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Monday, December 5, 2011 - 9:26am

Savannah Voters Choose New Mayor

Updated: 2 years ago.
Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson will vacate his office at City Hall. Barred from running for a third consecutive term, Johnson will make way for one of two people. Jeff Felser faces Edna Jackson in a run-off election. (photo Ken Lund)

Savannah voters will return to the polls Tuesday to elect the city's next mayor.

Voters in last month's general election pared a crowded list of six candidates to two.

The run-off election features two city council members and lots of back-story.

Savannah has had a few tumultuous years in politics.

When it started is up for debate.

But most agree, something changed in the last term of the outgoing mayor.

Term limits barred mayor Otis Johnson from a third term.

But he has loomed large in the race to replace him.

"In this campaign, I have been made a lightning rod," Johnson says."

Both candidates distance themselves from Johnson -- especially his most controversial episode.

That was this past spring when Savannah needed a new manager, the person city council hires to run government.

Johnson pushed a 5-to-4 racially-divided vote to hire Savannah's first African-American city manager.

Candidates echo themes from that that controversy in TV ads.

"I want to restore trust in government," Jeff Felser says in one ad.

"I pledge to run an open door policy," Edna Jackson says in another.

Felser, an attorney, and Jackson, a retired university administrator, will appear on the ballot.

They agree on widely supported, general ideas like deepening the port, boosting tourism and reducing poverty.

But without specifics and running in a non-partisan race, they both have crafted reputation-based campaigns responding to the last year in politics.

Felser shows his reputation at a business breakfast by working a crowd of about 300, shaking nearly every hand in the room.

"Good morning," Felser says to a group of well-dressed executives. "How are you, Tom?"

"Hey, John," he says a second later, circling the table faster than the waiters. "How are you?"

Felser is running as the energetic underdog.

He claimed that position speaking to supporters on the night of the the November ballot, when he came in a distant second to Jackson.

"Let them continue to underestimate us because we are here to stay and a force to be reckoned with," Jackson says, standing on a restaurant's chair. "It's time for a change."

Felser says, Jackson will be more of Johnson.

Aggressively challenging both has given him another reputation: the one kicking up dust.

"Things weren't going properly and I'm not one to sit back and go along to get along," Felser says. "I'm an attorney and I know how to advocate for a position. And I'm going to speak out and say when I think something's going wrong."

Felser has been on council for eight years, Jackson for 12.

In her campaign appearances -- including one for bicycle advocates posted on YouTube -- Jackson presents herself as a unifying diplomat.

"This has been a very interesting forum this evening," Jackson says to the crowd. "And I can tell you that throughout all of the forums that I have participated in, I made a rule and I made a promise that I would not be negative."

Jackson declines to speak directly of her opponent or her displeasure with Johnson.

She refers to both obliquely and without using names, as in a GPB interview when she talks about not reaching a consensus in the city manager controversy.

"When you have people set in their ways of whatever they want the outcome to be, no matter what you say, you may not be able to reach that goal," Jackson says.

When asked to specify whom she means by "people," Jackson says, "I'm sorry. I don't call any of my council members names."

With front-runner status and big union and big business support, she's running like an incumbent.

But, with the upset at Johnson, it's not a reputation she embraces.

"But I'm not the incumbent and that's where the mistake is," Jackson says. "Everyone will run this city in a different way and my management style is working with people. It is not making all of the decisions."

Asked how she'll manage issues, Jackson says, she'll seek consensus.

Whoever wins will join four new and four returning members on city council.

To hear exended interview with the two candidates, click this link.

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