A recently formed political group has been criticizing Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. and promoting one of his four opponents in the November election — and it has been doing so anonymously. A source close to the organization says members of the group have been staying under the radar because they fear retaliation from the Riley administration.
On Monday, some Charlestonians received mailers that touted City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie as "a sharp contrast to the Obama-Riley agenda" and praised his stances on lowering taxes, creating jobs, and fostering transparency in government. The mailers were written partly in first person, which would seem to indicate that they were coming from Gregorie himself, but Gregorie has said he has no connection with the fliers or with the group that sent them, Citizens for a Better Charleston. On Tuesday, Gregorie said he still had not seen one of the fliers and did not feel comfortable commenting on something he had not seen. A scanned copy was sent to him for review.
With two weeks to go before the election, the curtains of political theater opened up on Tuesday. Riley called a press conference early in the afternoon at 164 Market St., Suite 187, the address he says Citizens for a Better Charleston provided as its own. As it turned out, 164 Market St. was the site of a UPS Store, and the number 187 apparently referred to a post office box. In a fiery speech where he railed against "the cowardice of anonymity and the shamefulness of misrepresentation," Riley called for the people behind Citizens for a Better Charleston to reveal themselves.
In a quirk of South Carolina election financing laws, as a result of a September 2010 U.S. district judge decision in Florence, political action committees that are not officially affiliated with a candidate have no contribution limits or filing requirements.
On Tuesday, Riley gave reporters copies of an e-mail that had been forwarded to his campaign chairman from Columbia real estate developer William H. Stern. The e-mail, sent by independent political consultant Desiree Watson, invited Stern to support the group and listed the names of seven people who had allegedly contributed at least $5,000 apiece to Citizens for a Better Charleston (Watson, reached by phone, would neither confirm nor deny the authenticity of the e-mail). The e-mail from Watson identified Steven Dopp, owner of the Francis Marion Hotel, as "something of the ringleader" of the group. So far, City Paper has attempted to contact four of the people on the list; none have responded to requests for confirmation of their membership in the group.
A source close to the organization who spoke on condition of anonymity says business owners are hesitant to write checks to the Gregorie campaign or put "Gregorie for Mayor" signs in their yards because they fear the Riley administration will use its power to damage their businesses. To date, there have been no documented instances of Riley abusing his power in such a way.
In addition to the mailers, Citizens for a Better Charleston claims responsibility for two websites, thejoerileyfile.com and abettercharleston.org. The first site consists of a series of newspaper clippings that are purported to show Riley has created higher taxes and fewer jobs while engaging in "crony capitalism," neglecting repairs on the Crosstown, and endangering the city's historic district with his support for a redevelopment of the cruise ship terminal at Union Pier. The latter site consists of little more than a 30-second advertisement for Gregorie. J. Matthew Wills, a consultant for the Gregorie campaign, says he has not been in contact with the group. Both sites were created on Oct. 7, but the identity of their creator is protected by the online anonymity service Domains By Proxy.
At the press conference Tuesday, a member of the Riley campaign handed out annotated copies of pages from thejoerileyfile.com that were intended to refute the claims.
David A. Farrow, one of Riley's most strident critics in the five-candidate race, showed up a few minutes late to hear what the mayor had to say. After Riley wrapped up a question-and-answer session by saying, "We've long since in America accepted the basic notion that the public knows who contributes to candidates," Farrow muttered, "Has he no sense of irony?" Farrow has asserted that the College of Charleston, which receives public money, effectively endorsed Riley by allowing the mayor to speak at a Political Science Club meeting on Oct. 5 inside the student union building. Press releases from the Farrow campaign about the college have linked to videos posted to a Youtube account named therileyfiles110811.
The Political Science Club has scheduled another Riley talk in one of the student dorms for Wednesday night, and Farrow campaign manager Monica Biddix is especially critical of its timing.
"I'm sure the college will tell you that it is not a campaign event," Biddix said in an e-mail Tuesday. "As a campaign manager who has worked in politics, I assure you that less than two weeks before an election, every appearance by a candidate before a group of people is a campaign event."