Mary Clark’s royal court has revolted.
For 14 years, she’s been a leading voice for an incorporated James Island. For most of that time, Clark has been the face of islanders opposed to the encroaching reach of the City of Charleston. In her own words, she’s fiercely stubborn, refusing to give up a point if she thinks she’s right. That determination may very well have been the difference between success and failure for the Town of James Island.
For the past four years, she’s continued the legal fight for the town — now awaiting a final decision from the state Supreme Court. After two failed attempts, it appears the town’s argument before the bench might finally find success.
But Clark has also been trying to run a town. And that’s not going so well. In 2008 elections, Clark and the Town Council faced no opposition. This year, she’s got four challengers for her seat, and there are 10 people fighting for a spot on the council.
A slim majority on the Town Council has largely let Clark run things her way. But a string of council decisions has raised the ire of community members and the eyebrows of even her staunchest supporters. Clark and other town leaders have been accused of nepotism, intimidation, and mismanagement, as well as taking on too many responsibilities while shirking others.
“This is not the mayor’s town,” said one resident during a recent meeting. “The sign says the Town of James Island … not Mary Clark,” another stated. This has been going on for months, and it routinely gets a chorus of applause from residents at town council meetings. One woman stood up earlier this month and noted there were few accomplishments during Mary Clark’s “reign.”
Clark finds the comparison between the new town she’s helped to mold and an old-world monarchy “ridiculous.” Her administration has founded a town hall where residents can come with their grievances and concerns and she has put together a staff and a collection of boards to handle the town’s business. She says it is a very small number of political opponents rousing the opposition — that they’re anti-Mary Clark and anti-James Island.
But Clark is not above making her own allusions to rulers. In the same interview, she referred to Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, a frequent Mary Clark punching bag, as “the pharaoh across the river.”
Van Fleming, a self-proclaimed longtime Clark supporter, stood up to rail against her at a recent Town Council meeting.
“Mary did the people’s will for a long time,” he said, before turning directly to Clark. “You quit listening to the people and what they wanted.”
Doug Patterson, a resident of James Island for 27 years, said he and his wife used to support Clark. They still believe in the town and in defending the island from City of Charleston mismanagement, but Patterson said it’s time for her to go.
“We’re certainly grateful for all the hard work that she’s done,” he said. “But she’s almost become what she used to criticize. It’s her way or the highway.”
Clark seems loyal to a fault and considerate to a point. She appears to expect the same in return, and as a result, she seems frustrated that her allies are now questioning her leadership while skeptics in the community continue to challenge her priorities. Our discussions with her support these impressions.
Clark seemed flustered as she stood at a Town Council meeting earlier this month to respond to her critics. It was two days after July 4. She opened with, “Happy birthday, America!” Clark smacked her hands together. Few followed her lead; the angry crowd just stared back at her. “Clap! Clap!” she yelled.
Hell for Certain
During two exhaustive City Paper interviews, Mary Clark responded to her critics with the same measure of contempt and skepticism that she’s leveled against Riley over the past 14 years. She also answered tough questions about messy legal disputes with her in-laws more than three decades ago, and she gave surprising insight into her connection with the people of James Island and how that bond was fostered by where she came from: 456 miles north of the island, on Hell for Certain Creek.
Her birthplace was the kind of hillside Kentucky community where families survived off their land.
“No one had anything, but we had loyalty,” she said.
One of 10 children (nine of whom made it to adulthood), Clark learned to read in a one-room schoolhouse.
“I think it gave me a tenacity and a resolve that I can do anything I need to,” she said.
It’s a trait that most James Island residents saw in Clark as she led the charge in the fight for the town, vaulting over hurdle after hurdle.
Her family moved to the Lowcountry when her father got a job on the docks. At 10, she came to Charleston in the back of a pick-up truck, throwing up over the fender. She went to school on James Island, where even her teachers made fun of her mountain accent.
Over the years, Clark found a connection with the descendants of slaves on the island, communities that she still counts among her strongest supporters.
“The people native to James Island are so much like my people,” Clark said. “They have the same big families, the same culture … It was the same thing I had in my youth. It’s a people who do not have an advantage, but they’re willing to work hard.”
Clark finished high school with honors and an academic scholarship to the College of Charleston, but she didn’t go. She was from a working-class family where everyone had to pitch in. And she was also a new wife, marrying Julian Clark at 17. But she was a voracious learner, even without a classroom. Clark soaked up centuries of history on the island, plotting out in her mind where local families made their roots.
History and preservation are still close to her heart. The town’s financial contribution to that effort, particularly the upcoming Civil War Sesquicentennial and the proposed seizing of the McLeod Plantation, is responsible for a lot of the animosity that has arisen as we approach the town’s August 3 election.
Clark divorced Julian in the early ’80s. But she found true love more than a decade later, calling it “the romance that rocked James Island.” As mayor, Clark met Walter Herbert when he would make routine donations to the town. One day at church, he brushed a finger along Clark’s as they shared a hymnal and soon after asked for her hand in marriage. It was a whirlwind romance. Told the news of the upcoming union, Clark’s own daughter asked, “To whom?” Herbert passed away in January ’09. They were together for four years, six months, one week, and three days. That’s right. She counted.
“All of these things bring out what you are and mold what you are,” she said.
$5 and Love and Affection
Politicians are often asked to explain their personal history and how it relates to their jobs. Ken Ard, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, was recently asked about his failure to vote until 2004. Last week, Green Party gubernatorial candidate Morgan Reeves responded to questions about an arrest and several driving violations in the 1990s. Clark was uncomfortable when our questions turned to Charleston County court records regarding a dispute with her sister-in-law. She says that we might also want to note that she’s been driving for more than 50 years and has never received a traffic ticket.
But much like Clark’s Appalachian origins — a story that she’s often proud to share — a legal dispute with her first husband’s family in the late ’70s paints a picture of the Mary Clark we’re all too familiar with — a person who demands loyalty, is skeptical of government, and possesses the conviction that she’s right until the bitter end.
“This is the first time I have ever spoken anywhere about anything is to you,” Clark told Master in Equity Louis Condon in court testimony in 1979. “All of these things have been done by innuendo and whatever else, but I’ve never had a chance to speak before.”
In February 1975, Clark had taken in her epileptic sister-in-law, Marguerite, who’d been under observation at the state mental hospital in Columbia for five months and had lived in a Beaufort nursing home prior to that. According to Clark’s testimony at the time, Marguerite had begged her family to take her in and had been rebuffed. So Clark brought her home, gave her a room in the house, and took care of her.
“I’ve been through a lot of things in my life,” Clark told us when asked about the case. “I always do the best that I can, and I do what I think is right.”
By the summer of ’76, family members who had previously watched over Marguerite’s property and finances complained to the state’s Department of Social Services about the living conditions in Clark’s home and how she had handled Marguerite’s money and land.
By the next summer, a DSS report later used as evidence described deplorable living conditions in Clark’s home and a hostile environment. Marguerite left in August 1976. She was ruled incompetent and given a court-appointed representative.
Lawyers for Marguerite challenged Clark’s claim on nearly 30 acres Marguerite had signed over to her for “$5 and love and affection.” They also sought to find out what happened to all of Marguerite’s nearly $10,000 in savings.
Testifying in 1979, Clark said she learned the morning of the competency hearing that Marguerite was in court requesting a new custodian for her finances.
“I went and sat in the back. … It was all done sneaky, sneaky behind my back. I sat down in the back of the room,” she said. “I stood up and identified myself and said that I was Mary B. Clark, the person that they had convicted by innuendo.”
The court had handed all the property back to Marguerite by ’79, but it had yet to determine where the money went.
For a hearing on Aug. 6, 1979, Clark didn’t have a lawyer (“The lawyer wanted $2,000. I didn’t think it was to my best advantage to pay $2,000,” she said according to the court transcript.) She also didn’t have bank documents, claiming they’d been seized in another court matter that had been settled.
“They are questioning whether or not all of those funds were used for her (Marguerite’s) benefit,” Condon explained during the hearing.
“Or that they indeed should have been used for her benefit,” Clark responded. “She gave me the money outright in that note.”
Clark had a handwritten note that she provided as evidence in ’79 that described an agreement between the two: She would take in Marguerite in exchange for her money and her land.
“I, Mary B. Clark, promise to take care of Marguerite Clark and to let her live in my home as long as she lives from willing to me her property and the money she has in the bank,” the note read. “I also promise to let her have her Social Security check every month. I am not any power district (sic) of attorney over her. I swear that I mean every word I have said on this here paper.” The name signed at the bottom was “Mary B. Clark.”
Clark claimed that Marguerite had written the note. But Marguerite’s attorney, Thomas Waring, noted Clark’s name was on the note. She was resolute in her testimony that it was Marguerite’s handwriting and that it was an agreement laying out the woman’s wishes.
Clark responded sarcastically, “I suppose we have to bow to the gentleman here since he is totally in charge of the whole thing.”
According to evidence, Clark appears to have fought until the last minute to avoid returning Marguerite’s property, but she told the court in ’79 that it meant nothing to her.
“I would have given the property back to Marguerite had I been approached by Marguerite,” she said, before showing a familiar determination. “They did it all behind my back. They didn’t have to go through with that. After they did it, I tried to make my point that I was right in what I did.”
In early 1980, the court ordered Mary to pay $23,131.76 to recover Marguerite’s savings, earnings, and court costs. Clark notes that Marguerite was better off when she left her home than when she got there. Her sister-in-law would spend the rest of her days in a nursing home.
“I’ve been through a lot of things in my life,” Clark said recently about the matter. “I always do the best that I can, and I do what I think is right. I thought it was right to get my sister-in-law out of the hospital.”
Across the River
These days, Mary Clark’s office is even more cluttered than usual. Within arms reach, the mayor has the tools of the trade: old newspapers, binders, maps, and notated Town Council minutes. But now the office also holds military uniforms, honor flags, and her second husband’s smokey — a traditional Marine instructor’s hat.
The mementos had previously been on display around the corner in the main meeting room, which takes up the bulk of the old storefront that serves as Town Hall. Clark would often reference the display during town meetings and offer an anecdote or two about James Island’s soldiers, both past and present.
She has taken the memorial down, temporarily turning her office into a bunker — at least in practice, and possibly even in spirit.
At the end of one tough meeting in May, Clark playfully told The Post and Courier that she would have police present next time “to keep from having mob action,” and she abruptly sent the council into executive session when loud applause followed a string of biting criticism concerning her leadership.
At one recent meeting, Clark asked the audience to be civil, out of respect for the soldiers honored in the military memorial.
She said about three different people stood up during the meeting and told her that she had to “earn respect.”
“A young man about half my age said, ‘This is not your town. It’s our town,'” she said. Another man who had supported Clark for years came to a recent meeting and accused her and the council of having a “cod lock” on the residents.
“Don’t my meetings get rough?” she asked us later.
Clark seems to see a conspiracy against her and the town in a lot of things. Most of them have to do with Mayor Riley, her nemesis over the course of the nearly 15-year ordeal of getting the town incorporated. As it had before, the City of Charleston sued to challenge the latest town formation and has aggressively pursued annexation on James Island. Clark claims that Riley talked good people out of their property on the island and that he has colluded with county officials to make her job more difficult — making basic services like law enforcement more expensive and hindering access to necessary resources like tax maps.
Clark currently has her eyes set on McLeod Plantation, a historic property (ironically annexed into the city) whose owners continue to search for a buyer to preserve the buildings and find some use for the land. Clark sees Riley’s hand in every hurdle that has stood in her way, including the College of Charleston’s temporary interest in the property and a recent offer by Charleston County Parks and Recreation.
She often characterizes her opponents in terms of being foes of the town or supporters of the city. And she has a belief that the growing criticism of her administration is being orchestrated by those same people.
“They’ve created these antagonistic things — somebody has — and, of course, it all plays across the river,” she said, referring to the attention the town gets in the press when things heat up. If you couldn’t tell yet by this piece: The pot is boiling over.
Asked about a recent debate she refused to attend where 300 people came to hear from her mayoral campaign opponents, Clark said she believed the crowd was brought in from outside town limits.
“I don’t really see that that many people would come clamoring to see what these four gentlemen had to say,” she said.
Councilman Joe Qualey, a longtime opponent of Clark’s who will be moving on to a Charleston County Council race this fall, said that the fresh interest is due to people paying attention.
“People are less inclined to get involved when things are perceived to be going smoothly,” he said. “People’s interest turns to frustration, and then it turns to action.”
Warren Sloane, an opponent for mayor, said that Clark is taking too much of the criticism personally.
“It’s not an everybody-hates-Mary-thing,” he said, noting it’s about her ability to lead a town instead of a war. “She’s got a very strong personality, and that’s what we needed at a certain point. At some point we’ve got to move beyond the fight.”
Until I Get In the Box
Suffering from thyroid cancer, Mary Clark’s third act began in 1997 when she learned the first Town of James Island lost a court challenge by the City of Charleston. Town Hall had been padlocked, and Clark was enraged.
“The Nazis would come into a town, they’d hang the mayor, they’d lock up the town hall, and they’d have the town,” she said.
She wrote a letter to The Post and Courier; not surprisingly, it focused on the history and preservation of the island and the vast acreage and heritage that had been lost by the city’s creeping annexation. One example that she gave, even back then, was the McLeod Planation that she’s fighting for today.
But the letter didn’t get a response. When she heard a discussion about the town on the radio, she had her daughter fax her letter, and the afternoon jock on WTMA 1250 put Clark on the radio. The letter was published soon after, and Clark was asked to join the fight for a second Town of James Island. She marched on City Hall with the other islanders.
“It was like a civil rights march,” she said. “It was overwhelming.”
Clark has used a prayer recited during that march at council meetings: “The power in that building is stronger than we are, but the power on our side is stronger than that.”
For a decade, Mary Clark was the tough old lady fighting against the City of Charleston as it attempted to expand to every corner of James Island. She stood in picket lines, sat in front of Walmart, and spoke out at City Council meetings, always wearing a familiar red shirt.
The town had a friend in state Senate leader Glenn McConnell (R-Charleston), who would offer new state statutes to address each road block the City of Charleston put in JI’s way.
Clark’s dogged determination was an asset in the fight for James Island. But that strength has bore less fruit now that she’s running the town. And the same charges of tyranny that used to befall Joe Riley are now used against Clark.
Once the doors to Town Hall opened in 2006, Clark met the day-to-day grind. Her administration had to negotiate with the county for essential services. Once officials had moved into their storefront digs, a complaint forced the town to put up fire walls in the office.
“It was a nightmare, and it cost a lot of money, but that’s the sort of thing that people do,” Clark said.
More than a year ago, Clark got in the first real battle of her administration: a dispute over ditch work.
Resident Herbert Stamey claimed a town contractor left his landscaping in ruins after improving a stormwater ditch at the front of his lawn. Claiming the town had the right to do the ditch work, Clark has been adamantly against addressing Stamey’s gripe. The council ignored her threats to resign and approved repairs, but the town administration has yet to sign off on the work, and Stamey continues to come to council meetings, seeking relief.
At this point, it’s a fight between Clark’s bitter determination and the will of her council.
“It doesn’t even look to me like you need a council,” Stamey said earlier this month, more than a year after he first complained about the ditch work.
But Clark is resolute.
“He said we’d ruined his yard,” she said. “We didn’t touch his yard. It wasn’t his ditch, and I’ll maintain that until I get in the box and shut my eyes for the last time.”
The town angered island residents with a vote led by Clark to oppose county improvements to Harbor View Road. The work is paid for, but the town claimed the effort to improve commute times for residents wouldn’t work and would actually encourage further development.
Recently, the rancor increased when two contracts worth $75,000 were awarded to Clark’s son, Julian Clark. The first was a contract to run the town website, which received unanimous support by town council. But the second was a 2-0 vote for her son to provide detailed GIS and mapping services for the town. Clark was present both times but didn’t vote. She dismisses the charges of nepotism and notes that her son and the rest of her family has donated a lot of time to helping the town.
Criticism of the contract came from all corners, including James Island Election Commission Chairwoman Antoinette “Toni” Reale, who was appointed by the mayor. After Reale made public comments against the contract during a Town Council meeting last month, Clark asked for her resignation, saying Reale could be prejudicial against the mayor in her upcoming re-election.
Come to Fruition
Spend a few minutes with Mary Clark and you’re just as likely to hear a story about the centuries of history on James Island as you are a story about Clark herself. The island’s history is at the heart of her vision for the town’s next few years.
“Everything will have come to fruition,” she said.
Hmm. “Come to fruition.” Sounds like a short, well-dressed leprechaun we all know.
“I don’t say it out loud too much, but I’ve thought about him,” Clark said of Mayor Riley. “He had a vision for his city. I see what his vision was. But, unfortunately, his vision took something from what I loved.”
She held up the day’s paper with a large front-page story on Riley’s plans for a massive $142 million Gaillard Center rehab in the heart of the peninsula.
“We all know in our personal and professional lives that we must seize certain moments or they will be lost,” she said, quoting Riley. “That’s McLeod for me.”
“There are two times in my life and the life of James Island that, had I not done anything about it, I would not have lived the rest of my life.” One is the letter she sent in 1997. The other is the bid for McLeod Plantation.
History has always been a priority for Clark, going far beyond the military memorabilia now filling her office. For the sesquicentennial, the island is having a cannon shipped in that’s identical to the one that fired on Fort Sumter. The town is also having a documentary filmed charting the history of James Island. In total, the town has budgeted $65,000 for “history and preservation.”
The struggle for McLeod is also indicative of Clark’s life on the island. She said she knew the McLeods and their vision to preserve the property. This isn’t just historical for her. It’s personal.
The Historic Charleston Foundation has been looking for a buyer for the McLeod Planation but doesn’t have a taker yet. The town offered $1 million and was rebuffed, so Clark wants to seize the property through eminent domain.
“They’re going to let something that can never be duplicated in this entire country fall down,” she said. “I’m appalled by the whole thing.”
She wants to create a museum in the home, film a documentary about sleeping in the slave cabins, and return the plantation fields to farm use, planting cotton and indigo and offering up plots to the descendants of James Island slaves.
Like most efforts for James Island and Mary Clark, the road to success is complicated. In this case, the money she was banking on using to purchase the property can’t be used in cases where the municipality is seizing property. So the town would have to borrow money — an endeavor that may not find support among council members or the community.
“I personally don’t have the money to help this town buy McLeod Plantation,” said resident Rick Little.
The County Parks and Recreation Commission has made a pitch for the property, offering to include the town as a stakeholder. But, in typical fashion, Clark is convinced she knows best.
In many instances, her problem is in the struggle to convince everyone else of her vision, said Charlie Morrison, a town reporter for the James Island Messenger.
“She obviously cares,” he said. “But she fails miserably in communicating where she stands.”
Budgets and Elections
Any queen will tell you there are two things that will doom a monarchy: voting and taxes.
Earlier this year, she brought her draft for the budget with the closing lines any elected official likes to read: “projected surplus.” But Town Council delayed on final approval right past a July 1 deadline. The sticking point was a collection of targeted grants that not only accounted for the surplus, but also more than $200,000 of general spending. Opponents on the council said that money should be set aside since it couldn’t be used to keep the lights on.
Clark balked and continued to press her proposal, to the point that the board deadlocked on approving the budget before July 1. The deadline is really more of a soft state law. Most municipalities have to pass some sort of budget ordinance in order to properly file for property tax collections. James Island operates solely on fees, grants, and state revenues, so this could have gone on forever.
“There’s no budget police,” said Qualey. “It’s kind of a self-policing issue.”
With the deadline come and gone, council would have been forced to OK every expenditure one by one until a budget was approved. But the board voted against her on July 6, setting the grant money aside and pulling the resulting shortfall from the town’s $1.7 million in savings.
Clark wrung her hands as she spoke in opposition to taking up the proposal with such urgency. She sided with the town’s lawyer, who argued that the changes would have required another delay for public comment.
Even Clark’s closest ally on the council, Parris Williams, disagreed. “We have to go on with the people’s business,” he said.
The next item of the people’s business is the election. Clark is ready, and she’s excited to put her vision for the town up against what’s being offered by her four opponents.
“I welcome anyone who wants to run,” she said. “That’s why we fought (for the town). But, please, have some kind of platform to run on.”
Clark likely doesn’t have anything to worry about. The candidate with the most votes wins the election, and it will be difficult for any of her four challengers to find enough support to best the incumbent.
She refused to attend the debate with the other mayoral candidates last week.
“I told them I’d like to see those young men debate each other,” she said. “I didn’t think it was fair (to them) for me to participate.”
There’s also fresh confusion over a shift in polling places for the municipal elections. Clark said that fire stations that had been used before have been abandoned over complaints regarding access for the disabled. Instead, churches are being used in some cases, including the church she was married in and churches in other communities that have historically supported Clark.
Aware of the potential confusion, Clark was ready to send out campaign flyers with the polling place information, but she told the City Paper that she didn’t think the town needed to send out its own notice.
After losing the battle over the budget, Clark eventually voted with the rest of the council to increase the Election Commission spending to do just that — to send out notices to every voter regarding the polling changes.
Councilman Leonard Blank, another Clark foil, noted that the interest in the election has risen with each perceived administrative gaffe.
“Believe me, the people of James Island are paying attention now,” he said.
After she clapped excitedly for the birth of our free nation earlier this month, Clark took the opportunity to defend herself.
“What was done was a labor of love,” she told the crowd. “I’m one of those hard-headed, stubborn people who said no one has a right to take our town away.”
As for her actions, Clark cited an unusual example to support the spending that others have criticized:
“A town is more than paying the bills,” she said. “The City of Charleston does more than pave roads and fill ditches.”
And as for her job, anyone can have it — if they can earn it.
“I didn’t intend to take it with me in the box when I go,” she said. “Go. Vote. Have your town — because it’s your town. I should know.”
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.