Last week’s column was an introduction to the upcoming election for mayor of Charleston. Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling coined the phrase “king of the coast” to describe the outsize influence the mayor of Charleston — whoever it may be — will have on coastal South Carolina and indeed the state as a whole.
As recounted in last week’s column, there are basically three big factors which will influence the outcome of the elections. First, Joe Riley has been mayor for 40 years and he has turned a once sleepy, racially divided and somewhat backwater town into a world-class city brimming with new people and new opportunities…and new challenges.
After 40 years, what are people looking for in a new mayor? A new Joe, or someone very different?
The second factor is these new challenges: Charleston has reached the limits of traffic congestion, growth and tourism. How the next mayor handles these issues will determine if Charleston becomes a truly “world-class city” or if it comes to embody a combination of the worst of Disney World and Myrtle Beach — on steroids. Voters seem to be uncertain and more than a little worried.
And third, the citizens of Charleston face a real challenge in becoming a “normal city” with traditional civic leadership, civic discussions and civic culture. For a very long time, the civic culture of Charleston could be summed up in four words: Let Joe do it. Now, people need to assume new responsibilities for the future of the city if it is going to be what we want it to be. How will people respond, particularly in the post-Emanuel 9 era?
So, who is going to be the next mayor of Charleston? In truth, no one knows; there are a number of good candidates and the campaign is just now actively beginning.
Let me pause right here for a full disclosure. Although I know all of the candidates — some I know well and some less so — I have been friends with one candidate, John Tecklenburg, for more than 40 years. He’s a very good friend, I have helped him in his campaign and I sincerely hope he wins.
Having said that, who are the candidates?
Let’s start with John. He and his family have been a part of the fabric of the city for generations. He’s a successful small businessman, has worked as head of economic development under Joe Riley and been a leader in lots of local community service projects and organizations. He’s also a jazz musician and most folks believe he has a warm and genuine personality — some see in these qualities the makings of a new and different leadership style.
Leon Stavrinakis grew up in Charleston working in his family’s restaurant. He’s an attorney, was on the county council for eight years and has been in the S.C. House of Representatives for eight more. He touts his experience as a “hands-on” leader who knows how to get things done and can work with both Democrats and Republicans. For years, it’s been no secret that Leon has had his eye on the mayor’s office.
Ginny Deerin is widely seen as the third top-tier candidate. She has had a varied career with an advertising firm that worked closely with Riley and city government and she started a successful afterschool program for disadvantaged students — Wings for Kids. In 2011, she was Riley’s campaign manager and she ran for S.C. secretary of state in 2014. She’s is making transportation a priority and is focused on reaching out to newer residents of the city.
Although the race is nonpartisan, all three of these candidates are generally viewed as Democrats — and surprisingly, there is no Republican in the race.
There are three additional candidates on the ballot. Maurice Washington, a former city councilman, and Dudley Gregory, a current city councilman, have both run for mayor twice before. The other candidate is newcomer Toby Smith, a nonprofit consultant who was largely unknown before she announced.
Although all three have some interesting ideas, none are currently viewed as having a good chance of making the runoff. They simply do not appear to have amassed sufficient resources to compete effectively as the race moves into its final act.
So, who is going to be the new king (or queen) of the coast?
In all honesty, I don’t have a clue. I can spin out a scenario where any of the top three could come in first, second or third.
In the old days of Charleston mayoral politics, it was often down and dirty, and very racially polarizing. It was Catholics vs. Protestants, the Broad Street Ring vs. everyone else, black vs. white (once blacks gained the vote) and always lots of street money and liquor floating around on Election Day.
In the era of modern politics, it’s been said that candidates aren’t considered serious until they are on television. Within the next week or so, we will have three very serious candidates in the race.
And, though the old days are gone (more or less), Charleston is still Charleston and politics is still politics.
So, for the next couple of months, Charleston is going to be a very interesting place to be.
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 email@example.com.