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Electing the coastal king or queen

First Posted: 8:49 pm - September 5th, 2015

Phil Noble - Contributing Columnist



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Billy Keyserling has been mayor of Beaufort since 2008 and he knows a lot about both politics and coastal South Carolina. He recently said that the upcoming mayoral election in Charleston is about electing the “king of the coast.”

Billy believes, and I think he’s right, that whoever is the mayor of Charleston has outsized influence, not just in the city but all up and down the coast. Given the way our state’s economy and politics works, the king of the coast is of real importance to everyone in South Carolina.

As a result, people all across the state have started to ask, ‘What’s happening with the mayor’s race in Charleston?’

Well, I’ve called Charleston home since 1972 and I really love the city — and I’m worried about the future of Charleston. Here’s why.

Politicians like to talk about elections being a “crossroads.” By this, they mean that there are two or three clear directions that can be taken for the future and the question before the voters is: Which way will we go?

With most candidates, the clear implication is that one road (the candidate’s) leads to heaven, with great blessings for all, and the other road (the opponent’s) leads straight to hell, with accompanying suffering by all. At least that’s what they want you to think.

Well I’m not sure which mayoral candidates represent heaven or hell, but clearly, Charleston is at a crossroads. (More on the candidates next week in Part 2 of this column.)

Let’s start with the present king. Joe Riley has been mayor of Charleston for 40 years and by all accounts, most people would re-elect him for the next 40 years if they could. In 1975, at 32 years old, Riley was elected mayor of a city that was an economic backwater, divided by race and chained to a history that was more of an albatross than anything else.

He leaves with Charleston as a burgeoning world-class city (rated No. 1 in the world to visit) with an amazing level of racial harmony (partly due to post-Emanuel 9 events) and a booming economy that turned the city’s history into its greatest economic asset.

Today, the city is a magnet for the youthful best and the brightest. They come to Charleston to enjoy the lifestyle, start new digital companies, party hard in the city’s great restaurants and bars and relax on our beautiful beaches. What’s not to like?

It’s no wonder that for years, his peers and the national media have dubbed Riley the best mayor in America. He is.

So why am I worried?

First, Charleston has reached the limit. Transportation gridlock, overdevelopment and sprawl are real problems. The city is, indeed, at the proverbial crossroads. If we and the next mayor do things right, Charleston will truly become a world-class city. But if we and the next mayor get it wrong — well, think about the worst and most crass aspects of Disney World and Myrtle Beach combined on steroids.

Now, certainly Charleston can’t stop growth, and it shouldn’t. The city can’t pull up the drawbridge, tell “foreigners” to go away and just live in the historic shell of the past. The city tried that for about 150 years or so after the Civil War and it didn’t work out too well.

Second, we (the people of Charleston) have to take on new and different responsibilities that we haven’t had in the recent past. Our present civic culture can be summed up in four words: Let Joe do it.

As is understandable with a single popular leader for 40 years, people have pretty much let Joe run the city however he wanted to. We didn’t really ask many questions or even offer our own ideas. We just let Joe do it.

As a result, we haven’t had a robust civic dialogue about what kind of city we want in the future. In fact, we don’t even really have a civic vocabulary about how to talk about the issues we face.

And unfortunately, thus far in the campaign we really haven’t had a robust debate about the issues. Sure, there have been lots of candidate forums, but they have essentially been stilted set-piece events featuring questions like, “What is your vision for the city? And you have one minute.”

Third, we are not looking in the right places for possible solutions to the city’s growing problems. As special as we like to think that Charleston is — and it is special — it is not unique. Other cities all over the country and the world have some of the same problems that we have.

Charleston has huge flooding and drainage problems — Amsterdam has been effectively figuring out how to deal with this for 400 years. Dozens of comparable-sized historic cities in Europe have learned how to deal with the sudden influx of large numbers of tourists.

Many Caribbean and other port towns have successfully regulated the cruise-ship industry (and it is an industry) that regularly dumps thousands of tourists into historic districts. And the list goes on and on.

Are all these problems (and others) soluble? Can the next mayor and the people of the city get it right? Sure, we can.

The question is: Will we? And that leads to the next big question: Who will be the mayor — the new king (or queen) of the coast?

Next week’s column, the candidates.

Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. Email him at phil@scnewdemocrats.org.

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Phil Noble

Contributing Columnist

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