Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. has saddled up for another re-election campaign, his ninth as an incumbent. Nine times he's been challenged, and nine times he's bested the field. And though the fraternity of failed challengers to Riley is as diverse as it is large, it's unlikely he has ever run against a candidate like Craig Jelks.
In some ways, Craig Jelks is not that different from the Joe Riley of 1975 — both young and brash, each touting the look and the lexicon for politics. Once upon a time Riley was the new blood, but today that honor goes to the 29-year-old Jelks, a local teacher who is making education the primary focus of his campaign. The young candidate's all-in play revolves around how his plans for improving education in the Holy City are received, but for now, the native of Birmingham, Ala., is trying to crack the nut of name recognition.
With a confident grin, Jelks is quick to dismiss the notion that, at the tender age of 29 and with a relative lack of government, he's not up to the task of assuming leadership over a city of just over 120,000. "Riley was my age when he was elected mayor. He got his start. I'm just looking for mine," Jelks says.
That's where the similarities end.
Jelks earned degrees in political science from both Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he was magna cum laude, and Columbia University in New York City, where he got a graduate degree. During college, he also spent time studying at Oxford University and interning for Republican Senators Richard Shelby of Alabama and Bill Frist of Tennessee, who was the minority leader of the Senate at the time.
Riley, in comparison, has always stayed close to home. His longest extended period away from Charleston came when he attended the law school at the University of South Carolina after graduating from the Citadel.
Jelks only moved to the city four short years ago, but for him, his jump from relative obscurity into relevancy was always going to have more to do with his intangibles than his resumé.
"I love politics, I love government, and I love people, and I knew eventually I'd get into it," Jelks says. "All I was missing from the equation was the 'where,' and that was solved for me when I moved to Charleston.
"When I first moved to the area and began reading up on Mayor Riley, I couldn't help but be shocked that he had held his office for more than 30 years. I mean, are you kidding me?" he adds. "Personally, I believe that when someone serves that long it doesn't add to the greatness of a city because your ideas dry up, you stop being innovative, creative. That was enough for me. I said, 'This is my time.' "
Upon arriving in the Holy City, Jelks made a surprising move; he embarked on a career outside of politics. He heard about Teach Charleston, a local organization that works with the Charleston County School District in finding strong teaching candidates for area schools. He was hired to teach social studies and South Carolina history to students at Sanders-Clyde Middle School.
"I never thought I'd be interested in teaching, but there was a shortage in Charleston of male teachers," Jelks says. "I said to myself, 'Let me give this thing a try.' The more I learned about this state and this city the more I loved it."
Despite a second year of teaching that netted him the accolade of school teacher of the year, Jelks transferred to Sangaree Middle School, where he has been for the past two years. According to his website, Jelks was nominated for teacher of the year for the 2010-2011 school year, and 93 percent of his social studies students met or exceeded Palmetto Assessment of State Standards.
He believes the skill set that worked for him as an educator should work for him as a public servant. "As a teacher, it's almost like being mayor. You wear many different hats. As a teacher you're a police officer, you're a firefighter, you're a judge, you're a counselor," he says. "Sometimes you're an uncle or a dad. You're up and explaining things and talking every day, and in the same manner as a public official.
"You have to work constructively with the members of City Council. In this city government, not only does the mayor function like any other member of council, but you're also the chief administrator and executive officer of the city. I think that's where my easy, natural way of being around people will come into play," he says. "I deal with parents, and when you deal with the parents of middle school-aged children, you can deal with anyone. It's about wording."
If elected, Jelks asserts that he will work to seek a greater city presence in the area's educational system, which is controlled exclusively by the Charleston County School District. Jelks' goal is to make the City of Charleston, specifically the mayor's office, a major player in determining the future of local public education.
For Jelks, the state of education here in the Lowcountry is reason enough to run. "It's worse than people think it is. Students are out of control, and, perhaps worse, teachers feel that there's nothing they can do about it. Changing the system is going to be a big move, and it should be. I'm going to be taking everyone to task, the children, the parents, and the educators."
For more info, visit craigjelks.com.