When Charleston City Council meets in January, they’ll do so with four new members, three of whom were sent by voters to City Hall to replace multi-term incumbents.
There’s no way to know exactly why people voted the way they did on Nov. 5 and again in the runoffs two weeks later, but the fact remains that challengers were elected over incumbents in three of five races where they ran.
Not limited to geography or demographics, both downtown districts up for grabs this year will get new representatives on council, as well as Johns Island and West Ashley. And it’s probably no coincidence that two of Mayor John Tecklenburg’s most-vocal critics on council were unseated while voters gave him another four-year term over a more-than-capable challenger in Councilman Mike Seekings.
Call it a mandate or whatever you want, but Charleston residents voted for change on City Council this year.
Consider the two races where challengers won outright over Tecklenburg critics on Nov. 5: Incumbents Bill Moody and Marvin Wagner lost their reelection bids by more than 27 percent each. Not exactly a fluke with over 3,000 votes cast in each contest.
“The common thread you have to draw is that voters are clearly sending a signal that the status quo is unacceptable,” says Ross Appel, District 11’s councilman-elect who will take over for Moody.
“I look forward to being part of what I hope to be a historic city council where we’re not going to have the same set of dysfunction and, frankly, paralysis that we’ve seen over the last several years,” Appel tells the City Paper.
In District 3 downtown and West Ashley where long-time Councilman James Lewis lost his runoff by 24 votes to Jason Sakran, the newcomer sees a way ahead by looking at the election’s larger takeaway.
“It’s clear that if you look at the macro picture of the election, there’s a clear mandate for change — people are restless and concerned,” says Sakran. “Although I won my race by 24 votes, it doesn’t suggest that people in District 3 are overwhelmingly upset, but I can tell you from my conversations that they were and they wanted change.”
Also worth noting: Councilman Keith Waring, the lone Tecklenburg critic who won reelection on Nov. 5, did so with the fewest number of votes of any council winner this year. Waring, a longtime West Ashley incumbent, bested Christian King, an unseasoned political newcomer, by just 180 votes. (As fate would have it, Waring’s 827 vote total was the exact same as earned by District 9 challenger Brett Barry in his 23-percent losing campaign to Councilman Peter Shahid.)
Shahid returns to council after his race, as does Seekings, who also retains his position as the chair of CARTA and the de facto elected leader on bike and pedestrian issues facing the city.
In all, one third of Charleston City Council will be brand new when they are sworn in on Jan. 13, 2020.
Along with Appel and Sakran, new members include Karl Brady, who unseated Wagner, and Marie Delcioppo, who filled the empty seat left when Councilman Gary White launched his protest bid against Tecklenburg.
“We all got to be friends during the campaign,” Appel says. “We’re planning on getting together in the next couple weeks to begin putting together some plans for the new year. We want to be able to hit the ground running into 2020.”
Members of Charleston City Council have a responsibility to advocate on behalf of their neighbors and proactively push for change as the handful of citizens tasked with the job to make our city better. But after years of grandstanding and inaction by council, these new members not only go in with that baseline responsibility, but with voters’ overwhelming permission to aggressively pursue that change in Charleston.
“We want to capitalize off this momentum we have right now,” says Appel.
Sam Spence is the editor of the Charleston City Paper.