In Coastal Georgia’s marquee election race, Savannah Mayor Van Johnson has easily won another four-year term, raising hopes that his victory will usher in a new era of civility in the much-maligned city council he chairs.

With all precincts reporting and all votes counted, Johnson won 77.3% of the 21,696 votes cast to former alderwoman Kesha Gibson-Carter’s 19.6%. Tyrisha Davis picked up the remaining 3% of the vote.

“People are tired of the mess,” Johnson told WSAV-TV at his victory party at a south side restaurant in the Hostess City. “I’m just grateful to the citizens of Savannah for giving us another four-year term.”

A second term in office wasn’t Johnson’s only achievement on Tuesday.

With the victory of ally Carol Bell in the contest for the Savannah City Council seat vacated by Gibson-Carter, the 55-year-old mayor expands his majority voting bloc in the nine-member body, fueling optimism that it will now embark on a new, more collegial era of governing after years of being ridiculed for the political theatrics that seemed to dominate its proceedings.

Alderwoman Kesha Gibson-Carter (At-Large Post 1), Alderwoman Bernetta Bryant Lanier (District 1) and Alderwoman Alicia Miller Blakely (At-Large Post 2) at a town hall meeting in Carver Village, Thursday, July 13, 2023. Credit: Craig Nelson

Johnson’s only Election Day setback turned out to be Gibson-Carter’s only consolation, as her friend and supporter, the incumbent Alicia Miller Blakely, defeated the Johnson-backed challenger, Patrick Rossiter, in the election’s closest contest, winning by 673 votes out of the 21,103 ballots.

For the five district council races, it was a joyous night for the incumbents, all of whom are Johnson allies. Detric Leggett (District 2), Linda Wilder Bryan (District 3), Nick Palumbo (District 4), Estella Shabazz (District 5), Kurtis Purtee (District 6) all swept to victory, easily exceeding the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff. In District 1, Bernetta Lanier ran unopposed.

But it was Johnson’s contest with Gibson-Carter, his main rival for reelection, that was the focus of the off-year election.

‘Deserves a second chance’

During the campaign, Johnson boasted of his management of the city through the pandemic, securing salary raises for police officers and firefighters, and achieving the lowest millage rate in 35 years. That resonated with one voter.

Micheal Messer, a 4 year resident of downtown Savannah decided to vote for incumbent mayor Van Johnson due to his leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic. Credit: Justin Taylor/The Current

“I think he did a great job with Covid trying to balance a really hard situation,” six-year Savannah resident Michael Messer said on Tuesday. “I think he deserves a second chance.”

Most of all, however, Johnson presented himself as a steady, sober alternative to the brash, sometimes caustic, Gibson-Carter, with whom he frequently locked horns during their four years together on the city council.

Without exit polling, it isn’t possible to pinpoint the reasons most voters cast their ballots for Johnson. But the mayor’s victory likely can be traced to the political melodrama and grandstanding that seemed to eclipse any of the city council’s accomplishments and turned it into a laughingstock.

The restoration of civility and collegiality on the council was not only a main theme of the mayoral contest. It was a throughline in every race.

In speech after speech, Johnson spelled out the future of the city council without what he described as the chaos caused by the council’s Gibson-Carter-led minority bloc, saying it would usher in a new, more collegial era of thoughtful governing instead of political theatrics.

“The Thursday night reality show called the Savannah city council must expire!” he declared at a campaign rally at the Clyde Venue last week.

Establishment v. disrupter

The contrast between Johnson and Gibson-Carter weren’t the mayor’s only advantages.

His campaign coffers dwarfed those of main rival. His support beyond southeastern Georgia didn’t seem to hurt, either.

Democratic luminaries rallied to his side, including former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, and ex-Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. They came to Savannah and stumped for him in the waning days of the campaign.

It was status as the establishment candidate versus the disrupter Gibson-Carter that seemed to boost Johnson most, though.

He was backed by the downtown white business and civic community and the creme de la creme of Savannah’s Black community, including former mayors Otis Johnson and Edna Jackson.

In Gibson-Carter, that coalition saw a threat to the stability they’d forged with Johnson during his first term in office.

She did nothing to assuage the fears of Johnson and his core supporters, arguing that Savannah’s majority Black community was getting shortchanged in the economic growth sweeping the city and the wider region.

Anquaeett Ingram, 31, a lifetime resident of Savannah decided to vote for Kesha Gibson-Carter because of her stance on housing and cost of living improvements. Credit: Justin Taylor/The Current

In Savannah’s $4 billion-a-year tourist industry, insufficient attention was being paid, she said, to crime-ridden neighborhoods, the homeless, and longtime Savannahians being pushed out of their homes due to increasing taxes and gentrification.

Gibson-Carter’s concerns about the consequences of growth resonated with Angela Schlesser, a downtown resident who was born and raised in the city. While she voted for Johnson in 2019, she was casting her vote for Gibson-Carter this time, she said.

“There’s just too much going on downtown — too many hotels, in my opinion, and I’m in the tour business, so I appreciate tourists,” she explained. “Hotels and vacation rentals are taking away our neighborhoods.”

Johnson won because he successfully portrayed himself as a steward of stability and continuity amid fears, often amplified by his supporters, that Gibson-Carter would undermine the partnership and dismantle the status quo. 

‘Act the fool’

While not naming Gibson-Carter, Johnson also didn’t shy away from portraying his brash and confrontational rival in unflattering, deeply personal, terms.

In his remarks at the Clyde Venue last week, as well as a TikTok video his campaign posted on its website, Johnson criticized those who, by their behavior, would squander the gains made by Black Americans.

“We have worked too hard” and “too many have sacrificed” for African Americans to attain positions in the corridors of power in America, including the courts, county commissions, city halls, city councils, to “act the fool,” he told his audience, which was dominated by members of Delta Sigma Theta, a historically African American sorority made up mainly college-educated women dedicated to public service.

Gibson-Carter’s organizational savvy and roots in the struggles that beset many Savannah neighborhoods gained her popularity among many Savannahians and a landslide victory in council elections four years ago.

In her bid to become the city’s mayor, however, her brashness and confrontational tactics were — it appears from Tuesday’s election results — her downfall.

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...