IN THE space of 72 hours, the two most divisive figures in Savannah politics suffered severe, likely career-ending setbacks.
County Commissioner Yusuf Shabazz was decisively defeated on July 26 by Tabitha Odell in the runoff for the Fifth District seat Shabazz has held since 2012 (but a seat it feels like he’s held for much, much longer).
Three days later, news broke that Alderman Tony Thomas will be the subject of a grand jury hearing later this month regarding a GBI investigation into alleged improprieties involving minors and alleged illegal drug use.
While they’re far from the only egocentric troublemakers in this narcissistic little fishbowl we call home, these two men between them garnered the lion’s share of outrageous political headlines in Savannah over the past few years.
Shabazz’s most recent controversy came when he disregarded a city worker’s request to honor traffic flags and drove his van past the worker, clipping the worker with the van’s mirror.
(His decision to contest the charges proved wise, however; he was only found guilty of reckless driving.)
In 2014, in the wake of the officer-involved shooting of Charles Smith, Shabazz urged residents in the Augusta Avenue neighborhood—outside his own district—to boycott one of the only businesses in that impoverished area because they dared to have a good relationship with the police department.
As for Thomas, years of rumors about his reckless behavior came to widespread attention over the past few months in a series of very public allegations about his personal life which are alleged to have involved illegal activity.
Despite the high profile of the controversy, a somewhat murky and under-the-radar sliding of the case over to the GBI eventually resulted in the grand jury being impaneled.
While without doubt Thomas is innocent until proven guilty, this hearing will mark the first time that some of his accusers will go on record under oath.
Even aside from the more bombshell allegations, Thomas’s recklessness extended to his social media persona.
After the campaign for mayor was over, and even before newly elected Mayor Eddie DeLoach was sworn in, Thomas began a series of extremely personally insulting social media posts about DeLoach—alarmingly poor judgment even by Thomas’s standards.
The recklessness continued with a series of attacks on some of his own constituents which resulted in a pair of ethics hearings.
That said, since the most serious allegations against Thomas surfaced around the beginning of the year, the alderman has for the most part actually become very focused on local issues and has made some very good points in various workshops and City Council meetings.
It’s a shame it took this confluence of events for that to happen.
While Shabazz is done as County Commissioner, there’s no question in my mind he’ll be back on the scene in some form or fashion, especially since his wife, Alderwoman Estella Shabazz, was just reelected to another four-year term.
Speaking of power couples: Mr. Shabazz’s defeat essentially just traded one power couple for another: The victorious Tabitha Odell is married to Recorders Court Judge and former County Commissioner Harris Odell Jr.
Thomas’s fate seems simultaneously more clear and less clear: A grand jury indictment would clearly be the end of his career, but it is absolutely possible that the grand jury will see no reason to indict.
In that case the allegations against him will likely never come back up. But it’s still hard to see Thomas running and winning again in 2019 after so much damage has been done.
Regardless, a key takeaway from all this is the fact that no matter how outrageous the behavior of both Shabazz and Thomas, we heard nary a peep about it from other local officeholders.
Even District Attorney Meg Heap seemed, at least on the surface, to want as little do with all this as possible.
While I admire local elected officials for wanting to stay above the fray and be as objective as they could given the circumstances, it’s not exactly a profile in courage to pretend like business can go on as usual when a fellow alderman or commissioner is working in a very public fashion to undermine the entire fabric of the city and make us all look like laughingstocks.
The largely unchecked behavior of Thomas and Shabazz reflects poorly on everyone who allowed it to happen while never saying anything publicly about it.