Two weeks ago, an anonymous phone poll asked Charleston voters who they would choose for their next mayor ... in November 2015.
If a two-year politicking window sounds a bit extreme for a local election, consider that the incumbent, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., will have held the office for a solid four decades by the time he leaves office in 2016. Consider also that Riley has vowed that this term will be his last and it starts to become obvious why the race for Holy City head honcho is already heating up.
For local politicians, Riley's departure opens the field for serious competition for the first time in years. In Riley's last election in 2011, four contenders were gunning for the mayor, but they couldn't even muster a runoff. Riley walked away with 67.5 percent of the votes in the general election after out-fundraising his closest opponent, City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, by a ratio of 8 to 1.
State political analyst and former City Council candidate Andy Brack — one of the few people we asked who said he wasn't considering a run — says he sees City Councilman Mike Seekings and state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis as frontrunners in the race. Still, he says, when you have a nonpartisan election with upwards of 10 candidates, it only takes a small percentage of the vote to make it to a runoff. Brack has been keeping track of the rumor mill surrounding the 2015 election at least since October 2012, when he published his own list of potential candidates on his blog, and the list just keeps getting longer.
"To come in first on the ballot, you may only have to get 20 percent, so that could go to somebody who spends a lot of money who's not on our list, or that could go to somebody who may not be the inside frontrunner today, but maybe somebody who goes and connects with voters in a big way," Brack says.
Here's a look at how the far-away election is shaping up. Eight people have already said they're contemplating a run in '15:
When asked if he was considering a run, City Councilman Aubry Alexander said, "Certainly. I think everybody should leave that door open. I'm two years away, so ... yet to be determined." If he were to run, Alexander says his top issues would include budgeting and maintaining the city's bonding capacity. "In terms of employers coming to city, I would spend a lot of time on community development, business development," Alexander says.
Alexander's next election will be in November 2015, so he'll have to make a choice whether to run to keep his seat or take a gamble on the Mayor's Office. "I think there will be a lot of candidates, and I think it's going to cost a lot of money, because you're going to run not only an initial race, but I feel certain there will be some type of runoff unless there is one candidate that is overwhelmingly chosen," Alexander says.
City Councilman and Mayor Pro-Tem William Dudley Gregorie has already run for mayor twice against Riley and thinks the third time might be a charm, but he says he needs to get through his City Council re-election before deciding on a run for the city's top post. Gregorie is one of five candidates running in the city's recently redrawn District 6 on Tuesday, making his seat the year's most hotly contested.
If he does decide to run, Gregorie says he likes his odds. "If the mayor does not run, I walk in as a leader, and they'll all be coming at me," Gregorie says. "If I can hold my base together, at a minimum, I'm assured of a runoff. But with the potential cast of characters out there splitting up each other's votes and all kinds of stuff — it's going to be a crowded field, but I'm going to probably be the one to beat."
City Councilman Mike Seekings is also seeking re-election this year, and he too says he's focused on the Tuesday election for now. "I want to get through this race, and when the next race comes along, my answer to that is I want the best person to fill that job that is available," Seekings says. "And if that's me, it's something I'll consider, and if it's someone else, that's fine too."
Democratic State Rep. Wendell Gilliard previously served on City Council, and he's been dropping hints about a run for mayor since the day Riley was re-elected to his final term, telling the Post and Courier in November 2011, "I like to shoot for the stars." Gilliard says he needs to pray on it before he makes a decision, but when asked if he's thinking about making a run, he said, "Oh, definitely. I don't keep that door shut. That door's always been open." Gilliard, a longtime labor organizer, says he would work to ensure wage increases for city employees if he was elected.
"I've always told people that if I was to become mayor, the first thing I'd take care of is my city employees, staring with environmental specialists on up," Gilliard says.
Gilliard says that if elected, he would serve two terms at most. He is up for re-election to the State House in November 2014.
Asked about the possibility of a 2015 run for mayor, Democratic State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis says, "If I were still in politics, I would consider it."
Stavrinakis has made a few splashes in his home district this year. In February, after a failed shooting outside the downtown Ashley Hall School, he held a press conference in front of the school with students' parents and pushed a bill requiring mental health records to be reported to a federal gun database. More recently, he's been weighing in on the Charleston School of Law's potential sale to out-of-state education company InfiLaw, writing a letter of opposition to the Commission on Higher Education (Rep. Gilliard also signed the letter).
The political blog FITSNews started circulating rumors in 2011 that Stavrinakis might make a run for governor, but Stavrinakis denies that. "I am not running for governor. I'm going to run for re-election to the State House next year," Stavrinakis says.
As for the Mayor's Office, he says it's easy to see why so many people would want the job. "I love public service. Getting to do it at home in a job like that where you get to represent the best city in the world, I just can't think of any negatives to doing that," he says.
Businesswoman Linda Ketner, president of KSI Leadership & Management Development, says she takes it as a compliment that numerous people have already approached her about running for mayor. "I am thinking about it. I haven't made any decision at all, but I am giving it some serious thought," Ketner says. "If there was a candidate that I truly believed would do a fabulous job, I would just as soon support him or her than run myself."
Ketner previously ran for public office in 2008, when she challenged District 1 Congressional incumbent Henry Brown and captured 48 percent of the vote. It was the closest a Democrat had come to winning the seat in years, and some left-leaning Lowcountry residents have been awaiting her return like the return of a beloved Democratic unicorn.
Commercial realtor John Tecklenburg says, "It's something I would consider." Tecklenburg doesn't have any experience in office, but he has held leadership positions for years, from the Charleston Rotary Club to Crisis Ministries to S.C. Strong, a residential rehabilitation program for prisoners and substance abusers. He also served a stint as the City of Charleston's director of economic development in the late '90s and worked on the successful re-election campaign of Sen. Fritz Hollings in 1998. At age 57, he says he's trying to take stock of how best to serve the community in the next few years.
"I so concur with the great record that Mayor Riley has about making Charleston such a great place to live, work, and play," Tecklenburg says. "I have a vision, though, that we could also be the most caring and compassionate and make sure that we're helping all our citizens."
Attorney Paul Tinkler previously served a nine-year stint on City Council ending in 2007, and he later ran for S.C. Senate District 41, capturing 44 percent of the vote against Republican Paul Thurmond in November 2012. When it comes to the 2015 mayoral race, he says, "I've had some people ask me about that, and my answer at this point is I'm thinking about it."
In addition to touting his experience in City Hall, Tinkler says, "I've been a lawyer for 35 years, and I think that's pretty good preparation for running for mayor and serving as mayor."
We've heard literally a dozen other names being bandied about this week, and we tried contacting all of them to see if they were thinking about a run for mayor. Some have not replied yet, but some have given us a definitive no. The following people have said it's safe to count them out of the race:
• Andy Brack, publisher of StatehouseReport.com.
• Elizabeth Colbert Busch, director of business development at Clemson University's Restoration Institute and former Democratic Congressional candidate. She says she owns a house in Charleston but lives in Mt. Pleasant.
• Clay Middleton, congressional affairs liaison for the U.S. Department of Energy.
• City Councilman Bill Moody, who says he plans to run for re-election to Council in 2015.
• City Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson, who is running unopposed for re-election on Tuesday.