Savannah Mayor Van Johnson at a campaign rally for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Raphael Warnock, Savannah, Ga., Oct. 4, 2022
The Tide - notes in the ebb and flow of news

With seven weeks until Savannah’s municipal elections, worry is setting in among some of Mayor Van Johnson’s friends and donors that he’s taking too much for granted in his bid for re-election. 

He’s the incumbent. He has friends in high places. And thanks to the support of Savannah’s white business establishment, he enjoys a huge advantage in fundraising over his opponents on the ballot, Alderwoman Kesha Gibson-Carter (Post 1, At-Large) and Tyrisha Davis.

But those advantages also can be liabilities in Coastal Georgia’s largest city, where another metric holds even more influence. Here, elections are family and neighborhood affairs — “who’s got your back and who doesn’t,” as one longtime state political operative and Johnson supporter says.

It’s this area of traditional, retail politics where Johnson appears weakest — a vulnerability that his chief rival, Gibson-Carter, is exploiting. (See The Current’s interviews with both candidates on public safety here.)

Alderwoman Kesha Gibson-Carter (At-Large Post 1) at a town hall meeting in Carver Village, Thursday, July 13, 2023. (Craig Nelson)

Gibson-Carter, who acknowledged to The Current that she can be “really, really abrasive,” understands the rhythms of Savannah politics. In her flamboyant pickup truck emblazoned with campaign slogans, she’s showing up at high school alumni celebrations, Savannah State football rallies and community centers night after night to shake hands and chat with voters. 

Johnson, meanwhile, is attending staid, corporate ribbon-cutting ceremonies and events where Savannah voters are scarce, including a speech to the NAACP’s Effingham branch in Guyton this weekend

Coupled with previous high-profile engagements like one on gun violence with New York City Mayor Mayor Eric Adams, and the visibility he gained in the state and beyond from campaigning last year with U.S. Senator and Savannah native son Raphael Warnock, some voters are wondering if Johnson is paying adequate attention to people who will be casting votes in the mayoral race in November.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s campaign manager, Moncello Stewart, has taken on multiple clients during this election cycle, something that some Johnson supporters say has left him spread too thin and weakened his focus on the mayor’s race.

Contacted by phone and asked if that was the case, Stewart said he had no comment.

For Johnson and his campaign, the perils of overconfidence and complacency pose a great risk, with a less than landslide victory in November likely to be seen as a setback to the much-discussed next steps in his political career.

Certainly, Gibson-Carter has her own baggage.

Since 2018 she has been in litigation over Mary’s Place, a rape crisis center on Savannah’s south side, where she served as executive director until being fired over numerous complaints about her behavior.

Then there are her flare-ups in and outside the city council, such as last year when she accused Alderman Kurtis Purtee of being a child predator and a pedophile after he called her a “ghetto bitch.” Gibson-Carter is a Black woman; Purtee is an openly gay man.

Gibson-Carter says the name-calling and the council’s political theatrics are the product of frustration. She says the Johnson-led council majority has systematically blocked her, Alicia Miller-Blakely (Post 2, At-Large) and Bernetta Lanier (District 1) from getting their issues onto the council’s agenda.

Others just see the outbursts as the reason why she’s unfit for higher office.

How much these quarrels will matter in November is uncertain, especially when voters believe Savannah’s economic growth under Johnson’s leadership has benefited whites more than the city’s majority Black residents.

The longtime political operative, who supports Johnson’s re-election, credits Gibson-Carter with the retail political skills to make the vote uncomfortably close:

“Different neighborhoods, different groups — Kesha knows what to say to the white folks of the Parkside Village Association, she knows what to say to the Black folks of the Benjamin Van Clark Neighborhood Association, she knows what to say to the east side and the west side.”

The Tide brings observations and updates from The Current’s staff.

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...