By Kendra Clark
AN ADVOCATE at heart, Kesha Gibson-Carter has brought her long history of working in social services to city office. Now, she wants to bring it to the mayor’s office.
We spoke with Gibson-Carter to learn more about her decision to run for mayor.
First off, what made you decide to get into politics?
I attribute a lot of my arrival into politics because of what I witnessed within local politics and politicians, their actions destroying the lives of people in our community. For over two decades, I was on the frontlines of the worst hurts that the citizens of Savannah experience: from health and hunger; to homelessness; gun and gang violence; to rape and sexual assault.
Seeing the level of hurt and pain in our community, and seeing the response of local politicians to those issues, motivated me to engage in a proactive way. For two decades, I had been responding to and reacting to those emergencies. I saw public service, specifically politics, as a way of engaging proactively, implementing and setting policies whereby individuals could forego experiencing a lot of those societal ills. And so that was my chief motivation, just wanting to make government work for the people.
What do you see as the mayor’s role in the City Council?
A mayor who was unselfish and leads with integrity and fairness will garner great success in achieving the goals and desires of the people. In my mind, a good mayor is one who fosters cohesiveness among the Council.
If you look at the structure of Savannah, our council is broken into six districts and then you have two at-large alderpersons. Each of those six districts elects one representative to carry their voice at City Council. The mayor should be the ear when it comes to pulling all of those needs together. The mayor must build upon that and figure out how best to work together to meet the needs of not just one district, but of all of the districts. So when the mayor, along with the post one and post two at-large individuals can work collectively with the entire council, I think we garner the greater benefit.
There is a lot said right now about five. You've probably heard before that it takes five members of council, a majority, to put anything on council. You will hear on the campaign trail that we need five, and I will tell you that it was the goal of the previous administrations, as well as this administration, to garner five votes. While I know that independently and respectively of all of the districts, we all are different people. We come from different backgrounds, but we all are Savannahians.
So as mayor, it would be my goal, not to simply garner five votes or to harness a majority, but to assure that we all, all nine of us, are of one accord. And when we are not in accord, it will be my goal to help usher in a spirit of ‘where we do not agree, we can agree to disagree.’
One of the biggest disagreements between you and your opponent is the process by which things are placed on the City Council agenda. What is the current process and why do you believe it should change?
It’s less about my disagreement with Savannah’s opponent and more about my fight for the people and the fight against voter suppression. Requiring five votes, which is a majority, to add, introduce, or present any item for consideration, it is essentially a form of voter suppression, and it's abusive.
Nowhere in America or in our democratic society does it take a majority of council members to introduce, present, present or propose legislation that will be ultimately adopted or subsequently adopted and considered for ordinance or law. It doesn't happen anywhere in America. Only here in the great state of Chatham. It overshadows the ability to be a transparent government.
So this is why they did that. This act was adopted our third month in office, in March. And in March of 2020, we were eclipsing month by month the number of homicides and the episodes of gun violence than in the previous year and the year before that. But of all of the legislation we could have adapted to combat that dynamic and that element, of all of the legislation we could have considered or presented, the only goal of Savannah’s opponent at that time was to change the role of council and adopt a rule to require a majority.
The thought was this very progressive and aggressive Council, these women, particularly myself, Alderwomen Blakely and Lanier, could put forth legislation that was actually was going to benefit the community, the people who we’re advocating for, and the people who elected me.
I got the second highest votes in the entire 2019 election. I actually got more votes than Van in that election. I just wasn't running for mayor. So you have to recognize that if we are coming to City Council with that type of indictment of the previous council, and with that level of support, there was an expectation and a mandate from the electorate to perform and to produce. And if I were to put forth legislation that would benefit our nonprofit community, our recreation teams, our recreation department.
If I really wanted to tackle crime from a proactive approach, I would be diverting more resources to community programming and social services, and I would first focus on who crime is happening to and who's committing crime. And who is that? African American men and boys. But this administration, this Council, hasn’t adopted, presented, or introduced any policy that directly speaks to that demographic.
So if the public saw that Kesha’s carrying legislation and I get it to the desk and it's on the agenda, and that majority votes it down, then guess what? The people now see what you actually stand for. So by way of strategy of this 20-year skilled incumbent, he knew that he had to create a way to shut us down.
So in short order, that was the motivation for getting the majority before you took care of your citizens. By garnering that majority, we were consistently shut down. And so after about two years of that pain and that fight and that struggle, that is the impetus for all incivility, or for all acts that people would consider undesirable or lacking in decorum. Those have been our fights, our fights for advocacy, our fights for placement.
I haven't fought for a parking space. I didn't fight because somebody moved my cheese. I wasn't fighting because I didn't have enough paperclips in my desk. I was fighting for things like the Weeping Time. I was fighting for inclusion. I was fighting for policies that would allow us to forego forced displacement. I was fighting to cut wasteful spending. I was fighting to reduce property taxes. Those are my fights.
So ultimately, when we allowed that act to go forward, it overshadowed transparency so that people aren't actually able to see what we are advocating for. They only hear the sounds of the fight.
One of the primary criticism of the current City Council is how adversarial it has become. How do you think this can be resolved?
In regard to decorum, this falls squarely on the shoulders of the leader. Anything that happens in organizations, if there is a problem, you don't go to the janitor. You don't go to the secretary. You don't go to the supervisor. You go to the director. You go to the leader. So any issue related to City Council, that falls squarely on the leader and for whatever reason, people have not assigned responsibility of the perception of our council to Savannah’s opponent.
First, people must understand that the nature of politics is innately adversarial. When parties are not on the same side, advocating for the same thing, you will have challenges and problems, right? Therefore, you will have disagreements.
What are you most proud of from your time on City Council?
I am most proud of the fact that we have encouraged and promoted and engaged the electorate. I don't know that there's ever been a time like today that so many people are now plugged into the political process. People know what district they live in. They know who their district representative is. They know when City Council meetings are. Our social media is logging record numbers during City Council meetings. People know how many votes it takes to get legislation passed. They know Robert's Rules of Order, right?
So there has never been a time in Savannah politics where we have so many people from all walks of life not only interested but having engaged in the political process. We've educated people and we have empowered them. This is what I'm most proud of, is that we have empowered them to take their rightful place in local government.
I am also proud of the fact that citizens are self-thinkers and no longer rely on their news from a singular source. They can now tell the difference between cover for the establishment and coverage of issues. And to be honest, that has been a big part of our challenge as elected servants. We have had instances where there are pockets of our journalistic community who are essentially PR masks for the mayor and the majority of that 2% who really run Savannah.
But fortunately for us, tables are turning. We are no longer having to kick and scream as much. We don't have to yell and shout from the rooftops because the rhetoric has not kept pace with the reality of what's actually happening in our community. So at every level, from homelessness, crime, poverty, forced displacement, you name it…everything is worse this administration than it was before.
Some tangible things in terms of a feather. I'm most proud of the fact that for the first time in the history of Savannah, we now have a team allocation program. I was successful in getting funds directly allocated to Little League teams and cheer squads in excess of $2 million. This was my response to being proactive. I approached the City Manager and introduced this as an idea for us to backdoor our way into stopping the bleed.
At the time when I introduced this to the City Manager, African American men and boys were falling like flies on the streets of Savannah. And so I knew we had a critical issue that needed to be tackled. I knew that we needed to work in tandem to law enforcement to be proactive. How can we stop the bleed? How can we help these eight year old babies before they get into this pipeline?
Because if you see who is committing crime, it’s 15 to 23 year old African American men and boys. Where is that population mostly dominated in our community? Our Little League teams. Why not support that catch basin? Why not strengthen that base so that we can stop that pipeline? So I don't know if it was out of desperation on behalf of the City Manager or just to appease me so I’m not fussing or screaming about one more thing, but we were successful in that.
Another feather is, as a former leader of a nonprofit that was considered an essential service in this community, multiple nonprofits, I should say, from homeless shelters to the Rape Crisis Center, I recognize that the process of making application to the City of Savannah for funding was quite laborious and challenging for executives. I saw where the process was flawed.
We [non-profits] are providing what's considered an essential service that a City of Savannah department would find relative difficulty doing their job if that service didn't exist. If that's the case, why are we having to compete for funding? Right? So I was successful in getting our local government to look at these nonprofits as partners, and have a seamless opportunity for them to acquire funding from the City of Savannah, as opposed to going through a rigorous method whereby they reimburse these agencies based on their units of service.
An agency like the Rape Crisis Center, we collect that forensics evidence and provide the advocacy for the victims, and then turn that kit over to law enforcement. What would they do without us? So why would you make this agency compete to serve you? And so I was able to get them to think outside the box in that regard. That's why a person like me arriving in local government is an anomaly, right?
I'm not a politician. I'm a public servant. And so when you have a public servant at the desk, you have a person who can look at things from a different lens. I'm looking first to serve the public. I don't know how to be a politician. I don't want to know how to be a politician.
I am not a career climber. I'm a keeper. We have to recognize that on its face. That's why my life has been a little bit difficult as well, because as I said on the campaign trail in 2019, I didn't come to play the game. I came to change the game and give Savannah back her city.
If you could snap your fingers and make a policy go into effect tomorrow with no opposition, what would it be?
I’ll say it again. I would reduce the number of members it takes to introduce legislation. Because, again, I want people to recognize that is the overarching theme of all of the frustration, aggravation, and confusion. This will allow all district representatives to truly serve their constituents and put forth crime reduction initiatives, equity policies, housing and poverty initiatives, homelessness efforts.
Being mayor is not about me snapping my fingers. It's about reaching out and touching the hands of the people who pay into our tax base. It's about creating an opportunity so their voices can be heard. And that's the other thing. I think for far too long we as a citizenry, we have been misled by politicians for decades. The thought is they are king and queen, and we listen for their direction and their guidance.
So on the campaign trail, I've been asked, ‘What are you going to do when you become mayor?’ I have to say something so that people don't think that I'm, like, this crazy woman who's just doing this because it's glamorous, which it's not at all.
I show them my pushcart and I tell him that surely you have to recognize after working in community and social services in excess of two decades, almost 30 years, I'm smart enough to put together a five point plan. I'm smart enough to tell you that I want to cut wasteful spending, reduce your property taxes, cut crime, enact policies that are going to help us tackle homelessness and poverty in our community and stop forced displacement. I can do that. But is that what you want?
I just spoke to a group of Hispanic residents out at Gateway. I went to their church on Sunday. I can tell them, this is what I want, but what do you want? And you know, what they wanted was much different than what I had on my pushcart. So you want a mayor who is going to listen and be sensitive to the needs of the people.
That way you tell me Mapa, that was the name of the church, you tell me on a Saturday in September, you came and visited my church and we told you we wanted these three things: we want greater access to be able to get people who are not documented help to get them documented once they get here. We want more of the information relayed to our citizenry…we need it in Spanish. We want to have access to community centers that are not user friendly to my commnity. You told me this in September of 2023 when I was running.
Well guess what? When I become your mayor, you have to see some evidence of this or you can hold me accountable. Now I can keep pushing this track record on my pushcart here, and I can come up with all kinds of magical numbers to make it looks like I’ve reduced crime and poverty, like they're doing right now. But can I cover the fact that I haven't done anything to translate our information into Spanish? I haven't done anything to make our community centers more open to you. So in my third month into office, my first six months into office, my first year into office, you need to be holding me accountable. You need to be calling the mayor's office, contacting your district representative.
This is what we are trying to do. We're trying to educate the electorate to let them know that these are your tax dollars. I'm just a keeper of the watch. I'm teaching you how to hold me accountable. I'm teaching you how to hold your elected servants accountable. And that's the only way we're going to take our city back is to empower the people.
Because if we were listening to the voice of the people, we wouldn't see all of this that you see going on around Savannah, things they can't partake in and take advantage of. So we want to be citizen led and policy driven. When we are citizen led, we are in a position where we have to listen to the people. And when we become policy driven, we have to take what we've heard, match that with the bearing capacity of our city staff, match that against what our resources are, and then marry the two together. Then we have an item that will live far along than my tenure
Looking at that and issues that people are concerned with, what do you think is the root cause of crime and how do you plan to address it? I know we’ve talked a little bit about it already.
Crime is directly related to poverty. So if we want to tackle crime, effectively, we would have to tackle poverty first. That is the case in almost every community that struggles with this issue, There is a reason why you do not see the level of crime on Wilmington Island, in Southbridge or at the Landings like you see in our marginalized and vulnerable communities. It’s simple. Show me a community with low rates of poverty, great opportunity and hope, and I will show you a community with little to no crime.
Another big topic is tourism. How do we as a city balance tourism with the needs of the resident?
We must first seek to serve the people whose backs the city is built upon. We have to recognize our bearing capacity, be honest about our limitations, and make known our needs. Our tourism industry is booming. Even post pandemic, they have done exceptionally well in comparison to other entities in our community. And so recognizing that as a strength, there is less of a need to find balance, particularly when we see a $17 million investment in brick and mortar on Broughton Street.
We just enacted a policy whereby River Street can now accrue extra tax dollars to be restricted solely to River Street. So less than finding balance, the city itself has to keep up and get caught up. Our city and our citizens have to keep up and get caught up to where our tourism industry is. So until we can help the most vulnerable among us, we have to really be cautious when we talk about balancing because it will never be a comparison to apples to apples. We will never have apples to apples comparison when you talk about the residents of Savannah and the tourism industry.
One issue that we are seeing nationwide, but particularly in Savannah as we’ve seen so much development, is that housing is becoming so expensive. What are some solutions to address the issue of affordable housing?
First, we have to stop throwing around the term affordable housing so loosely as if everybody understands, right? Because what's affordable to me may not be affordable to you. What's affordable to you may not be affordable to me. But we have to look at the market and the industry in our community and recognize that it has changed so rapidly.
This administration has faltered on keeping up with any policy by way of policy initiatives. We have not taken advantage of creating policy initiatives that would have preserved or allowed us to prevent forced displacement in our community. That's one aspect of affordable housing. That comes into place with keeping your house.The other aspect is obtaining housing. How do you acquire housing in this community?
First, we have to acknowledge what does affordable housing look like in Savannah. The next time a politician or anyone says anything about affordable housing, first of all, tell me what does the market require? Right now our market requires an individual to make at least $68,000 a year for decent housing in the city, right? Statistics and data tell us that you need 30% of your income. So if 30% of $68,000 is the standard, then we start to make decisions based on those numbers.
When we just throw out affordable housing, we really are not trying to solve the problem. We're just trying to get through a conversation. We need to speak a language where people can understand what's actually needed.
Developers and contractors have outpaced the City of Savannah almost 10 to 1 when it comes to the development of housing. If you look at the Eastern Wharf, if you look at the Midtown, downtown corridors, it's gangbusters. The City of Savannah should have been just as aggressive.
With the release of the CARES Act and ARPA dollars, we could have been just as aggressive in our ventures for creating housing for our residents, for our seniors in particular. You know, seniors get left in the lurch, a lot. Senior citizens, homeless females in particular, homeless seniors are the most vulnerable. So what does the affordable housing look like for that individual?
So there are multiple layers is retaining your current housing. How have our policies helped them or hurt? Well, people who are currently in housing, we've hurt them because this Council has consistently increased property taxes by not rolling back the millage rate. We have also allowed growth and development to take place in our communities where they're building million dollar houses next door to this 90 year old lady. Then because the assessed value of the neighboring property is now higher than hers, she sees her taxes increase, and the 90 year old can't even afford the taxes for the house that she owns. So that’s the retention part.
And then it's acquiring the housing, right. How are we making it possible for people to acquire housing? Well, the law says that we are restricted in certain things when it comes to housing. We can't put mandates on landlords but what we can negotiate with these developers who are coming before Council wanting to establish 200 units, 300 units. We can't make them but they want something from us, so why not partner with them.
Negotiate with them, even if it's for the first five years, the first 10 years. Okay, Mr. Coleman, can you set aside 10% of your units for affordability? Those are opportunities that we have missed. It can be stated that we are constrained and bound by certain guidelines or restrictions, but when you look at campaign disclosures, what is the motivation for that developer of that contract? They're contributing the max amount in campaign contributions to you. If you can negotiate and get them to do that for you, why can’t you negotiate and get them to do this for the citizens of Savannah.
You mentioned that homeless females are the most vulnerable of our population. When it comes to homelessness, what do you think the city can do to help the unhoused population?
Well, I think homelessness is twofold. Having worked in the continuum of the homeless for 10 years, I'm acutely aware of the causes of homelessness, who homelessness impacts and how people can actually come out of it. But you have to first look at it for what it is. Whenever you seek to solve any problem, you have to understand the issues and understand the problems associated with the demography you're working with or dealing with.
So we have two things here. We have the homelessness we see and then we have the homelessness we don't see. The homelessness we see is most alarming because it's right there in our face and that's considered vagrancy. It's not homelessness. We're dealing with individuals who actually do not want to be housed. And through no fault of their own, they may be struggling with some mental health issue, some substance abuse issue, whether it's diagnosed or treated.
Some may have strong criminal histories that preclude them from being able to get into shelter settings. Nonetheless, they're not there and they don't want to be there. We have to start where those people are.
We can adopt best practices and incorporate them in our community. There are communities throughout the United States who are dealing with the vagrant population very well, because they are dealing with it as a vagrant population, not a homeless population.
Now, I must say, in all fairness to the City, there are federal restrictions and guidelines that preclude us from being able to go hard on that issue, because these individuals know their rights just as much as we know what the law is. So you have to strike a delicate balance on being punitive or coming down on them if they are not violating or breaking the law.
The other issue is the homelessness we don't see. The homelessness we don’t see are the families who are living in hotels, families who are living in overcrowded conditions on someone's sofa, in their living room. It's the people who are living in their cars. That’s the homelessness we don't see. And so we are extending an enormous amount of city dollars, which I'm proud of, going to nonprofits where their varying capacity or their work output is not matching the resources that were given to these organizations.
So I would be inclined to look into how much of the city resources are actually going into the administrative costs at these non-profits, because my advocacy is for the service, not for administration. So it's increasing the accountability of the agencies we currently serve, increasing accountability of agencies we currently release funds to, assuring that they are effectively serving the homeless people we do not see, and then making sure that we're earmarking and diverting more resources toward prevention. Because once a person becomes homeless, you have to work 10 times harder to get them back. We can prevent it.
Lastly, SCAD is a huge fixture in Savannah. Since they are a nonprofit, they do not pay property taxes. One proposal has been a PILOT, payment in lieu of taxes program. How do we get SCAD on board with something like that?
Well, I want to first say that SCAD serves as an amazing backdrop to our city. I am grateful for all they have done by way of aiding in revitalizing the city. I'm also happy that Savannah’s government has been in position to provide and foster the foundation of that support. So when we talk about a PILOT, I want to first say that it really hasn't been talked about, it's just been fussed about.
We have not given significant consideration to really engaging SCAD beyond private dinners, private parties, rides in private jets and fancy invitations. That's the extent of the engagement of SCAD. They have supported politicians with their campaign contributions. I would rather the leadership at SCAD give contributions to the City of Savannah.
So when we talk about the Savannah College of Art and Design and the responsibility they should have to this community, I think it's insulting to have to have this discussion out loud. I regret that this mayor and previous mayors have not been able to engage to the extent they help SCAD understand how much we need them, how much we need their support.
Right now Savannah’s growth and SCAD’s growth is almost parallel. Yet we are using the very same infrastructure. We're using the very same bearing capacity of our police department. We're using the same bearing capacity of our city staff by way of our water service, our trash collection, and fire service. When you pull the statistics, in the Police Department's latest presentation, they charted the numbers on the calls for service for all the districts, first through the sixth district. This is no joke.
The calls for the second district over doubles all of the other districts in the city. You've got to know that's because of all the student calls for service, car accidents, fighting, people falling down, folks needing Narcan. So, if you are absorbing that much of our resources, at what juncture do you return back to the community? SCAD owns over 180 properties in the city and of those almost 30% of those properties are among the most expensive real estate in the city, and if you were to put a dollar figure to that, we're not even asking for half of that or a third of it.
To tell the truth, I don't want it to be a punitive mandate. I don't want it to be something that we make them do. I want to partner with SCAD and help them understand how they can best help the city so that we can be a better city for their students and their parents who visit here.
I often think of it like this. I have three children. I have a 23 year old son, a 21 year old daughter and a 16 year old daughter. My 23 year old son will have his master's degree in a couple months. He finished; he's an Army Reserve. My 21 year old daughter will have a degree in agriculture economics this time next year. And my 16 year old daughter is matriculating at Jenkins High School.
When it comes to my son, I gave birth to him first. I nurtured him. I clothed him. I fed him. I made sure he had a great education and a safe place to stay. I attended to all of his needs and his wants and desires.
How irresponsible would it be for him to have an expectation that after doing this all of this for you, getting you to who you are and where you are, that I still pay your car note, I still pay your mortgage? I still pay for your food and you are earning more money than me? Like at some point you have to get off the potty and go and take care of yourself.
Now what does it mean to take care of yourself? You have to give back and we need more than computers. We need more than some meals at Stillwell Towers. We need more than somebody putting paint on a wall in an urban area of our city. We need more than sidewalk chalk. You know, we are down more than 100 police officers in this city. We are struggling and we cannot continue to absorb the weight of these giants who do not pay back into the system that they so greatly benefit from.
Is there anything else you would like to tell the voters?
The first thing that comes to my mind is, you know, this is not a career for me. This is me genuinely caring for community. I'm signing up out of strict obedience and sacrifice. I would love to have the voters honor my sacrifice with their vote so that I can help save Savannah. But I can't do it by myself. I am in position to make sure that I, along with six district representatives and two at-large alderpersons, garner the best for this entire city.
To learn more about Kesha Gibson-Carter or to contact her campaign team, go to kgc68mayor.com.
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