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Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson ready to be judged on his legacy

Savannah Morning News
Lesley Conn
December 18, 2011 
Otis Johnson doesn't have any illusions about how he will be judged as Savannah's 64th mayor.

He knows supporters will praise him for moving the city forward in addressing poverty and racial disparity in jobs, education and housing. Opponents who don't agree with his attempts, he knows, naturally will view him negatively.

He is holding out for the scholarly analysis that, distanced from the emotion and politics, will review his tenure with a clearer perspective.

At nearly 70 years old, and with a weakened heart, Johnson isn't sure he'll be alive to see it.

It is of no matter.

He's a firm believer in a clear exit strategy, and his is well under way.

With only 13 days left of his second term as mayor, he is planning his next role in public service. It is one he hopes will develop into a national model for meshing education and social programs into one seamless care program from cradle to grave.

His other priority is telling his own story his way. He plans by late 2012 to have his memoirs written. His working title is sure to draw criticism. He doesn't care. It captures his story.

It's of a Savannah life that for more than 50 years pushed social and political boundaries. It is one that carried him from a young man who drank from a segregated public water fountain to the highest elected office in the city.

Johnson recently discussed his eight years as mayor, his life in Savannah and his determination to break racial barriers, all of which culminated into what he called "a hellish" final year that put race relations and political agendas on a collision course.

It worked out to his satisfaction, though, with
the hiring of the city's first black city manager and the election last month of Edna Branch Jackson, whom he viewed from his first days in office as his successor.

Johnson's interview was one of his most candid in years, and highlighted his analytical prowess, his passion and his conviction that, with enough
patience and planning, every long-sought victory will be achieved.

"Nobody can say I was a low-profile mayor," he said. "And there is no one who can objectively say that I did not represent the interests of this city locally, at the state level, at the national level and at the international level. How they judge that profile is up to either their objective analysis or their prejudices, and I don't mean that in the pejorative sense.

"They're going to judge me, and I'm going to judge myself."

He already has thoughts on that.

"Savannah has been good to me, and I like to think I've been good for it," he said. "But again, that's for others to decide."

 

First black mayor

From his first days on council, after being elected in 1983 to serve as a District 2 alderman, he sensed the time for a black mayor was near. Floyd Adams, a newspaper publisher, and Robbie Robinson, an attorney, also were serving on council.

Johnson resigned in 1988 to head the Youth Futures Authority. Robinson was murdered in a 1989 mail bombing.

Adams stayed on, working his way from alderman to mayor pro tem. Susan Weiner, the city's first female mayor, was running for re-election in 1995.

Her administration, Johnson said, "had been a disappointment to everybody."

"It was an opportunity then for a strong black candidate," Johnson said. "I thought about it then. I knew I had the qualifications to become mayor."

He knew, though, that Adams "really wanted it" and, Johnson thought, Adams had earned the right by staying on council. Johnson decided not to run.

Would he have wanted the distinction of being the first black mayor?

"Yes! But I wasn't willing to have two blacks in the race and split up the black vote and lose the opportunity," he said. "I told myself, ‘When Floyd can't run, then it will be my turn.'"

He won narrowly in 2003 run-off against Pete Liakakis. In 2007, with little opposition, he returned on nearly 70 percent of the vote.

The other firsts

The opportunities for milestone changes in city leadership didn't come until his second term.

He had help in hiring Willie Lovett as the city's first black chief in 2010. Under the charter, council has no role in hiring department heads. Because the chief's job is a city and Chatham County position, Johnson, along with Liakakis, now commission chairman, and Russ Abolt, county manager, made the decision along with City Manager Michael Brown.

Lovett had earned the right, had proven himself capable and needed backing. It was a pattern Johnson wanted to repeat.

"Anything that had that kind of history to it was a clear target for me," Johnson said.

To understand his motivation better, it helps to know that in 1963 Johnson had been "a first."

Even as a teen, he had demonstrated, particularly when there were local instances of youth wronged by the practices of the day.

It wasn't until 1963 that he became more than one of many faces in the crowd.

On a June morning, he became the first black student, at age 21 and a Navy veteran, to integrate Armstrong State College, then located downtown near Monterey Square. Both the Savannah Morning News and the News Press, the daily papers, covered Johnson's first day.

One headline announced: "Negro Goes Quietly To College Classes." The story details the "tight lid of secrecy" on his enrollment and the state troopers and fire department officials who stood guard and monitored road blocks to avoid any disruptions.

A year later, a small notice in the News Press announced "First Negro To Get Armstrong Diploma".

That experience, he says, is one reason "all of the smoke and noise of the last year doesn't bother me.

"My opinion is, as long as we can still talk about ‘firsts' the work is not done."

He is not, he says, "of the post-racial generation," and he is not sure which generation can fully move beyond factoring in race.

"I don't know," he says. "I'm an old man. Maybe the generation in elementary school now."

 

Heart attack sharpens focus

By 2006, he was in the third year of his first term.

That was the year he was declared dead.

He was attending a National Conference of Black Mayors event in Memphis that April when the heart attack seized him. His death was announced at the conference and confusion swept home to Savannah.

He wasn't dead, but nearly so. Cheating death changes perspective.

It also serves to further motivate.

Some described him after the heart attack as "more crotchety." He's not sure that's the best description, but he does say, "My tolerance for B.S. went to zero."

Two things happened as a result. Jackson, as mayor pro tem, assumed many of his responsibilities while he recuperated.

"It became clear in my mind Edna ought to be that person to succeed me. I gave her every opportunity I could to show that she could represent the city," he said. "I felt very comfortable doing other things, asking her to be in spotlight."

Those "other things" had a ripple effect of consequences.

Johnson wanted to focus on wider-reaching policy changes, such as international outreach or, for example, the parental responsibility act, an effort to provide education and counseling to parents of at-risk children.

"The heart attack was a life-changing experience," he said. "Those first three years, I was working hard to make everybody happy because I wanted to get re-elected. Our council priorities of poverty, blight, economic development, nobody could argue with."

The shift in policy priorities, Johnson said, made City Manager Brown uncomfortable. Johnson was unyielding.

"As a council, we had a right and an obligation to set the agenda," he said.

Brown searched more vigorously for a new job, which became public as, more than once, he was named a finalist. In April 2010 Brown announced he was leaving to become county manager in Arlington, Va.

That wasn't the only shift in power taking shape. Johnson believes the dynamics changed subtly when Larry Stuber and Mary Ellen Sprague joined council in 2008.

"A couple of people from the old council began to try to challenge what they considered and what some called ‘our clique' and they began to challenge our votes, which had almost always been 9-0."

In November 2008, when Johnson announced a planned visit to China, he got resistance he hadn't encountered previously. Travel arrangements had been made and itineraries set with no discussion or input allowed from the full council. Aldermen Tony Thomas, Jeff Felser and Stuber were most vocal in raising objections. It led to some of the most heated arguments on council, and Johnson, with his "zero tolerance for B.S." at times simply left the room, refusing to debate further.

"That began the unraveling of the team," he said. "And the capstone of it all was the city manager search."

 

‘Heir apparent'

With Brown's job hunt not much of a secret, the handicapping of likely successors began long before he left.

The two obvious choices were Chris Morrill, the assistant city manager of management and financial services, and Rochelle Small-Toney, the assistant city manager of public development. The more Brown searched, the more camps divided internally. At council's 2009 budget retreat, there were testy exchanges between staffers supportive of Morrill and those favoring Small-Toney.

In February 2010, Morrill announced he was leaving the city to become city manager in Roanoke, Va.

Johnson seems incredulous when he discusses it even today. He throws his hands up, eyes wide in disbelief as he recalls the timing.

"We knew (Michael Brown) was job searching," he says, "And then Chris Morrill leaves!"

Morrill was respected by his co-workers, loved by the business community and, Johnson said, people knew he would do what was in the city's best interest.

Johnson rejects the idea that Morrill left because it was obvious council viewed Small-Toney as the heir apparent.

"Not in my book. Not if he had stayed," Johnson said. "In my mind, he would have been the heir apparent."

Eager as Johnson was to break another barrier by seeing the city's first black city manager, he also knew it would happen someday. Just as he chose to allow Adams to try for mayor first, he thought that, had Morrill stayed, Small-Toney could have waited for her chance, too.

 

The search begins

Brown departed less than three months after Morrill.

Small-Toney was the top-ranking administrator on duty, and she was named interim city manager.

She had been an assistant city manger for nearly three years, she has a master's degree in public administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and worked her way through budget and human resources positions in other cities.

Johnson never considered trying to name her city manager without a national search, even under a one-year contract.

"It would have never been accepted," he said. "There would have been always the question ‘Why didn't you do the search? Is she the most qualified?' There are people right now who don't accept that she has all of the qualifications necessary."

He believes questions about her ability to obtain a public official's bond, a requirement of the charter, were raised only to cast doubt on her qualifications.

For him, that was all-too-familiar territory.

"It goes back to something else I grew up with. When we were breaking down barriers to be first of this or that, the resistance would always bring up, this person doesn't have the qualifications. Many times that was not true. The second obstacle always placed in the way was experience. Well hell, if a black person doesn't have experience and isn't given chance, where is she going to get experience?

"Since I'd been through that so many times and watched it as I grew up, we weren't going to be sidetracked by that nonsense.

"All my life I had fought this thing. If you're qualified, you should get the job."

When, as Johnson says, "all hell broke loose" as finalists were named, he tried offering a compromise. It called for allowing Small-Toney to remain as interim until a new council could start a new search, when she again could be considered a candidate.

It failed to pass.

During the furor over whether the search had been manipulated to ensure black finalists, Johnson admitted that what he wanted was a well-qualified candidate and secondly, someone "who looked like me."

For a man once publicly identified as "the Negro who went to college," it's an understandable aspiration. But decades later, in a social and political climate that doesn't readily recall those struggles, white constituents focused only on the second part of his statement. With election season gearing up, Johnson's admission became a rallying cry for those who believed city leadership was focusing too much on race.

"I was raised in Jim Crow, I grew up to be a part of the Civil Rights movement that ended Jim Crow to taking advantages of opportunities the civil rights movement afforded us," he said.

"But there are still vestiges of injustice and social inequality that must be challenged, and I'm going to my grave challenging those when I have a reason and an opportunity to challenge them, and I'm not apologizing to anybody about that."

 

The book

Johnson has begun a rough outline of his memoirs, which he says will document as accurately as he can research Savannah's history and the life he lived here.

He plans to call it "The Journey: From N----- to Mr. Mayor."

Some have advised he needs to change the title. It's too inflammatory, they have told him.

He's not planning a revision.

"I'm sorry, but I've been called ‘N-----' a lot in my life," he said. "Now I'm called Mr. Mayor, but I know when I make a decision people disagree with, I'm ‘N-----.' I have no illusions about the world I live in."

Craig Lesser never voted for Mayor Otis Johnson. He doesn't even live in Chatham County.

But beginning in December 2010, as Lesser experienced one of the most personally trying times in his private life, Johnson helped sustain him.

That support came during one of the most trying times in Johnson's tenure as mayor.

"He was so incredibly genuine in his care and concern," Lesser said.

Lesser is managing partner of The Pendleton Consulting Group, which helps communities with economic development projects. He has worked with the Savannah Economic Development Authority and with Johnson on several projects, including a planned Clean Energy Conference.

That conference, and almost everything else in Lesser's life, was put on hold late in 2010 for a health crisis that required three months of recovery. Those months dovetailed with the uproar in Savannah over the city manager search and the state Attorney General's Office investigation of the council for failing to follow open meetings law.

Throughout those months, Johnson checked in regularly with Lesser, either with a phone call or a supportive email. His concern was always for Lesser.

In the two years they had gotten to know each other, both had learned they could talk candidly about economic development, social issues and history. They didn't always agree, but the respect is mutual.

"I think one can disagree with Mayor Johnson about various issues," Lesser said. "I think what I discovered was a warmth and a concern that was so genuine. It was an extraordinary show of warmth and sincerity."

published on 12.18.2011 at 08:17 am

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