Council members Detric Leggett (District 2), Linda Wilder-Bryan (District 3), Nick Palumbo (District 4), and Kurtis Purtee (District 6), Johnson fielded questions from a largely white and conservative audience about crime, homelessness, and affordable housing in Savannah.
Joining them on stage was Patrick Rossiter, a candidate for Gibson-Carter’s at-large council seat.
Together, they joked about the theatrics that to the public have come to epitomize city council meetings, theatrics that usually pit Gibson-Carter and her council ally, Alicia Miller Blakely (Post 2, At-Large), against the mayor and the other council members on stage at the Palmetto Club.
For Johnson, a Democrat, to appear before a largely white and conservative Republican audience outside Savannah that typically holds Democrats in contempt was unusual by itself.
Still more unusual — and telling — was Johnson’s swipe at another Democrat, Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones, a favorite target of the Republicans sitting in the meeting room.
In response to a question about news reports that Cook Jones had dropped four officer-involved shooting investigations three months earlier without informing the mayor or the public, Johnson chided the district attorney in words that no doubt will be repeated by her rivals when she runs for reelection next year.
The Tide brings news and observations from The Current’s staff.