If only prior political experience mattered, the Charleston mayoral contest would be a three-man race between Leon Stavrinakis, a former Charleston County Council chairman and current member of the state House of Representatives; William Dudley Gregorie, a current Charleston City Council member; and Maurice Washington, a former Charleston City Council member.
However, Ginny Deerin, John Tecklenburg, and Stavrinakis have dramatically outpaced the field in terms of fundraising, significantly enhancing their ability to get their message out to voters via advertising and direct mail. Because of this pronounced financial advantage, Tecklenburg and Deerin will end up in the top three, but Stavrinakis' familiarity with voters and proven political resume will give him the edge over those two candidates.
The fact of the matter is this: Charleston voters are savvy and sophisticated enough to recognize relevant experience versus experience which is not relevant. The mayor of Charleston is the most influential and most important municipal office in the region. Governing a city of over 125,000 citizens and over 1,600 employees is not the same as starting an after-school non-profit for kids (Deerin) or running a rotary club (Tecklenburg).
When considering the level of experience needed to effectively manage city department heads, work with other leaders in local government, and lead an increasingly independent city council, voters are not likely to turn the keys of the city over to someone with no recognizable résumé of political experience. This is not because political novices would be unable to do the job; in fact, any of the remaining mayoral candidates could probably do a passable job of running the mayor's office if given enough time to learn. But voters will demand more than someone who can eventually learn the job. Voters want someone with a previous record of political leadership whereby they can gauge a candidate's aptitude and ability to lead in a challenging arena where special interests and multiple agendas exist.
There is a reason why incumbents have such an amazing record of success in elections. Incumbency produces a record whereby voters can assess what a candidate has accomplished in the past, and it creates bonds of familiarity and trust with constituents and community leaders.
If a candidate is not an incumbent for the office he or she is seeking, the next best thing is to have run for and won office in the same district for which he or she is running. A vast swath of West Ashley voters are familiar with Stavrinakis due to his distinguished record of service at two levels of local government, whereas Deerin and Tecklenburg do not have this experience. This overlooked advantage will prove to be determinative in an election where many voters are being introduced to Deerin and Tecklenburg for the first time.
Deerin should be given due respect for her prodigious fund-raising abilities, no doubt honed as the successful leader of a nonprofit organization and Riley's campaign manager. She might even be forgiven for going negative as a way to distinguish her campaign from Tecklenburg's.
Likewise, Tecklenburg, the city's former director of economic development, should be applauded for his diligent campaigning, starting at least six months ahead of the field and becoming a ubiquitous presence at community events for much of the past year.
However, in the end, neither fund-raising nor active campaigning are substitutes for proven political experience.
If Gregory and Washington had the fund-raising prowess of Deerin or Tecklenburg, their experience on council and familiarity with voters could very well have made them viable contenders to succeed Mayor Riley. But Deerin and Tecklenburg's advantage in resources will instead make it a three-person race between them and Stavrinakis. Of those three, the political experience of Stavrinakis will ensure his ultimate victory.
In the end, all the candidates should be commended for offering themselves for what will be a challenging job. My belief is that voters will choose relevant experience to lead the city into the post-Riley era.