PROPS COME in all different shapes and sizes, as witnessed by those who attended Mayor Edna Jackson's defiant and politically charged "State of the City" speech last week, kicking off the election year in earnest.
As the Mayor wrapped things up, a candidate for City Council, Detric Leggett, held up a baby’s coffin for all the crowd to see, as a silent protest of the Mayor’s record on crime.
While the baby coffin visual obviously dominated the immediate aftermath of the speech, it wasn’t the only political prop used that night.
The Mayor’s speech opened with a well-made video featuring a voiceover by Jackson herself, a sort of in-kind campaign contribution I assume produced at taxpayer expense.
The very first name mentioned in her video, glowingly and positively within the first few seconds?
None other than O.C. Welch, area businessman long rumored to have an interest in running against Mayor Jackson this year! Well-played, Madame Mayor.
As billed, the speech revolved around public safety. The Mayor unveiled a five-point plan which, while perfectly reasonable, was mostly a bullet point list of the already-stated policies of new Police Chief Joseph Lumpkin, whose coattails the Mayor seems eager to ride through election day.
The name “Lovett”—as in the prison-bound former police chief who Jackson herself helped hire while on City Council —wasn’t spoken at all.
The year-plus controversy involving Lovett and upper-level corruption in the Police Department—all of which happened on her watch as Mayor—was only obliquely referred to.
Indeed, the Mayor doubled down by strongly defending the City declining to attempt to strip away Lovett’s pension, inaccurately stating there are no grounds to do so under state law.
However, the name Ricky Jivens was mentioned—twice, in two different sections —as the Mayor took pains to point out that Savannah’s violent crime today isn’t as bad as when that gang leader terrorized our streets in the 1990s. Cold comfort to say the least.
Seated in the front rows were uniformed police officers, whom the Mayor repeatedly urged the crowd to applaud and honor. The officers, understandably, reacted positively when the Mayor told the crowd she’ll push for a departmental salary hike in the middle of the election year, instead of waiting until the new Council is sworn in.
The Mayor also addressed, sort of, the pending breakup of the City/County police merger—described to me by one political insider as “catastrophic” not only for public safety but for the local economy as well.
She took the most divisive possible approach to this issue by putting the entire blame for the disagreement on the backs of the Chatham County Commission. Thus, among other things, putting a very public last nail in the coffin of the possibility of a last-minute agreement.
So here is the Mayor’s five-point plan:
1. Hiring Chief Lumpkin. The Mayor begins her “plan” with something of a tautology: an already-accomplished personnel decision she claims partial responsibility for.
2. Recruiting, retention, and pay. Essentially Lumpkin’s own plan to bring the police department back to full staff, already spelled out to several community groups.
It also seeks to make the department more competitive for qualified candidates, so Savannah/Chatham officers will cease the practice of getting training and experience on our mean streets and then leaving as soon as possible for less stressful and more rewarding jobs in exurban departments.
3. David Kennedy and “Operation Ceasefire.” The outsourcing of crime-fighting strategies to this national expert will cost taxpayers a quarter million dollars.
4. Technology. Body cameras, ShotSpotter, and other technological advances in crimefighting.
5. Better Education, Better Jobs, Better Job Training. “The tough one,” as the Mayor refers to it, including “driving down that 25 percent poverty rate we’ve had for decades” and changing the “culture of violence in our community.”
Unsettlingly, there was zero mention in the speech of any practical game plan for the likely breakup of the police merger or reassurances for those worried about its impact.
If there was one bit of substantive policy news to come out of the speech, it’s that for the first time in my own memory a sitting Mayor has frankly addressed what the rest of us have already known for many years.
Specifically, Madame Mayor said, “What we do have is persistent, generational crime occurring in the same neighborhoods—and same families—year after year.”
While self-evident to most, this kind of statement has previously been too much of a political hot potato for most in local elective office to pick up. This is largely for reasons of race and socioeconomic disparity, but also because certain dangerous oxen tend to get gored when one pokes too deeply into Savannah’s sometimes surprisingly politically well-connected criminal underworld.
In any case, election season is officially upon us, and how! Mayor Jackson has clearly signaled that she will not be on the defensive about her record as an incumbent.
Quite the contrary: She will aggressively portray herself as... a reform candidate!
It’s a tricky bank shot—selling yourself as the solution to problems you yourself helped cause in nearly two decades in public office—but I’ve seen politicians sink the 8-ball with more difficult shots before.
There’s still a lot of time left before November to play in this particular pool hall, but it’s safe to say the house rules have been announced, and the blueprint for Election 2015 has been unveiled.