by Mayor Van Johnson, Savannah, GA
Here I was, on December 31, 2019, in John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, on the precipice of the first day of the 202nd decade and the dawn of a new mayoral administration in Savannah—the 139th administration in her 286-year history—exhausted from a grueling nine-month general election period and an excruciating 28-day run-off period, running as a severely underfunded underdog and without the expressed support of the usual oligarchs of our day.
Here I was, the victor of this electoral race, with an entirely new council (save one member), a council bred and elevated because of the general dissatisfaction with the city’s direction and distrust of those previously elected to serve.
Here I was, with an informal swearing-in ceremony and a formal inauguration within the next two days, worried about the unknowns going forward, all the questions that would have to be answered—the education and visioning of a new council, the hiring of a city manager, the re-establishment of relationships, the establishment of a table concept and a plan to make enough seats for everyone to sit and partake.
I took a deep breath and reflected on the sequential plays in the playbook that I created in my mind almost one year before—what to do first, then second, then third.
Historically, the mayor of Savannah is required to be sworn in on the first morning of the year, which is required since the term of the previous mayor expired at midnight and someone has to be constitutionally responsible for the city at all times. This ceremony is usually private, held in the home of the mayor-elect and witnessed by the clerk of council and other officials. As my normal practice is to attend church on New Year’s Eve and I don’t return home until late, I decided to take my oath at the city’s annual Emancipation Day Service, a nationwide commemoration of President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which, by executive order, freed slaves in the states not under Union control. So, before a packed house at St. Phillip A.M.E. Church on January 1, 2020, I took the first oath of office.
The following day was the official inauguration at the Savannah Civic Center. Before a crowd of over 3,000 that overwhelmed the Johnny Mercer Theater, the entire Savannah City Council was impaneled. My inaugural address was divinely inspired and espoused my vision for a Savannah that is transparent, accountable, inclusive, and trustworthy.
My first 30 days as Savannah’s mayor have been dedicated to establishing a new culture for our city bureaucracy that represents the new core values that were previously espoused, making sure that the new council is properly educated about the $425 million dollar corporation they are now responsible for, and making the rounds of community, religious, educational, governmental, industry, and business leaders to introduce myself in this new role. I also had daily meetings with city staff, getting up to speed on the city’s operations and working with the council to chart a new course for our city.
My first 30 days as Savannah’s mayor have taken me to Washington, D.C. to the US Conference of Mayors, where I met mayors from across the country; strangely enough, many of them were very familiar with my race in Savannah. I also spent considerable time in Atlanta for the Georgia Municipal Association’s City Summit, where elected mayors and council members from across the state gather to discuss legislative issues before the Georgia General Assembly. And of course, I attended Savannah/Chatham Day in Atlanta, which is Savannah/Chatham’s opportunity to meet, confer, and lobby with members of the state senate and house. It always amazes me how many discussions are held and often consummated at Savannah/Chatham Day. I also had the opportunity to spend time with Governor Brian Kemp and other state leaders, reminding them of Savannah’s logistical and strategic importance in the state.
My first 30 days as Savannah’s mayor have been consumed with realizing that I am the mayor and responding when called by that title, managing endless requests for meetings, appearances, and speaking engagements, and getting used to the new normal that is now my life. I’ve visited schools, hospitals, and even detention facilities to start the process of making Savannah the beloved city I have predicted her to be. But I must remember that this journey is a marathon and not a sprint. I cannot be everywhere yet…
After all, it has only been 30 days.