Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Back from a July 4th break, Soundings looks at Savannah Mayor Van Johnson’s lead in the money race and the battle over voting machines in Chatham County, and offers stories on Brian Kemp’s political future, maternal health care, and real estate ventures in Savannah to help you catch up on the news in Coastal Georgia.

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Credit: Jeffery M. Glover/ The Current

Savannah’s powerful line up behind Johnson

Any lingering doubts that Savannah’s establishment have 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 lead Georgia’s 5th-largest city, The Current’s Craig Nelson reports.

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. 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.

Johnson appears to have embraced the “Establishment v. disrupter” contours of his campaign against Gibson-Carter.

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 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), Kurtis Purtee (District 6) and Patrick Rossiter, a candidate for Gibson-Carter’s at-large council seat, Johnson fielded questions from a largely white and conservative audience about crime, homelessness, and affordable housing in Savannah.

He also took a swipe at fellow Democrat — and favorite Republican target — Shalena Cook Jones, Chatham County’s district attorney.

Activists attending a meeting of the Chatham County Election Board call for replacing voting machines with paper ballots, Monday, July 10, 2023. (Craig Nelson/The Current)

Paper ballots

In a sign of tumult to come in next year’s elections in Georgia, more than a dozen Chatham County voters took the lectern at a meeting of the county’s board of elections yesterday to demand it scrap the county’s voting machines and replace them with paper ballots before next year’s elections.

One-by-one, they took their allotted three minutes to demand that the five-member board abandon the county’s voting machines and replace them with paper ballots, The Current’s Craig Nelson reports.

“There are a sizable number of people in this room — in this country — who feel the system is insecure,” said Dr. Stephen Herman of Savannah. “If we can’t trust our votes, we are toast in this country.”

Thomas Grooms, an Air Force veteran, was more direct when his turn at the lectern came. “You know in your hearts the system is crooked,” he told board members, his index finger jabbing the air at them.

The pleas of the petitioners for paper ballots came to nothing. Only the state legislature can change the voting system, board chairman Thomas M. Mahoney III said after the meeting.

“They’ve come to the wrong venue,” Mahoney said. “We’re required by code to use the state’s system.”

Gov. Brian Kemp Credit: GPB News


GA Guv Brian Kemp Considers What He Really Wants Out of 2024” (Daily Beast, July 4, 2023) “Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, one of the only high-profile Republicans to have ever come out stronger from a battle with Trump, has conspicuously stiff-armed buzz about his own presidential prospects. But insiders have noted Kemp’s gradual cracking of the door as the presidential Trump challengers have foundered. In recent interviews, Kemp has publicly not ruled out a run for president, and plugged-in Republicans say that he hasn’t taken the option off the table.”

Legislation Could Better Address Georgia’s Black Maternal Health Crisis” (Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, July 5, 2023) “Currently, Georgia is one of the worst states in the country in which to give birth, especially if you are Black. A Black mother or birthing person in Georgia is twice as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than their white counterparts. It does not have to be this way. More than 80 percent of pregnancy-related deaths are preventable, and state-level legislation can help create the conditions in which Black mothers and birthing people can thrive.” 

Historic Savannah neighborhoods join Forces to block new hotels” (WSAV, July 6, 2023) “Members of the Victorian and Streetcar Neighborhood Associations are petitioning to protect places, like the old Sears building on E. Henry Street, from being bought by hotel chains. Leaders of the movement say keeping these developments out of their neighborhoods is crucial to ensure people that live there now can afford to keep living there.” 

Georgia universities tell lt. governor: Millions spent on diversity efforts” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 3, 2023) “Unhappy with the University System of Georgia’s response to budget cuts, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones wanted to know how much state colleges spend on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Last week, Chancellor Sonny Perdue sent a nearly 200-page answer. The total amount is difficult to calculate. The report doesn’t add up the costs from all 26 colleges in one tidy sum. Instead, it lists millions of dollars worth of salaries for diversity staffers and describes the scope of their work.”

Politics is war? Georgia Public Broadcasting cows to pressure in canceling popular show” (Savannah Morning News, July 6, 2023) “Georgia Public Broadcasting lost its hard-earned credibility as a go-to source for state political coverage in an instant last week. By canceling the daily ‘Political Rewind’ radio show, the statewide network of radio stations became irrelevant.” 

Unplug Chatham County’s voting machines, activists demand

Activists demand that the Chatham Board of Elections switch to paper ballots, but are told to take it up with state lawmakers.

Savannah’s powerful rally behind Mayor Johnson’s reelection bid

Wealthy residents in and around Savannah are helping to build a substantial war chest for the mayor’s reelection bid.

Savannah begins installing automatic water meters across city after successful pilot program

The city of Savannah has begun replacing old water meters that need to be manually read with new, “smart,” meters that will automatically transmit real-time billing data to customers. About 300 meters will be placed each week at homes in billing Cycle 2, which spans neighborhoods across the city. 10,000 new meters are expected to be replaced by the end of the year.

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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...