SAVANNAH, Ga. — A City Council veteran Tuesday became the first black woman to be elected mayor of Savannah and she promised to serve as a peacekeeper decades after participating in her first civil rights protests as a teenager.
Edna Jackson defeated rival councilman Jeff Felser in a runoff with 56 percent of the vote. She will succeed term-limited Mayor Otis Johnson in January.
Elected to Savannah’s City Council 12 years ago, Jackson campaigned on a promise to serve as a consensus builder after the outgoing mayor’s tumultuous last term. The 67-year-old former college administrator was just a teenager in 1960 when she participated in Savannah’s first sit-ins to protest segregation.
Jackson was widely considered the front-runner, as her campaign was endorsed by many of the city’s black ministers and white business leaders.
“I am so blessed that all of you have gone on this journey with me,” Jackson told supporters at her victory party late Tuesday. “When we started, I said that it would be a clean campaign. And it was a campaign that you would be proud that I would run.”
Felser, a 49-year-old attorney, tried to court voters who felt disillusioned with city government by portraying Jackson as the outgoing mayor’s heir apparent and himself as the best candidate to shake up City Hall. The mayoral election defeat ended Felser’s eight years on the City Council. Felser previously served as Democratic Party chairman for Chatham County.
Both candidates were forced into an extra month of campaigning after no one received a winning majority in the Nov. 8 general election, which split the vote between six candidates.
Jackson and Felser came out on top despite an unusually rocky term at City Hall, where the past four years were marked by feuding between the mayor and council members over taxpayer-funded trips overseas and a bitter search for a new city manager that led to white and black city leaders swapping accusations of racism. In addition, Georgia’s attorney general this year cited the mayor and council for holding illegal secret meetings as part of the manager search.
Felser blamed Jackson during the campaign for not standing up to the mayor when illegal meetings were held or debates grew divisive.
He said Tuesday the final margin separating them — just over 2,700 votes out of nearly 19,700 cast — was closer than many had predicted.
“I trust that she will do as she says and bring tremendous consensus to Savannah,” Felser said. “Clearly the vote tonight shows how deeply divided the city is.”
Caitlin McRae, who works at a local museum, said she voted for Jackson because she believes the councilwoman will work to build consensus among city leaders about what’s best for Savannah.
“I think she’s moderate and she doesn’t play to obvious party lines,” McRae said.
Felser got the vote of salon owner Monica McMasters, who said she saw Jackson as being too much of a “follower” of the outgoing mayor.
“I felt like perhaps Jeff might bring something new to the table,” McMasters said.
Jackson becomes only the fifth mayor to lead Savannah in more than 40 years. The late John Rousakis held the office half that span, from 1970 to 1991. Since then, his successors have been limited to two terms of four years.
Jackson is the third consecutive black mayor elected in Savannah since 1995. The first woman to serve in the job was Susan Weiner, elected in 1991.
Several other Georgia cities were holding mayoral runoffs Tuesday. They included Albany, Blakely, Douglasville, Dunwoody, Doraville and Rockmart.