Disclaimer: The endorsements were compiled by the City Paper's editors and writers and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the publisher or City Paper staff.
Election season in Charleston can seem a lot like the Coastal Carolina Fair. Squint your eyes and the candidates start to take on the likeness of carny hustlers. There are lots of flashy distractions, a few promised prizes that never materialize, and sometimes you get dizzy and feel like you're going to throw up.
But step away with us, if you will, from the crowded midway of political eye-poking and cynical maneuvering. Election Day is not a ring-around-the-bottle game or a freaky sideshow. It is your chance to shape your city into the best place it can be.
Sick of flooding on the Crosstown? We are too. Candidates' stances on that issue factored heavily into our endorsements this year. Want to put the brakes on urban blight? Want to make sure your children have safe roads, better schools, and a well-funded fire department to protect them, all without emptying the governmental piggy bank or raising taxes? We've thought and debated about our selections, and we're convinced that we've picked a strong roster for a smarter, kinder, more in-touch city government.
But don't take our word on it. Read our election coverage, do your research on the candidates, and then get out and vote. Because that's even more American than fried Kool-Aid.
For Mayor of Charleston:
If you are going to vote against Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., you had better have some damn good reasons. In his three-and-a-half-decade stint in office, Riley has helped shape Charleston into the greatest city in South Carolina. And few will disagree when Joe goes down in history as the best mayor this town has ever had. We certainly won't.
Let's talk about the positives: Riley pushed to radically transform neighborhoods that had fallen by the wayside when he took the office in 1976. Early on, he was a proponent for racial reconciliation in a city with an ugly past. He was a driving force behind Charleston's reinvention as a hub for arts and tourism, and he got behind both the preservation of historic buildings and the construction of cutting-edge new properties. He got the city through Hurricane Hugo. He worked with the police department to clean up the streets, and in the past three years, violent crime dropped 53 percent. He was an early proponent of the Crisis Ministries homeless shelter, and his impassioned speech in favor of fundraising for a new shelter facility a few weeks ago was both tear-jerking and inspiring. He keeps a framed picture in his office of Bill Murray picking him up off the ground with a big ol' bear hug, and some days that's how we've felt about him, too.
But the Sun Mayor's time has come and gone. For one thing, we as a city have given him entirely too long to do something about the Septima P. Clark Expressway, also known as the Crosstown, which floods every time heavy rain hits the peninsula during high tide. We've heard the mayor's argument that it's a federal highway and thus a federal problem, but we're not buying it. For the tens of thousands of Charlestonians who have had to ford the Crosstown River in their cars, praying that their engines don't flood, it is a local problem. For the folks living in the neighborhoods surrounding the Crosstown, whose children have to wade to school and whose yards wash away in the rain, it is a local problem. Part of a mayor's job is to be an advocate for his city, and if funding for the Crosstown fix needed to come from the state or federal government, then Mayor Riley should have been nagging officials in Columbia and Washington decades ago — and not just making a symbolic request from the State Infrastructure Bank (which categorically does not have the money) when election season rolls around. And don't even get us started about this year's $11.3 million "beautification" project.
Let's turn our attention to the $142 million elephant in the room: the planned renovation of the Gaillard Auditorium. Yes, we realize that most of the funds that have been raised are earmarked specifically for this project and cannot be transferred to the Crosstown. But who was begging for this remodeling to happen in the first place? As one Charleston City Council candidate said in his interview, if you polled Charlestonians, you'd likely find very little popular support for this glaring boondoggle.
Our other objections to giving the mayor a full four decades have everything to do with a shift in management style that we've witnessed this past year. Where once the mayor deflected criticisms with an Episcopalian gentility, we're now noticing a demeanor that borders on Pentecostal fury. We saw it last week when Mayor Riley called a press conference purely to denounce his critics in the anonymous group Citizens for a Better Charleston as cowards and liars (see p. 21). And he pitches little fits every time the city shows up on a list of "endangered" historic sites, painting the listings as smear tactics by his enemies.
Riley's my-way-or-the-highway attitude has reared its head in the debate over cruise ships at Union Pier, where he has consistently stood by the State Ports Authority without taking residents' concerns seriously. True, some of the people's arguments against Carnival Cruise lines are shoddy — particularly their unfounded claims about cruise ships dumping sewage in the harbor and their petty application of the city's building height cap to visiting ships — but they are right to say that limits on cruise-ship traffic ought to be secured by more than a mere handshake agreement. The lawsuit should have forced Riley's hand to demand a written agreement from the SPA, but instead he grandstanded and blasted his own constituents for fighting him on the issue.
We can say that Riley is loyal to a fault. He holds on to failed leaders for far too long, as exemplified in the case of former Fire Chief Rusty Thomas, whom Riley should have asked to step down shortly after nine of his men died in the Sofa Super Store fire of 2007. And he stood by former Police Chief Reuben Greenberg for far too long in his latter years.
Finally, Riley's dogged opposition to the formation of the Town of James Island just rubs us the wrong way, even though we believe that the folks of James Island would be better served by being a part of the City of Charleston than as their own municipality.
Why, then, do we choose Gregorie over the other three remaining candidates? To begin with, he is easily the most qualified. Gregorie is the only one with experience in elected office, and although he just joined City Council in February 2009, he has already proven himself to be a man of his word. He ran for the District 6 seat vowing to improve transparency in city government, and he delivered on that promise by writing a successful ordinance to broadcast council meetings on television and online. And before that, he had a distinguished career as field director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Columbia. If anybody knows how to secure federal money for Charleston, it is Gregorie.
And he'll need that skill set, too, to follow up on his campaign promise to fix flooding on the Crosstown. In his interview, he called the Crosstown "a scar that has plagued this city" for decades too long, and he says he can fix the drainage problem without raising taxes. While his plan to pay for the project by levying a per-passenger cruise ship fee on the State Ports Authority sounds a little loopy, it demonstrates his willingness to get creative and his lack of reverence for the almighty SPA.
Gregorie was also the only candidate in his interview to call for substantive measures against discrimination in the Holy City. As a council member, he proposed the creation of a new city office to handle and investigate claims of housing discrimination based on race, marital status, and sexual orientation. At the time, he referenced a 2007 study that showed Charleston had the country's biggest gap in interest rates between white and black borrowers, regardless of income. Riley fought the ordinance tooth and nail, and ultimately it failed. If elected, Gregorie says he'll fight to strengthen anti-discrimination ordinances.
And when it comes to disposition, Gregorie is our man. He has made substantive critiques of the Riley administration, but he has made them with gentleness and understanding. He is the sort who rarely raises his voice, and when he does, we imagine people listen. Simply put, William Dudley Gregorie has the demeanor to lead and the patience to unite the sometimes-fractious world of City Hall.
As a caveat, we would like to note that if something fishy really is happening between Citizens for a Better Charleston and the Gregorie campaign, as some have asserted, then we will have to seriously reconsider who gets our vote on Nov. 8.
For a marked contrast to Gregorie's personality, look no further than former journalist David A. Farrow, who gets visibly agitated when he talks about Riley. He has campaigned primarily by sniping at the mayor, and that is no way to win the hearts and minds of voters. And while he says he belongs to no political party, he has called Joe a big-government statist, and we fear Farrow would bring some form of partisanship to the nonpartisan office. We do appreciate his common-sense attitude on matters including bicycle lanes and job creation, but in the end his strident personality and naked motivations disqualified him for our nomination.
Craig Jelks, the eighth-grade history teacher who calls himself an iPod to Riley's record player, is simply not taking the office of mayor seriously enough. He gets high marks for his enthusiasm, and he was easily the most entertaining candidate to interview — we would love to sit in on one of his history classes, by the way — but he has few qualifications and no experience in politics. If he wants to make a difference in local politics, we think he could have a bright future, but he would need to set his sights lower at first, perhaps by joining a county commission or even running for the school board.
As for Joshua R. Kennedy, the family restaurateur who chose not to accept donations for his campaign, we got the impression that his heart was not in it. He tried to spin his lack of political experience as a good thing, but it made for one of the more depressing assessments of human nature we've heard in a while: "It's like when I hire a bartender. I'm not going to hire somebody who's had 15 years of experience, because they know the ways to cheat the system and they'll steal from you every chance they get," he told us. "I would rather take somebody who is honest and hard-working, even if they don't know how to make a perfect Manhattan."
We do want someone who knows how to mix the metaphorical whiskey, vermouth, and bitters, though. We want someone who possesses both grit and know-how. And this year, for this office, that person is William Dudley Gregorie.
For Mayor of North Charleston:
Don't get us wrong; we like the underdog just as much as the next alternative weekly newspaper. But the underdog in this case is the city of North Charleston itself, and Summey continues to be its strongest booster.
True, he looks like Goliath next to opponent Chris Collins' David, with his $115,000 fund-raising campaign dwarfing Collins' $4,400 sling and stones. But we think Summey still wants the office for all the right reasons.
North Charleston could have floundered after the Navy Yard closed down in 1995, but Summey oversaw the city's rebirth as the retail capital of South Carolina and the home of Boeing's new Dreamliner plant. North Charleston could have lived up to its reputation as a hotbed of criminal activity, but Summey worked with the police department on smart enforcement and put a sizeable dent in the city's violent crime numbers. When we interviewed him for this election, he made an earnest plea: "I need to win this one."
He needs to win it because he's still got battles to fight. The most prominent one is the lawsuit he filed to keep the state from allowing a new railroad terminal at the northern end of the Navy Yard. If he fails, or if his successor backs down, new train traffic could choke out development in the Park Circle neighborhood and, of course, on the Navy Yard itself. Summey has proven he has the guts to stand up to Gov. Nikki Haley and South Carolina Public Railways, and we believe he'll follow through.
Collins is a respectable candidate, and he brings a few important ideas to the table that Summey would do well to consider. But he's also got some questionable plans — notably, the establishment of shotgun-armed mounted police patrols in neighborhoods — and the scope of his vision is too narrow. He seems more concerned with what he sees as frivolous ticket-writing than with the broader issues of crime prevention and redevelopment.
Summey might talk like a good ol' boy, but he's still got fresh ideas. Both candidates have a vision to revitalize the Neck, the corridor leading south into Charleston, but Summey has proven he has the political will to pursue that goal.
For Charleston City Council, District 1:
White, the incumbent, is running unopposed. We'll give him another four years.
For Charleston City Council, District 3:
Fraser is an honest-to-God progressive and a reasonable man. He wants to put an end to Charleston's food deserts, the high-poverty urban areas where people have little access to healthy food and produce, and he'll push for organic foods in public school cafeterias. He is wary of the tide of gentrification. He wants to fix flooding, not just on the Crosstown but in neighborhoods as well. And he has the perfect background and disposition to make his ideals a reality on council: an intellectual pedigree from Howard University and Johns Hopkins, 12 years as president of the Forest Neighborhood Coalition, and just the right mix of conversational ease and illustrative storytelling to drive his point home.
What's more, he'll work to preserve the history that our city has all too often failed to commemorate: African-American history. As the owner of a Gullah-themed bed and breakfast, he knows much of this history by heart, and he will help cast Charleston as a tourist destination for civil rights history buffs, not just Civil War history buffs.
On the matter of cruise ships, Fraser comes across as the voice of reason. Yes, he acknowledges, the State Ports Authority has the most authority on the matter, but the city has the right to at least establish a limit on the number of ships entering the harbor each year.
James Lewis Jr. has won his district's vote in every election since 1995, but the time has come for a new councilman with fresh ideas. For evidence, one need look no further than his stances on Council's two most prominent issues: cruise ships and the Crosstown. Lewis essentially shrugs off both as the responsibility of state government. He gets credit for the work he has done to date on crime, traffic, and affordable housing, but his stance today is firmly rooted in the status quo.
Willard Sheppard's idea of establishing an elected police commissioner raises a good point about the police department's accountability to the public, but the city would be better served by a more open line of communication with its police chief, not a whole new paid official and his staff. And Sheppard's stance on cruise ships sounds an awful lot like Mayor Riley's: He says he is "displeased" with people who would sue a company that brings tourists and revenue to the city.
Luqman S. Rasheed, who is running for the second time, still does not seem to have his act together. His views on the issues are either too vague — "Bicycles, skateboards, and whatever the city can do to improve the safety of a citizen is great," he said in his interview — or too narrow in their scope. He does care for his community, as evidenced by his work with the North Central Neighborhood Association and Charleston Promise Neighborhood, but he does not seem organized enough to get the job done.
For Charleston City Council, District 5:
We want to like the Rev. Michael Ray Mack. We really do. He struck us as a man of few words, answering our entire battery of questions in under 20 minutes, and if there's one thing political reporters appreciate, it's a politician who cuts to the chase.
But brevity might also be Mack's greatest weakness. He has a finger on the issues that trouble Johns Island, but he oversimplifies them. Rather than address problems in the Department of Recreation, he points to Johns Island Park and says, "That park over there sucks." He knows that traffic congestion is a problem on the island, but he talks as if the only thing keeping Maybank Highway from being widened is a few trees that people don't want cut down.
And the fact that Mack is running for City Council without a stance on bicycle lanes or cruise ship regulation is something we can't ignore, suggesting a provincialism that would be less than helpful when discussing council items that affect areas outside District 5.
Wagner has a lot of the same concerns as Mack, but his viewpoints are a bit more nuanced. While he focuses more on his home turf in West Ashley than on Johns Island, he demonstrates a firmer grasp of citywide issues. His vision of traffic solutions includes not just wider roads but better-planned sidewalks and streetlights, too.
In tight economic times, Charleston could use a tax expert like Wagner in office. His vision is of a leaner, more efficient city government, and we can get on board with that.
And we'll take a more long-winded council member if it means he can see beyond the surface of the issues and articulate the complexities.
For Charleston City Council, District 7:
We need more people like Waring on City Council: neither cynical nor naive. Take for instance his stance on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. As a proud owner of a racing bike with curly handlebars, he has a vested interest in making the roads safer for bicyclists. But he is no anti-automotive zealot. The ideals are still there, but the goals are modest enough to be within reach.
That doesn't sound exciting, true, but City Council is no place for radical politicking. Waring seems to have his priorities straight, and projects like fixing the Crosstown sit near the top of his list. "The glitzy projects we all like," he told us in his interview, "but sometimes we need to take care of some infrastructure." Like us, he is none too keen on the millions being allocated for projects like the Gaillard Auditorium and the mostly superficial improvements on the Crosstown.
His opponent, Robert O'Brien, has a sharp mind for finance; we don't doubt that. We agree with him that the planned Gaillard Auditorium renovation is a fiscal nightmare, and we like his idea of diverting some of the budget to reserves as a cushion for hard times. But his plan to cut council members' meager pay by one-third is a weak gesture that only raises a barrier to entry for potential candidates who are not independently wealthy.
What ultimately did O'Brien in, for the purposes of our endorsement, was his emphasis on creating more parks in District 7. We agree with Waring that this is not as dire a need as O'Brien would have us believe. And O'Brien's proposed solution, the construction of tiny "pocket parks," might work out well in bigger cities, but it is demonstrably ineffective in the Charleston area. The parks that get used are the big ones: Waterfront, for instance, or the county parks. In North Charleston, the Park Circle neighborhood has pocket parks tucked away throughout the neighborhood, but they are mostly neglected in favor of the bigger, better Danny Jones Park and Felix C. Davis Community Center.
One final point: Under the new redistricting, District 7 is one of only two districts with an African-American majority, and Charleston needs more people looking out for the needs of minority constituents. Waring is the man for that job.
For Charleston City Council, District 9:
Both candidates talked a lot about reaching out to apartment renters and not just catering to the homeowners in this West Ashley district. And while we don't question Bob Aubin's sincerity, we see that the incumbent, Aubry Alexander, has already lived up to all that talk.
Alexander gets kudos for heading up the Neighborhood Collaboration, a sort of joint neighborhood association that welcomes both renters and owners. And when it comes to accessibility, you can't beat his e-mail newsletter and weekly breakfast meetings with constituents.
He understands that the purview of a councilman includes some micro-management, right down to working with a community task force providing input on the type of brick to be used in a new CVS building in his district.
Perhaps most importantly, Alexander describes himself as a problem solver, and he lives up to the claim. We may not always agree with his stances on hot-button issues, but we do know he will research them more thoroughly than most other council members. When it comes to the cruise ship debate at Union Pier, he says the city has no right to regulate cruise ships, and he backs it up with his reading of maritime law and international treaties. And when it comes to the issue of bicycle safety, he says a poll of his newsletter recipients found that they opposed closing a lane of the Ashley River Bridge for bikes, seven to one — so he opposes it, too.
Aubin, the challenger in the race, simply does not have the experience necessary for the office. His forays into politics thus far have all been through Democratic Party posts, not through nonpartisan municipal governments like Charleston's. We appreciate his desire to stick up for the Little Guy, but if he's going to do that, he'll need to trot out some more specific goals. He told us in his interview that he wanted to "enact things that help the average working person to be successful." And perhaps one day he will, even if he has to start at a lower rung in local government.
For Charleston City Council, District 11:
We saved the toughest-to-choose council nomination for last. In the other races this election cycle, it was easier to spot the standout with the best track record and the brightest ideas. The trouble with District 11 is that all three candidates — lawyer Beck, journalist and entrepreneur Andy Brack, and retired accountant Bill Moody — had an applicable skill set from their career of choice and some truly bright ideas.
Beck is our type of council member, in nearly every sense of the title. She has experience as a former town council member in Folly Beach, so she already knows how to deal with large groups of politicians. She calls herself a fiscal conservative and a social liberal with an environmental agenda — check. She will push for mixed-use, New Urbanist-style development in West Ashley. And she already has the know-how to realize that some traffic fixes will be as cheap and simple as adjusting the timing on a stoplight, and that some big-money projects (ahem, the Gaillard) need to be reassessed for their use of tax increment financing.
Brack, on the other hand, has a lot of the tools that any good council member would need, many drawing from his time spent as an editor and reporter. But we question his decision not to have his syndicated column pulled from the West Of newspaper for the duration of his campaign. After all, North Charleston City Council candidate Kay Hyman stopped speaking for the Charleston Animal Society on WTMA during her campaign, and Ron Brinson placed his Post and Courier column on hiatus until after Nov. 8. And Brack's decision to ask the readers of his online news magazine, the Statehouse Report, to donate to the cause of his campaign seemed a bit out of line.
Moody might make a fine council member one day, but not until he gets more in touch with the will of the people. His assertion that bicyclists don't belong on roads where the speed limit exceeds 25 mph is not only unfounded, it is the sort of thinking that creates car-vs.-bicycle accidents.