Feisty New Yorker Seeks Mayor's Job in Savannah
HISTORY and tradition hang as thick as the Spanish moss draping live oaks here. But a Republican businesswoman from Albany, N.Y., hopes to upset the local government and become the first female mayor of this traditionally Democratic city.There has only been one Republican mayor since Reconstruction. But Susan Weiner says she's a doer and a risk-taker. And she's challenging Mayor John Rousakis, who has been ensconced in City Hall for 21 years. But the outspoken Ms. Weiner points back to the June Democratic primary as proof of her opponent's vulnerability. Five Democrats challenged Mayor Rousakis. And one of them, Mayor Pro Tem Brooks Stillwell, a 17-year veteran of City Council, won almost a thousand votes more than his longtime mentor, Rousakis. (In Georgia, a candidate must win the primary by a majority of votes.) In the July runoff between Rousakis and Mr. Stillwell, the mayor squeaked by with just 201 votes. Rousakis, a Savannah native, is as much a part of the graceful old city as the cobblestone streets and garden-like squares. The son of hard-working Greek immigrants, he claims credit for opening up City Hall to minorities, installing the city's first water-treatment plant, and developing Savannah's scenic riverfront for tourism. The part-time mayor, part-time insurance agent traditionally has won support from the business community as well as minorities.
Issues of crime and taxes Many Savannahians say, however, that after 21 years they are ready for a change. A voter survey conducted while Mr. Stillwell was campaigning indicated that 82 percent of the whites and 67 percent of the blacks in Savannah want a new mayor. Some longtime residents complain that while taxes are high, they don't get the services they pay for. Others complain about the sharp rise in numbers of homicides and the increasing number of businesses closing. Ms. Weiner, a former actress and business consultant, promises a new style of proactive, rather than reactive leadership. Described by residents and observers as "one tough lady," she vows to reform City Hall so that every citizen has access to the government. She has launched an aggressive campaign focusing on the city's soaring crime rate and the lack of economic opportunity and jobs. m not one of the boys downtown," declares Weiner. m bucking every trend and tradition this city has ever seen." While she's lived in the city only for seven years, and has never before run for office, she's served as chairwoman of Savannah's Private Industry Council and has established a wide network through community activities. Her campaign staff is made up of more than 200 volunteers working out of donated headquarters space in a local shopping center. Driving a battered white station wagon stuffed with banners and brochures, she has canvassed city neighborhoods for more than seven months, visiting churches and civic groups. County Commissioner Julie Smith, the first Republican elected in her district, says, "Susan's got a real grass-roots following. She's done her homework and planned her strategy."
Murder was catalyst While Weiner had been considered the underdog, the transplanted New Yorker is gaining support. After a recent murder in one of the city's most affluent white neighborhoods, many Savannahians say they are fed up with the crime situation. And the anti-Rousakis sentiment continues to grow. Blacks objected to the way the mayor handled the murder; he had said he would get the police tanks if necessary to control crime. He showed far less concern over murders of blacks, they said. Weiner says, m convinced I can win if I pull together a strong neighborhood coalition of all races and socioeconomic groups [with which] I can fight the entrenched machine." Other observers note, though, that the support from the city's black population will be key. The city is 57 percent black. Democrat Roy Jackson, a black alderman and mayoral candidate in 1986, says, "She has a realistic chance of winning; she's gaining support in the Afro-American community. She'll probably get more votes than any Republican candidate has had in the past." The Rev. Bennie Mitchell, a member of Georgia's Rainbow Coalition and the former chairman of Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance PAC, echoes Mr. Jackson's comments. "Ms. Weiner's picking up a lot of anti-Rousakis votes," he says. "But she needs to tell folks how to vote a split ticket." Weiner admits she could count the number of contributions over $250 on her fingers and toes during the early months of her campaign. But supporters have been bringing big checks to her headquarters during the past few weeks. While she doubts that she can match Rousakis's war chest, she is confident she will have the $50,000 needed for a last-minute blitz of media spots. Some observers note, though, that Weiner is still a long shot. If elected, she will be the first female mayor in a Georgia city with a population over 100,000. (Fifteen of the South's major cities have a woman mayor, but Georgia has voted in only men.) Weiner says, m not running to set a precedent for women. I'm running to provide Savannahians a real choice."