I normally don’t write about politics here at the blog. I did enough of that during my 39 years at the Savannah Morning News. But during a time in our nation when public confidence in politicians and the political process couldn’t be any lower, I thought it was important to remind people that democracy is healthy and it still works by giving us gifted leaders, like Savannah's Mayor, Van Johnson, who can rise to the occasion. Here is my op-ed column about his splendid leadership, published June 7, 2020, in the Savannah Morning News (see bottom of article for link to original).
Van Johnson won the support of 62% of the voters when he defeated incumbent Mayor Eddie DeLoach in 2019. So far, city voters should be 100% appreciative of the job that the former 1st District alderman has done at the city’s helm.
Johnson has shown brains and courage during his term, reacting proactively to the COVID-19 crisis by putting an unpopular but effective wet blanket on the annual St. Patrick’s Day festivities in March. He also gets points for pushing the “Savannah Safe” initiative to help restore health and confidence in the local economy, which raises or sinks all boats.
Just last weekend, Johnson was again front and center during the peaceful yet powerful civil rights protest downtown related to the horrific murder of a black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25.
His strong leadership in these instances, along with his patience and diligence in working with an inexperienced City Council, portends well for the city as it undertakes a hugely important job – hiring a new city manager, the city employee who’s responsible for how police officers and all city workers do their jobs.
The COVID-19 crisis stubbornly refuses to subside and will require public attention and cooperation for some time. So will issues of race, justice and equality. These matters are critical to survival, prosperity and progress for all. They are complex and will tax Mayor Johnson’s civic leadership. But he has earned the public’s support and gratitude. Other cities like New York, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., paid a steep price for their lack of leadership and vision.
Going forward, Savannah voters can take heart in Johnson’s analysis of his 2019 win: “It means our citizens were smart enough to look beyond negative campaigning,” he said at that time. “Negative campaigning does not work -- people don’t like that kind of stuff. Because at the end of the day we all have to live here as neighbors.”
Indeed, we do.
If everyone stays smart, we will.
And in the long sweep of this city’s proud history of civil rights accomplishments, including lunch-counter sit-ins, school desegregation and swim-ins at the beach, this mayor will be favorably judged.
Tommy Barton is the former editorial page editor at the Savannah Morning News.