By Emily King | Illustration by Jenn Carroll
EARLY voting for local elections began in Savannah on Monday, October 16. Candidates are now in the endgame (I hope you're a MARVEL fan and got the reference).
In continuation of bringing coverage to the community regarding critical local happenings, The Savannahian sat down with each candidate to discuss this year's race. Interviews covered each district's political platforms, resident concerns, and other hot topics to provide first-hand accounts of each candidate's intent. The final interview for District 5's coverage was with the current Alderwoman Dr. Estella Shabazz.
Tell me a little bit about you and your background.
I am a lifelong resident of the 5th District. I attended the public schools of Savannah Chatham County. I received my Bachelor of Science degree from Savannah State University in civil engineering. I went on to further my degrees with a Master of Ministry in Divinity and a doctorate. I am a wife and a mother—a licensed ordained minister. And I am a businesswoman with over 36 years of entrepreneurial experience. I was an employee of the City of Savannah and the first African-American female civil engineer to ever work for the city.
I advocate for national and local civil rights organizations, including the National League of Cities, NLC, in the Human Development Federal Agency. Also, with NLC, I'm a part of WIMAGE, which means women in municipal government. My work includes the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials– NBC Leo. I was the state and the past national Chapman for that organization. I'm a member of the Metropolitan Planning Organization. It's our local metropolitan planning organization for transportation concerns for our city, county, and regional areas.
I am an advocate and have worked with our youth organizations in the area, specifically the Frank Callens Boys and Girls Club. They have since purchased a property for an expansion in the 5th district. For the past ten years, I've been on the Chatham County Career Advisory Board, helping to develop careers for our high school students. Now, we're reaching back to our middle school students also. The beautiful part about that is we work with private and public partners to give our children exposure to what their futures might look like
I was first elected to the Savannah City Council in 2011. As stated, I'm serving my third term as the 5th District Alderwoman. In this third term, I was unanimously voted in by my Council colleagues as the Mayor Pro Tem.
You certainly seem like you've got your hands full. I have no idea how you keep it all straight.
Because the thing about it is, it's a pleasure. I get up with joy. It was not all planned. God ordains all of this. I am living in my passion and working in my calling to serve our community and people.
What made you decide to run for office in 2011?
I was asked by one of our community leaders to run for office. It was not on my agenda, and I didn't understand it all at that time, but now I'm very clear, and I'm very, very happy about this work. So, I was recruited by the pastor of pastors, as we call him in Savannah, the Reverend. Doctor Matthew Southall Brown Sr.– and he made sure that we said senior– he has since passed on, but he was the one the community sent to come and get me, and I'm so thankful. I'm so grateful now for him doing that.
So, before all this, you were already very involved with the community?
Oh yes, I was very, very involved in our community. As a community advocate, I serve them. I'm almost at 40 years of doing this work. The 12 years of politics is just a part of the whole equation.
Overdevelopment is a big issue in District 5. Do you have a plan to address those concerns better if reelected?
Can I say something?
Yes, of course.
I love Savannah. And in the 5th district, the area that I represent, it's the area that I love so much. I am a lifetime resident of the 5th district. I'm doing this work to make a difference in people's lives. I've stood on the front lines for our neighborhood for 12 years and have been a voice for the citizens from all walks of life in our community. I need to say this. I have been supporting our senior citizens, I've been building bridges for our youth and our next generational leaders, And for women. It's also part of my true calling to advocate for women. As an engineer– and this is one of my strengths on City Council– I will continue to ensure that local infrastructure is a priority.
Going off local infrastructure and tying that into overdevelopment, do you have a plan of how you would like to address it, either at City Hall or just in general?
As a civil engineer and former employee of the City of Savannah, I will continue to engage our citizens. There's this word that I'm using now, and that is smart growth: smart growth and planned community development. Because of the continuous development in the western portion of my district, which is the most undeveloped area, I will continue to engage the citizens I will. I will continue to protect the citizen's well-being as I have been doing for the past 12 years.
With the growth of Hyundai, because it's right next to the 5th district, we must elevate and review the impact of our neighborhoods and individual communities. We have Hampstead. We have the northern part of the new district, which includes Bloomingdale and the Cambridge Road area. Those once undeveloped areas are being developed. With that growth, I must continue engaging with my community. I will continue to be that voice for our citizens in the 5th District. I will continue engaging, being that voice, and ensuring a positive impact.
The other part is that I've been listening to our citizens. I've been having town hall meetings and will continue to evaluate the traffic situation. I'm just thinking about public safety and emergency services in that area, and we do not currently have emergency services nearby. The nearest fire station to that area is in Bradley Point. I'm concerned with the response time of the emergency services for that area of my district. As I said, traffic is a concern of mine, and I will be having my hands on the pulse. I'll be their voice and advocate to ensure that it won't negatively impact my constituency.
Talk more about your platform.
Now, you'll hear me talk a lot about infrastructure and everything. I'm a civil engineer. It's just the foundation. It's a strength of mine at City Council. I am the only engineer on City Council, and it's been that way the whole time I've been on City Council. The city looks to my strength as a civil engineer for the needs and wants of our citizens.
How would you say that the 5th District's historic Blackness goes into the treatment of issues that District 5 has compared to the other districts at City Hall?
Yes, the 5th district has been traditionally majority African American. And it still is. But with the expansion of the 5th District, forefront diversity, equity, and inclusion have to be at the forefront. I have authored the Savannah Business Ordinance, which expands opportunities for small minority and women-owned businesses. In my 12 years of service, I have raised the bar. I have raised the bar with citizens that contract participation from 3% to 37%. As the incumbent of the 5th district, my basis for running for reelection is that I will continue to serve with transparency, leadership, and accountability.
And I have been fighting for human and civil rights all my life. As I said in the beginning, it's not anything new for me. I've been doing this work for almost 40 years. My life's work has been fighting and advocating for the civil rights of all people. I have people from all social and economic levels in my district. The 5th District is majority African American. I know it because I am an African American. I'm a woman. I came from the bottom up. And the thing that I do is reach out, and I reach up. I reached out to bring our citizens the quality of life they expect. I'm very passionate about this work.
I think to be in this field, you must be passionate. If you're not, then you're in the wrong field.
The wrong field, yes.
My next question for you relates to the constituents. Some people have expressed concern about feeling unheard by the current representation. For instance, there was a reference to the fairgrounds, failed communication, and some dishonesty with them on that front. How would you address those concerns?
That is not true. Let me give you the facts. The community engagement has been there. There have been four RFPs (requests for proposals) that have gone out. Okay? There have been 14 community engagement meetings. I've had two citywide open houses, one in the 5th district and one at The Civic Center, where I presented a proposal to the community. I have worked with five city managers, with the fairgrounds and the current city manager, Jay Milner. He's now leading the charge with steady progress for us to move forward with the fairgrounds. A vitality study has been completed, and a site review has been done before the RFPs for all the surrounding neighborhoods. The City Council unanimously approved the proposals for the fairgrounds. The City Council also unanimously approved the first phasing of the development as senior housing. This is my work, all right? Because all of that is absolutely untrue.
Let me give you some more. The proximity around the fairgrounds contains approximately 3000 people. Twenty-nine percent of those people are under 18, 15% are 65 or older, and 19% score under the poverty line. Housing is essential, so we have the city manager, the developers, and the City Council voting for it.
I'm community first, the voice of the community. I've gotten it approved for the first phase to be senior housing. This older community has worked all their lives, and we want to assure them they have a place to go. The workforce in that area includes 75% in the private sector and 19% in government, whether local, state, or federal. The force is 69% women and 31% men. Most of the women are single parents. This is one of the reasons why I fight for livable and high wages.
I have an open-door policy. I've always had an open-door policy. I'm listening to my community with all my town hall meetings and my telephone. Let me tell you about my telephone. My telephone rings every day, and I answer. I mean, listen to my constituents. I do not leave them alone to solve problems or give them any old answers. I stay with them. I connect them on conference calls with our 311 system and make sure that their concerns and issues are documented. I work to ensure that their problems and concerns are solved and that I have documentation for the follow-through.
The fairgrounds are going to be an excellent and transformational development. There will be many jobs, state-of-the-art training, youth and sports or recreation facilities, and film and TV studios. There's local entrepreneurship, which creates jobs and benefits our citizens. I'm excited about it. I'm excited.
I can tell. It sounds like a significant investment back into the community.
Absolutely. We are focused on local. Ninety-five percent of our development team is comprised of local Savannah businesses. I am pleased about it. You put that in bold somewhere.
So, all that stuff about the fairgrounds, about me being absent, it's propaganda. I have the facts, and I've just given them to you. And you can back this up by getting in contact with the city manager. He will say the same thing. I have been and will continue to engage the community with meetings so their voices can be heard.
Why should voters support you compared to your opponent?
Let's talk about my accomplishments. I am so proud to say that I've brought in $19,390,265 to our neighborhoods in capital improvements. Let me give you a few areas– I don't know what folk are talking about, but you are getting the facts– Liberty City, Tatemville, Poplar Place Sylvan Terrace, Jackson Park, Leeds Gate, to name a few. I have secured and created 2,500 jobs with livable wages, $119,000,000 in new tax revenue over 20 years as part of the Rockingham Farm development, and 100 scholarships for training at Savannah Technical College. I secured for the development, design, and engineering costs for different projects, $7,512,734–and I need you to put this down there, Emily– and five cents. That number is just for engineering and design. I have also secured the estimated completion cost for the DeRenne project, $80,903,907. Also, I've secured $4.5 million in drainage improvements for the Liberty City area. That's why it's essential because of the investment into my constituents' homes. This information is being provided to me by the city manager.
A voice was crying out in the wilderness—the voices of my constituents for the City of Savannah to purchase the Evergreen Cemetery. I've worked tirelessly since being on City Council to get it done. I'm reporting to you today, Emily, that it's done. The City of Savannah has purchased the Evergreen Cemetery, and we will be rededicating that cemetery during the first part of December for the care of the loved ones buried there. It will be cared for as all the other cemeteries owned by the City of Savannah are. These are all things that the citizens have asked for. My track record speaks loud and clear to that.
I want to give you my platform. My platform is economic, keeping taxes low, expanding affordable home ownership, quality education, developing a prepared workforce for advancing industries and technology, diversifying employment with high-technology jobs, and public safety. I want to continue creating high and livable wage jobs, growing small, minority, and women-owned businesses, and promoting safe neighborhoods with strong relationships between law enforcement and residents for crime prevention.
What would you tell them to do if constituents have a concern that they'd like to voice?
I have an open-door policy. I answer my telephone number at (912) 675-7531. I'm from the old school. I answer my telephone. I keep it right by my head 24/7. I have responded to calls at midnight and gone out to my constituents at crime scenes. I'm there for them.
Is there anything else that you'd like to share?
I've got to say this. With all my work over the past 12 years, now is not the time to practice. We need the experienced leadership to continue to represent the 5th district.
The citizens of the 5th district are my most valued assets. Now is the time for steady and experienced leadership. To get anything passed on the City Council, you must have consensus.
Let me make it plain: I'm a compassionate, consensus builder with all members of the City Council. This is why I've been able to accomplish what I have from the voices and concerns of my citizens. This is how I got this record. Moving forward together, with the community, with the citizens. That's my motto for my campaign, "Moving forward together."
Transparency, leadership, and accountability are at the forefront. I will continue to engage my citizens with town hall meetings and information listening sessions to ensure their voices are heard. Moving forward takes all of us working together. Please reelect me as your 5th District Alderwoman. They can go to my website, voteshabbaz2023.com, for more information.
I've also gotta let you know about these recent accomplishments. I've got some endorsements. I've been endorsed by the Local 574 Savannah Firefighters Association, the Police Benevolent Association of Georgia Coastal Counties, and the Georgia Conservation Voters. I'm clear that public safety includes more than just police, fire, and EMS. It includes disaster preparedness, public health, epidemics, and climate control. These are things that people don't talk about. It's all a part of public safety and a part of my platform.
So, comparing my track record with my opponent's one speaks for itself. One of the questions I want to know is, what has he done in the 5th District for the past ten years? Put my record up against his. And Emily, I rest my case.