Author: Bill Dawers

David Simons ends campaign for president of Savannah-Chatham school board

Just a quick note about David Simons’ announcement today that he has ended his campaign for board president of the Savannah-Chatham County public schools. Here is Simons’ statement via the Savannah Morning News:

“After careful consideration and with the support of my family, I am terminating my bid for Savannah-Chatham County school board president,” Simons wrote. “This position is too important to be distracted by issues unrelated to educating the children of Chatham County. I have learned from the challenges of candidacy and I believe these lessons will make me a better campaign consultant going forward. I truly care about the future of our children and this community and believe this is the right decision at this time. ”

Simons got enough votes on Tuesday to get into the runoff against Jolene Byrne, but Byrne’s 40.1 percent in the primary pretty much guaranteed that she would defeat Simons (21.5 percent) in July.

A bit oddly, there has been no statement so far about the withdrawal on the Simons campaign Facebook page, and the elections board hasn’t yet received word that Simons is withdrawing. Assuming all the necessary paperwork is filed, Byrne will face third place finisher Chester Ellis (17.3 percent) in the runoff.

Simons explicitly touted himself as “the only Republican” in the 5-way non-partisan race, owns Simons Political Group, serves on the board of the local Chamber of Commerce, and was endorsed right before the election by the Savannah Area Business Political Action Committee. Over 17,000 votes were cast in Chatham County in the Republican Senate primary, but Simons got only 5,900 of the 27,000+ votes cast in the school board race.

It seems that Simons and some key members of Savannah’s business community dramatically misunderstood the local electorate and their priorities.

By the numbers: How Kingston beat Handel for 2nd place

Before delving into a few details about Tuesday’s Republican Senate primary, it’s worth noting that polling of the state proved, in aggregate, pretty good. If you compare Real Clear Politics’ final polling average with the final vote and proportionately allocate the undecideds, it looks like David Perdue got a slightly smaller percentage than he could reasonably have expected and like Karen Handel over-performed slightly. Jack Kingston over-performed even more.

There was a lot of talk about metro Atlanta voters in this election cycle, but Kingston largely owes second place and a spot in the runoff to overwhelming support in south Georgia.

A quick note: for the rest of this post I’m going to use this page at Politico, which has slightly higher totals than this page at the Secretary of State’s office.

Kingston racked up 78.3 percent of the vote here in his home county, Chatham. That’s no surprise. He ultimately beat Handel by 23,277 votes statewide; slightly more than half that margin came from Chatham County, where Kingston beat Handel by 12,756 votes.

But consider Pierce County. Savannah isn’t all that far from Pierce County, but I couldn’t have found it on a map.

Pierce County is northeast of Waycross. The county seat is Blackshear. The county’s population was less than 19,000 in the 2010 census.

There were 2,703 votes cast in the Republican Senate primary in Pierce County on Tuesday. Jack Kingston took 2,121. Paul Broun was second with 189, David Perdue third with 167, and Karen Handel fourth with 132.

So little Pierce County accounted for 1,989 votes of Kingston’s cushion.

Karen Handel pretty well trounced Kingston in the metro Atlanta area. In Fulton, she beat Kingston 14221 to 5482; in Gwinnett, 14623 to 5791; in Cobb, 14682 to 6320.

But in small counties across the southern part of the state, many of which Jack Kingston has represented over the years, the veteran Congressman racked up stunning margins of victory like he did in Pierce County. Read more

A few notes on Chatham County’s election results

A few notes on the election results down here on the coast in Chatham County:

The race for Savannah-Chatham school board president went much as expected. Jolene Byrne took almost exactly 40 percent and enters the runoff against David Simons (21.5 percent). Byrne would seem well-positioned.

Buddy Carter took 49.3 percent of the vote in Chatham County in the Republican primary to replace Jack Kingston from District 1 in the U.S. House. That’s a bit lower than I expected, and Carter’s overall district total of 36.2 percent means that he will face Bob Johnson (22.7 percent) in the runoff. (Click here for statewide results.)

In the Republican primary for the open U.S. Senate seat, longtime Savannah resident Jack Kingston took 78.3 percent of the vote (12,000+ votes more than either Perdue or Handel). No surprise at all that Kingston did so well in Chatham County, but it’s worth noting that he had similar margins throughout much of south Georgia — I might have more on that later.

Click here for additional results from Chatham County.

FiveThirtyEight on what to watch for in Senate returns

An interesting post today by Harry Enten at FiveThirtyEight: What to Watch For in Georgia’s Republican Senate Primary.

On recent primary polling history in Georgia:

Some contests are harder to survey than others — and primary polling is often awful – but pollsters have done well in the past three major GOP primaries in Georgia. It might be a fluke, but in those past three high-profile statewide races, just one of 11 major candidates has seen more than a 3-point difference between his vote share and his projected polling percentage (with undecideds allocated proportionally).

The polling in this race has been surprisingly stable, and that should mean a good night for David Perdue — and for either Karen Handel or Jack Kingston.

And on a county to watch:

Gwinnett will probably be the most telling. It has a ton of votes (9 percent of the total in the 2010 gubernatorial primary), and in every major competitive statewide primary since 2008, the vote there was within 5 percentage points of the statewide vote for all of the top three candidates. In other words, the vote in Gwinnett is a good indicator for how things will shake out (although it’s worth noting that Broun represents a small portion of the county).

Given the closeness of the polling for second place and various regional factors at play, it will be interesting to see if this pattern holds.

A growing case for allowing bars to open on Sunday?

Many Savannah bars were open this past Sunday. The world didn’t end. Lightning didn’t strike either (although some thunder might have rumbled around sunset).

The AP’s coverage of the peculiar issue was widely published, even in Seattle. From the AP:

Gov. Nathan Deal, a teetotaler who’s previously OKed relaxing Sunday liquor laws as long as local governments get the final say, signed Thursday a waiver allowing Savannah bars to open from 12:30 p.m. until midnight on Sundays that fall on or adjacent to St. Patrick’s Day — specifically between March 16 and 18. City councilman approved a corresponding local ordinance weeks in advance.

So it’s a pretty limited new policy.

In 2015, St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Tuesday, so the previous Sunday would be the 15th. That means that bars won’t be open, but restaurants with bars can be, as always, and Savannah liquor stores and other outlets will of course be allowed to open for package sales. And there was a further limitation this year: bars were forced to close at midnight on Sunday, but restaurants and so-called “hybrids” (restaurants that in effect change their operation to bars late at night) were allowed to stay open till their usual times.

Sen. Lester Jackson originally proposed a bill that would allow bars to be open on Sunday of any holiday weekend, but that bill failed by a single vote. Despite the uphill climb, several members of Savannah’s City Council seem committed to continuing the push to give Savannah bars the right to be open on Sundays year-round.

Forcing bars to close on Sundays obviously hurts sales and hurts tourism. A number of Savannah bars are also key music venues, so some touring acts looking for Sunday gigs simply skip over the city. Jacksonville is just a couple of hours away.

If we’re serious about giving citizens the right to make rational choices and about leveling the playing field for businesses that serve alcohol, it might be time to get rid of this vestige of the old blue laws.

Hutchinson Island de-annexation proposal a deepening problem for Savannah officials

The air might have been pretty smoky in Savannah last weekend because of the rubber fire at the Georgia ports, but there’s an even fouler smell in the air this weekend.

At the end of January, the general public and city officials learned more or less simultaneously that Chatham County had convinced state legislators to put forward a bill that would allow de-annexation of Hutchinson Island — the low-lying land in the middle of the Savannah River across from River Street that is home to the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center. From a 1/27 Savannah Morning News article:

Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, said Monday he plans to submit legislation to de-annex Hutchinson Island property from the city of Savannah, at the request of Chatham County Chairman Al Scott.

Scott did not return calls for comment.

A developer — whom Stephens refused to name — plans to develop a mixed-use development on property east of the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort and Spa, Stephens said. The developer believes he would have an easier time getting the required permitting from the county, Stephens said.

News of the plan came as a surprise to Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson and at least two other City Council members Monday.

Once all parties realized that city officials had not been consulted on the plan, and as multiple agendas began to reveal themselves, Stephens and other lawmakers backed off the proposal.
Read more

Jason Carter’s every move, now on video

Several liberal Facebook friends of mine have delightedly shared today this piece from 11 Alive: ‘Political stalker’ does surveillance on Sen. Carter

From the piece:

When Democrat Jason Carter exits his office across from the Capitol, a Republican is almost always there to meet him. The man with blonde hair is a 22 year-old North Georgia College grad named Ben. He’s called a tracker. He simply videotapes his target wherever he can. […]

Ben politely declined comment. A spokesman for the Georgia Republican Party, Ryan Mahoney, said “his job during the (legislative) session is to monitor Sen. Jason Carter and to hold him accountable.”

And the tracker is becoming a routine part of the political landscape. “It’s a pretty common occurrence now to have them on both sides,” Mahoney said.

So how common is this? Do the Democrats have someone videotaping Deal? Are the Senate candidates tracking each other like this?

Frankly, I see nothing wrong with political opponents videotaping each other’s public events, but there’s an obvious political risk in seeming overly aggressive.

The piece makes a labored comparison to Romney’s 47% video, but that’s not a good analogy. I don’t know if Ben is tracking Carter’s private life after work hours, but clearly the videotaping at the capitol is being done openly and publicly. That’s a far cry from Romney’s remarks recorded by a hidden camera at a sort-of-private event.

Ben’s work could be much better compared to that of S.R. Sidarth, the native Virginian who was videotaping George Allen at a public event in 2006. Allen turned on Sidarth himself, and that “macaca incident” might have cost Allen a Senate seat and an eventual shot at the Presidency.

But how likely is it that Carter will do or say something so hypocritical or offensive within the confines of the Capitol that it can be used against him?

And how much damage is done when the practice itself gets publicity like this?

Will bars in Savannah be open on the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day? And what about other Sundays too?

St. Patrick’s Day, which is the culmination of a days-long party here in Savannah, falls on a Monday this year. That means big business for establishments that sell alcohol over the weekend leading up to the holiday.

Bars can’t be open on Sundays, however. Restaurants (i.e., establishments that do at least half their business in food service) are allowed to be open on Sunday — and most in the downtown area will be de facto bars on that night before St. Patrick’s Day.

In light of this obvious inequity (or, some would say, iniquity), Savannah city council members are now pushing for a change in state law to allow bars to be open on Sundays.

From the Savannah Morning News, Savannah proposing Sunday bar operations to state:

Alderman Tony Thomas said he wants to make sure restaurants and retail stores are not the only businesses able to profit during that time. In addition, Thomas said bars, as well as booths set up in City Market for the occasion, should be able to legally sell alcohol that Sunday.

Currently, state law requires restaurants to derive more than half of their annual revenue from food sales in order to sell alcohol on Sundays.

Nonprofits also have the ability to sell alcohol during occasions such as St. Patrick’s Day, as they have in the past, said Thomas. To be fair, the people who are purchasing alcohol licenses should also have that option, he said.

Alderman Van Johnson said the change is a legislative priority for him. The restriction no longer makes sense after Savannah’s voters approved a referendum in 2011 allowing Sunday alcohol sales at retail stores, he said.

I have no idea how this proposal will be seen by legislators from around the state who would have to sign off on it. And even if Savannah manages to loosen the Sunday restriction before St. Patrick’s, I don’t know if local citizens will embrace the idea of bars being open every Sunday.

But downtown Savannah’s famed to-go cups generate hugely positive press and big revenues for the city, and we’d certainly see even more visitor spending if bars could be open on Sundays.

A look at Governor Deal’s employment claims in the State of the State address

In Wednesday’s State of the State address, Governor Nathan Deal credited his administration’s policies with producing a strong rebound in jobs in the state:

According to the federal department of labor, in the three years since I became governor, there have been approximately 217,000 new jobs added in our state, and major job announcements are almost a weekly occurrence. As a result, our state unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in 5 years! […]

Well today, more Georgians have jobs than at any other time since October 2008. We are getting people in our state back to work at a faster rate than the national average. For those 217,000 or so Georgians who now have jobs, they know what the sting of the frozen economy feels like. They lived through it. But for them, the freeze has ended.

I’m not certain of the reference point being used for that number of 217,000 jobs created since Deal became governor, but he could plausibly claim a higher number.

Here are some estimates for non-farm payroll employment for a few key months according to the data available here:

Nov. 2007: 4.206 million – the peak of employment in the state
Oct. 2008: 4.095 million – the date Deal references in the speech
Jan. 2011: 3.806 million – the month Deal took office
Nov. 2013: 4.096 million – the latest estimate available from the Ga. Dept. of Labor

I’ve noted before on this site that Georgia’s year-over-year job growth has been pretty good lately — a healthy 2.3 percent according to the latest estimates. That is faster than the national average, as Deal claims in the speech.

But job growth has been heavily concentrated in the Atlanta metro area, with most other Georgia metros showing sluggish growth or even losing jobs over the past 12 months. Perhaps more importantly, every single metro area in the state has seen the work force shrink over the last year. Click here for more.

And, despite an increasing population, we’re still over 100,000 jobs off the 2007 peak of employment in the state. The U.S. as a whole will likely surpass the pre-recession peak of employment sometime in mid-2014, but, even with continued growth at the current rate, Georgia is unlikely to reach its pre-recession employment level until late 2014 or 2015.

A closer look at the declining labor force participation rate in Georgia

Pretty much every time I write about statewide trends in employment, questions arise about the labor force participation rate. So this post attempts to address some of those questions.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta has some great resources online that can be used in conjunction with the Jobs Calculator. If you click the tab that says “State By State,” you can select individual states and then click on the map for more information. If you keep clicking where possible, you’ll eventually see a graph of the labor force participation rate for Georgia (and for any other state) since 1981.

And you’ll see that the labor force participation rate in Georgia has fallen more quickly than the national average.

Read more

Traffic stop in Brunswick snags fugitive south Georgia banker who disappeared and was declared dead

Happy New Year! From the AP:

Aubrey Lee Price, 47, was arrested [Tuesday] during a stop for a vehicle and traffic violation on Interstate 95 in Brunswick by members of the Glynn County Sheriff’s Department, the U.S. attorney’s office in Savannah said. Price is set to make his initial appearance before a federal judge in Brunswick on Thursday.

Price disappeared in June 2012 after sending a rambling letter to his family and acquaintances that investigators described as a confession. A Florida judge declared him dead a year ago, but the FBI had said it didn’t believe Price was dead and continued to search for him.

Prosecutors have said Price had raised roughly $40 million from about 115 investors, mostly in Georgia and Florida, through the sale of membership interests in his investment firm. Authorities believe Price slipped away with up to $17 million of investors’ money.

Given the circumstances of Price’s disappearance, it seems more than odd that a judge would declare him dead so soon. As noted in that excerpt, the FBI didn’t believe he was dead.

News first broke of the fraud investigation and Price’s disappearance in early July 2012. A few days later, the FDIC closed Montgomery Bank & Trust in Ailey, just west of Vidalia, where Price was a director.

Representative Greg Morris (R-Vidalia), chair of the Georgia House banking committee, was also a director at MB&T, according to the AJC in 2012.

Washington Post profiles Nunn and Carter

From a lengthy piece in today’s Washington Post, Michelle Nunn, Jason Carter hope to rechart the course of Georgia politics:

Nunn and Carter face tough odds, given that Georgia has not elected a non-incumbent Democrat to any statewide office since the waning years of the last century. But recent demographic shifts suggest a new electoral equation could be forming — and probably more quickly than in much-talked-about Texas.

The face of the state is being changed by an influx of African Americans and Latinos. Although whites accounted for 71 percent of Georgians who voted in the 2004 elections, that share had dropped by nearly 10 percentage points in 2012.

Last year, President Obama’s reelection campaign pretty much ignored Georgia, but he still got more than 45 percent of the vote.

The piece clearly gives Nunn a better chance of winning next year than Carter because of the “disarray” of the Republican race and the likelihood of “a bruising, expensive primary and almost certainly a runoff.”

There’s nothing really new here for readers who follow Georgia politics closely, but the piece is excellent national exposure for Nunn and Carter and could help boost fundraising. As I write this, the article is at the top of the list of the Post’s most-read articles today.

Georgia’s unemployment rate falls to lowest level in 5 years, but it’s not all good news

From the Georgia Department of Labor:

The Georgia Department of Labor announced today that Georgia’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate decreased to 7.7 percent in November, its lowest point since November 2008, when it was 7.6 percent. The rate is down four-tenths of a percentage point from 8.1 percent in October and a full percentage point from 8.7 percent in November a year ago.

The unemployment rate is based on data generated from the survey of households. We won’t see all those numbers until next week.

The numbers released today include the estimates for November from the survey of payroll establishments. Georgia saw a pretty solid 2.3 percent gain in payroll jobs over the last year. But the song has the same refrain: those gains were concentrated in Atlanta, with over half of Georgia’s metro areas losing jobs over the last year or adding them at a rate that’s likely too slow to keep up with population growth.

Here’s a screenshot of the key employment numbers by metro:

Screen shot 2013-12-19 at 1.06.26 PM

The best news in today’s report is probably the continued decline in initial filings for unemployment insurance. Statewide, there were 47,351 claims in November 2012 but only 33,781 in November 2013.

Are we near the end of Bank Failure Fridays?

I posted yesterday about FDIC lawsuits against directors and officers of two failed Georgia banks.

In both those cases, the FDIC did not file suit until about three years after banks failed, so we should certainly expect to see more such lawsuits.

And, given the number of banks still working under consent orders and other actions, we’ll probably see more Georgia banks shut down. According to the Unofficial Problem Bank List published at Calculated Risk, there are still 60 Georgia banks that are operating under some sort of heightened regulator scrutiny.

But the pace of failures has slowed dramatically. Only 24 banks have failed in the U.S. so far in 2013, and it’s likely that closures are done for the year. Compare that to 51 failures in 2012, 92 in 2011, 157 in 2010, 140 in 2009, and 25 in 2008.

Georgia has led the nation in bank failures with 87 since 2008, but only three Georgia banks failed this year.

Even after the failures and consolidations of recent years, Georgia will have more banks than all but a handful of other states. And we’ll be exiting the banking crisis with a few apparent success stories. Ameris Bank of Moultrie acquired 10 failed banks over the last few years and is now buying The Prosperity Banking Co. in St. Augustine.

I sure don’t expect any serious inquiry this late in the game, but Georgia legislators should analyze the reasons that we had so many more failures than neighboring states. Elected officials with formal ties to problem or failed banks should not participate in those inquiries.

Yes, Florida has had 70 bank failures since 2008, but compare that to the 7 failures in Alabama, the 9 failures in South Carolina, and the 6 failures in Tennessee. Texas has only had 11 failures since 2008. (By the way, I didn’t triple-check all these numbers, so if anyone has corrections, please relay them via the comments.)

Click here for the full list of bank failures since 2000. It’s sortable by date, state, etc.

FDIC files suit against directors of another Georgia bank

From the Savannah Morning News’ Darby Bank & Trust Co. officers ‘grossly negligent’ in managing loans, feds say

The former director and CEO of the now-defunct Darby Bank & Trust Co. and 15 former bank officers have been sued by a federal agency in a bid to recover at least $15.1 million in losses from bad real estate and other loans over a two-year period.

The 117-page suit filed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., as receiver for the Lyons-based bank, in U.S. District Court in Savannah alleges bank officials ignored repeated warnings of poor management of commercial real estate and acquisition, development and construction loans between Nov. 17, 2007, and Oct. 26, 2009.

Residents of Vidalia, nearby Lyons, and Savannah are among the defendants. According to the SMN article, one defendant had been involved with the bank for half a century.

Darby was founded in 1927, so it survived the Great Depression but not the so-called Great Recession.

Darby undertook a strategy of aggressive growth beginning in the 1990s and apparently received its first warning from regulators in 2004. Given the fact that Darby’s failure cost the FDIC over $164 million, it wouldn’t be surprising if the feds were going after far more than the $15.1 million mentioned in the lawsuit.

In other news, a federal judge ruled last week that the FDIC suit filed in late 2012 against directors of Buckhead Community Bank can continue. From Courthouse News Service:

The former directors of a failed Georgia bank cannot dismiss claims that they caused the bank’s collapse by approving risky loans without adequate information or review, and despite regulators’ warnings, a federal judge ruled.

The Atlanta-based Buckhead Community Bank failed in December 2009, after trying to implement an “aggressive growth strategy” that did not yield the expected results.

Beginning in 2005, the bank opened three new branches and expanded its loan portfolio, actively pursuing commercial real estate, development and construction loans.

In the cases of both Darby Bank & Trust Co. and Buckhead Community Bank, the FDIC took about three years from the time of the failure to file lawsuits. More than three dozen Georgia banks have failed since Darby, so we should probably expect more suits as the FDIC builds cases against directors and officers.

It might be fair to say that the Georgia banking crisis is over (more on that in a post on Tuesday), but the hangover from that crisis is going to continue for awhile. Not only are we likely to see more lawsuits, but many cities are also still dealing with excess capacity, poor planning, and other issues related to over-building and excessive speculation during the boom years.