Joe Riley’s influence looms in 2020 Charleston-area elections


Riley appeared in endorsement ads for incumbent Solicitor Scarlett Wilson this week | Screenshot

Almost five years removed from office, former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley appeared in new ads for two local election campaigns this week, one for a longtime Republican incumbent.

Riley ran in nonpartisan city elections during his 40 years as mayor but previously served as Democrat in the state legislature. He remains a sought-after endorsement in the state’s Democratic presidential primary. Riley left office in 2016, opting against running for an 11th term.

Never shy about using his own popularity to boost candidates during his time in office, just this week Riley appeared in ads endorsing Republican Solicitor Scarlett Wilson and on behalf of the Charleston Coalition for Kids, an education nonprofit that announced its school board endorsements on Tuesday. (He was also part of the Coalition’s 2018 work.) Riley is also active in local Democratic campaigns as the chairman of U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham’s reelection effort.

Despite already being out of office long enough for his successor to be reelected, Riley likely still has some sway in local elections.

“Mayor Riley was in office for 40 years, and he continues to be highly respected in Charleston,” said Gibbs Knotts, a College of Charleston political science professor. “He is widely recognized by a large portion of Lowcountry voters. He might be new to some of the region’s recent in-migrants, but if they follow politics, they have likely heard stories about Mayor Riley.”

Riley was also the face of the local educational advocacy nonprofit Coalition for Kids in 2018 | YouTube screenshot

But in 2020, Riley’s support for Wilson and the Coalition for Kids comes as his fellow Democrats, along with liberal activists, push for progressive criminal justice and education reforms.

The Coalition for Kids has faced criticism from activists over its attempts to influence local school board elections by spending thousands of dollars it is not required to disclose in detail as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit.

Executive Director Josh Bell said he is proud to have Riley on his side, calling him a “remarkable visionary leader — often ahead of his time — and somebody that most voters recognize and understand has the best interest of Charleston kids and families in mind.”

Neither Wilson, who was appointed in 2007, nor Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon, first elected in 1988, have ever faced Democratic competition in the general election.

“I respect Mayor Riley, but I don’t think he’s really fully cognizant of the social awakening we’ve had in 2020,” said Charleston County Democratic Party Chair Colleen Condon. “We have a choice, for the first in a long time, and I’d like a better solicitor.”

Wilson’s Democratic challenger, attorney Ben Pogue called himself a “Joe Riley fan” but said he never sought the former mayor’s blessing.

“It’s not what we’re looking for,” he said. “We’re looking for the new vision.”

Riley told the City Paper he has been pleased with Wilson’s record and did not consider her party affiliation.

“Scarlett Wilson has been an excellent solicitor. She’s smart, hard-hardworking and experienced in what is a difficult job,” Riley said. “And I think if somebody’s doing a very good job, the prudent thing is to rehire them. That’s how I approached it.”

Knotts said that approach, along with not having a D or R next to his name on the ballot, may be one reason Riley continues to be an appealing political voice.

“Riley did a good job of appealing to Republicans and Democrats during his time in office. He benefited from being able to run in non-partisan mayoral elections and advocated for policies that benefited voters from both parties. While he has certainly backed more Democrats than Republicans, he has often supported moderate, pro-business candidates.”

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