Bicycle initiatives, cruise ship regulations, and a nascent development boom are on the tips of City Council candidates' tongues in Charleston this year. The races provide a diverse cast of characters with widely differing views on the future of the Holy City, particularly in District 6, where four challengers have stepped up to run against incumbent Councilman William Dudley Gregorie.
The city's even-numbered districts are up for elections this year. Incumbents Dean Riegel (District 10) and Kathleen Wilson (District 12) are running unopposed.
Blake Hallman (incumbent)
Blake Hallman is a busy man. In addition to teaching at the Culinary Institute of Charleston, acting as a partner in charge of operations at two Myrtle Beach restaurants, and serving on City Council, he's also the president of the S.C. Battleground Preservation Trust, vice president of the Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust, and head of the Morris Island Coalition.
In his first four years on council, Hallman says his goals were to improve the efficiency of city government, protect the city's brand, promote business, and keep taxes in check. Now, with improvement projects coming to the Glenn McConnell Parkway and Bees Ferry Road, Hallman says he and the other West Ashley councilmembers are pushing for paying more attention to the vast portion of the city that lies off the peninsula. "We feel like West Ashley has been neglected, and we have called for and [Mayor Riley] has agreed to set up a West Ashley economic plan," Hallman says. "So that's going to hopefully bring some renewed interest and focus on West Ashley through new business, zoning that might help support that, and beautification plans."
Recently, when City Council voted on whether to take over the I-526 extension project from Charleston County (a bluff that ultimately forced County Council's hand to move forward on the controversial road project), Hallman was one of only two dissenting votes. "My question was, how much will it cost?" Hallman says. After hearing from the State Infrastructure Board that I-526 funding was on shaky ground, Hallman took interest in an alternative traffic plan for West Ashley that focused on improving certain intersections and was projected to save millions. The rest of council did not follow suit.
"You should expect from your government to look at all the options, cost them out, and find the best course of action according to a cost-benefit analysis," Hallman says.
Rodney Williams lives just a few doors down from incumbent District 2 Councilman Blake Hallman on Wayah Drive in West Ashley, but he says he barely knows his representative on City Council. "I do know him in passing, but there's people on our street that don't even know him," Williams says. "Ninety-eight percent of people do not know him, are not even aware of him."
Williams says, if elected, he would make himself available to constituents — a promise that must be weighed against the fact that Williams himself never replied to emails or phone calls from the City Paper until we drove to his house and knocked on his door.
Williams currently runs a business that consults local constituencies on economic development and healthcare issues, but he worked for seven years as family services director for the Sea Island Habitat for Humanity. As a spectator to City Council, he says he has been baffled by a few of Councilman Hallman's decisions, including his opposition to the city's proposed takeover of the I-526 extension project. "He voted against that, and I don't understand why," Williams says, citing a survey that found 72 percent of people in the affected areas were in favor of extending I-526.
As a councilman, Williams says his priorities would include the improvement of regional transportation infrastructure. He says he would also work to bring in employers that pay a living wage, making it more affordable for workers to live near where they work. He also says he would push city police to interact more with residents of West Ashley neighborhoods where crime has become an issue.
Williams previously ran against Hallman in 2009. He captured 43.5 percent of the vote.
A 2012 graduate of the Charleston School of Law, Liz Fulton would be by far the youngest councilmember if elected. Now a civil litigator at Corrigan & Chandler, Fulton got her first taste of government in law school, where she served as president of the Student Bar Association and an intern to City Council.
She says her district, which includes the Eastside, Cannonborough-Elliotborough, North Central, and businesses like PeopleMatter that form the nexus of the latest "Silicon Harbor" crop of tech startups, is "the district where everything is happening in Charleston." Fulton says she would push new construction projects to hire local contractors. She also says, if elected, one of her priorities will be "making sure that the city continues to be responsive and welcoming to startups and new businesses."
To that end, Fulton is bullish on Enough Pie's vision for a creative corridor in the Neck and Upper Peninsula. She says she was initially concerned that the nonprofit organization's meetings neglected people from nearby neighborhoods, but she says she has seen improvements in the dialogue. "You're going to have this bohemian artist revival up there, and it's going to make a place that's been forgotten or overlooked a new place to go and invest and live and work," Fulton says.
In her interview, Fulton sounds frustrated with the pace of progress on certain hot-button issues. She says she "can't believe it took so long" to get bike corrals on King Street, she's anxious to see a bike-and-pedestrian lane added to the peninsula-bound Ashley River Bridge, and she thinks the city should have secured a written agreement on visiting cruise ship volume as the State Ports Authority looked to expand Union Pier. As for the pollution-reducing idea of requiring Carnival cruise ships to plug into onshore power, she says it "seems like a great idea."
Robert Mitchell (incumbent)
Councilman Mitchell is the only City Council member you're likely to see patrolling the Eastside on foot after 1 a.m. He says he does it because he likes to keep an eye on the neighborhood's ever-shrinking criminal element, and he reports all suspicious behavior to police. He prides himself on his street-level approach to governance, and he's also a regular attendee at all of the neighborhood associations meetings in District 4.
"If you want to be a productive councilmember in the district I represent, you have to be out there," Mitchell says. "You have to be accessible ... Everything with me is public. My home telephone number is in the phone book, and I give my cell phone number out all the time."
Mitchell says he took an interest when the nonprofit organization Enough Pie started talking about the potential for a creative and artistic renaissance in the Neck, the largely industrial area connecting the upper peninsula with North Charleston. He says he spoke with the group's leadership and told them he liked their ideas, but he encouraged them to sit down with community leaders from surrounding neighborhoods including Rosemont and Silver Hill.
If re-elected, Mitchell says it will be his last term in office. One of his top priorities would be ensuring that S.C. State University can build its planned job training center on Lee Street on the Eastside. He also wants to encourage the construction of new low-, moderate-, and high-income housing in the area of the former Cooper River Bridge ramp.
On the topic of cruise ships, Mitchell says, "If we can regulate the number of cruise ships, we should do that." He says that a requirement for cruise ships to plug in to onshore power "might be a good thing," too.
On bike safety, Mitchell says the peninsula needs more bike racks, but that the city needs to find a way to put in more racks without forfeiting on-street car parking. He opposes a plan to shut down a lane of car traffic on the peninsula-bound Ashley River Bridge to make a bike-and-pedestrian lane. "That, to me, is going to cause another traffic jam," he says.
Fran Clasby makes a lot of noise as president of the Wagener Terrace Neighborhood Association. Among his successful crusades, he has advocated for a Montessori program at James Simons Elementary School, raised funds for renovation of the Corinne Jones Playground, and organized fundraisers to subsidize the planting of trees along streets in his neighborhood.
Last summer, Clasby was among the outspoken proponents of a new recreation lane for Mary Murray Drive, the road that circles Hampton Park. District 6 Councilman William Dudley Gregorie disagreed, citing safety concerns that would arise unless a physical barrier was constructed between bike and car traffic. "I told [Gregorie] at the City Council meeting when he voted in opposition to it that I'd be seeing him on the ballot," Clasby says. "Not that he's done a bad job, but I think we can do better." (The measure ultimately passed.)
Clasby, who has worked for 23 years in the physical therapy department at MUSC, says that on Council he would work to maintain affordable housing stock around the hospital campus as the Horizon redevelopment project moves forward. He is also in favor of traffic calming measures, and he wants to turn Cannon Street, Spring Street, Ashley Avenue, and Rutledge Avenue into two-way streets. An avid bicyclist, he says he wants to raise the gas tax to pay for infrastructure improvements and favors shutting down the southernmost lane of car traffic on the Ashley River Bridge to create a bike-and-pedestrian lane.
When it comes to cruise ships docking in Charleston, Clasby says the city should do more to regulate the cruise ships and require them to plug in to onshore power while docked. "I'm downwind from the port, I have soot on my house, and I know it comes from the port," Clasby says. "So there's no mystery in that. Shoreline power is a definite must."
Lauretta Lemon Dailey
We don't know much about Lauretta Lemon Dailey. She didn't reply to emails, and after we got her on the phone and set up an in-person interview, she didn't show up.
According to her campaign website, Dailey taught in the Charleston County School District for 31 years. She is the former president of the Wagener Terrace Neighborhood Association, a former volunteer at the S.C. Aquarium, and a current chairperson of the Charleston County Missionary Baptist Association Education Committee.
The only hint her website gives about her platform is this sentence: "My background in education will offer to help produce comprehensive, effective, and efficient solutions for things that make life better for those living in Charleston County."
As the co-owner and manager of D'Allesandro's Pizza, Ben D'Allesandro is a relative newcomer to politics. His only experience in government comes from his position as a constituent school board member for District 20.
Perhaps because of his outsider status and his connections in the food and beverage industry, he brings some fresh ideas to the District 6 race. He is, for instance, the only candidate to suggest establishing a minimum wage in the city of Charleston. "It can keep a lot of workers living close to where they work," D'Allesandro says. "The rents are not going to come down, so we might as well look at trying to raise the minimum wage to something a little bit more respectable than $7.25 an hour. I mean, you take taxes out of that, it's a silly amount of money."
D'Allesandro says his priorities in office would also include improving storm drainage on the peninsula and making the city's use of hospitality and tourism tax money more transparent.
On the matter of making Charleston a more bicycle-friendly town, D'Allesandro says the city should look at establishing a north-south route on the peninsula by shutting down a lane of car traffic or parking. He also wants to put a parking hub near the northern end of town so that commuters can leave their cars there and ride in on bicycles.
D'Allesandro watched with interest as Council debated the merits of the now-passed Late Night Entertainment Establishment Ordinance, and while he says he doesn't have a problem with it, he says he's not sure what good it will do. He says he thinks the city should hire still more police officers to patrol problem spots at night.
"If we want to be an economy that's heavy on tourism, then we need to be a little bit more aware of what tangibles will come along with that," D'Allesandro says. "If a lot of tourists or visitors come to visit an area, it means that we're doing a good job, but they're also going to be out there enjoying the restaurants and the nightlife. You can't have one without the other."
A lifelong Charlestonian, Joe Good practices criminal defense law from an office on Church Street. He also co-owns Fat & Juicy, a company that sells a Bloody Mary drink mix in 48 states and five countries. On City Council, he says he would work to remove red tape for people starting businesses in Charleston, streamlining the process so applicants don't end up bouncing from office to office.
One thing Good has noticed about Charleston is that only a small portion of the general public gets involved with major city decisions. "More people would be engaged if they were led to be engaged," Good says. "That's what I want to do, and I think that can be accomplished through communication." His ideas include creating a Facebook page and online message board for District 6, and he says he would hold regular town hall-style meetings in the various neighborhoods of the district. He says he might even take a page from the playbook of recently elected state Sen. Marlon Kimpson and start riding the CARTA bus to get to know constituents.
While Good says making the peninsula more bicycle-friendly will help ease traffic on the peninsula, he opposes shutting down a lane of car traffic on the Ashley River Bridge to make a new bike lane. And while he says he's concerned about what increased cruise ship traffic could cause a spike in tourist volume and turn certain parts of town in tourist traps á la Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, he says his solution is to regulate the types of businesses that open near the terminal. "Would that be a better solution? Probably, and then you wouldn't have to regulate the cruise ship industry as much," he says.
William Dudley Gregorie (incumbent)
William Dudley Gregorie is retired, so he is able to work as a full-time councilman and mayor pro tem. In recent years, he says he has fielded hundreds of calls from constituents and helped them deal with problems including ditch cleaning, speed bump installations, and foreclosure issues.
As a former field office director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Gregorie says some of his proudest accomplishments include securing funding for MUSC's Ashley River Tower and for North Charleston's Horizon Village, a partially subsidized low-income housing development on Spruill Avenue. In four years on City Council, his major proposals have included a transparency ordinance to televise meetings (which passed) and a proposal to expand the city's fair housing laws to protect the elderly and people of all sexual orientations (which did not pass).
Gregorie is one of the original board members of the Horizon Project Foundation, which is overseeing a massive mixed-use redevelopment effort on the west side of the peninsula near MUSC. He says the project is slated to include new research facilities and 1,500 residential units, and he is pushing to ensure that it is anchored by a supermarket. "We're talking about creating a new community, a new town in town," Gregorie says.
If re-elected, Gregorie says he will look for ways to generate more revenue for the city, including attracting new businesses. He says deepening the harbor will be a business boon, and he is bullish on wind and solar energy research in the city. He says he is also considering the possibility of raising the gas tax. He says he wants to look at regional transportation options, including commuter railway connections to Charlotte, Atlanta, and Jacksonville.
Gregorie has run for mayor twice now, and he says he might run again after Mayor Riley finishes what he has promised will be a final term.
Retired from a career in real estate, Bobbie Rose is running for City Council more or less on a single issue: fixing the cruise ship industry in Charleston.
"I'm running for this office mainly on one passion and one thing that I want to fight for: Regulating the size and frequency of the cruise ships that come in, providing shoreside power, and mandating that they plug in," Rose says. "I'm not anti-cruise ship, but I just feel like that's not a lot to ask for the residents of this city."
Although incumbent Councilman Mike Seekings pushed against Mayor Riley to make cruise ship regulations enforceable and has said that he favors onshore power, Rose
says Seekings missed his opportunity to step up to the plate back when Council approved the planned $35 million cruise ship terminal at Union Pier.
"That would have been a good time for any of the councilmembers to show leadership and say, 'I can't vote for this unless we are sure that there are regulations in place,'" Rose says. "That would have been the time to do that. It's very easy to say 'I'm for regulations' after the vote has passed. That's appearing strong without doing any heavy lifting."
Aside from cruise ship issues, Rose says she's interested in fixing flooding problems and working with leadership at the College of Charleston on livability issues in neighborhoods where students live.
"I will say I am running for City Council because I plan to sit on City Council for at least four years and longer if I do a good job," Rose says. "I am not aspiring to run for mayor."
Mike Seekings (incumbent)
Mike Seekings has been a calm voice on Council in his first four years, often proposing compromises and rarely injecting much emotion into his oratory. But when it comes to his biggest issues — transportation and taxes — he can be relentless.
Seekings is perhaps best known on Council for his crusade to make the city a more bikeable place. "The change in culture from when I started to how people view it now is good, but now we have to deal with infrastructure and actually getting people onboard with projects and complying with the things we've done," Seekings says.
He was a major proponent of creating a bicycle and pedestrian lane on the Ashley River Bridge, a measure that he says will likely come to pass soon as long as the DOT decides not to replace the bridge entirely. Looking beyond that, Seekings says he still wants to create bike-navigable corridors from north to south and east to west on the peninsula. He has been outspoken on council about wanting to turn Rutledge Street and Ashley Avenue into two-way streets north of Calhoun and adding bike lanes on those streets. "It's a free-for-all out there, and it's unlivable," he says.
Seekings says that if re-elected, he will continue to fight the city's habit of raising property taxes every time revenue falls short of expenses. "We run this city, a $150 million city, on business license fees, property taxes, and parking," he says. "So think about it: If you are a local businessperson who owns your own building and has to pay for your employees to park, we're running the entire city off your back on taxes."
Speculation has already started that Seekings might run for mayor in 2015. "I want the best person to fill that job that is available," Seekings says. "If that's me, it's something I'll consider, and if it's someone else, that's fine too."
A previous version of this story stated that Rodney Williams was director of Sea Island Habitat for Humanity for 15 years. We regret the error.