Originally created 11/25/03

Savannah picks a mayor Tuesday, low turnout expected in other races

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- The coastal city's first mayoral race in eight years will be decided Tuesday when runoff voters choose between city Alderman Pete Liakakis and retired professor Otis Johnson.

The runoff not only will decide who replaces outgoing Mayor Floyd Adams Jr., Savannah's first black mayor, but also will settle whether blacks or whites hold a majority on the nonpartisan City Council.

The Nov. 4 general election guaranteed the eight-seat City Council will have four white and four black members. The mayor presides over the council and gets to cast a ninth vote. Liakakis, 71, is white. Johnson, 61, is black.

But both candidates have tried to downplay any racial overtones in the campaign, trying to maintain the race-neutral stance that marked Adams' two terms in office.

"I hope that color would not be a deciding factor in this race because I'm qualified," Johnson said.

"I represent all the people in the community and I've been able to bring people together for a number of years," said Liakakis. "I don't think we should be looking at the color of the skin."

Only 255 votes separated Liakakis and Johnson when they finished first and second, respectively, out of six candidates in the Nov. 4 general election. Neither grabbed more than 50 percent of votes needed to win outright.

Johnson, a former city alderman and school board member, could have an advantage if voters split along racial lines. Savannah's population is 57 percent black.

But Liakakis has some prominent black supporters, and a healthy campaign chest has enabled him to outspend Johnson nearly $4-to-$1 - allowing Liakakis to tout his experience in slick mailings and TV ads.

The big unknown will be voter turnout. Fewer voters are expected for the runoff, especially coming two days before Thanksgiving.

In Atlanta, election officials predict low turnout in several low-profile runoff races there.

Voter turnout could be less than 10 percent, said Michael Binford, an associate political science professor at Georgia State University.

"The only voters you're really going to see getting out are the ones with some kind of connection to the candidate," said Binford, who specializes in public opinion and elections. "It's really hard to get people out."

Turnout was less than 30 percent Nov. 4 in the races in which there are runoffs this week.

"Historically, a lot of people don't come back and vote in a runoff, especially during a holiday week," said Riverdale City Clerk Sandra Meyers.

Voters in Riverdale will decide the mayor's race between incumbent Mary Lee and teacher Phaedra Graham. Peachtree City, Newnan and Smyrna will resolve its City Council officials.

In Fulton County, the Atlanta school board and the city of East Point also are having runoffs.


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