James Island Mayor Mary Clark was surely surprised when she lost her re-election bid to Citadel economics professor Bill Woolsey in a five-person race that was hers to lose.
Weeks earlier, Clark had decided against attending the first mayoral debate, but the picture in the paper showed the scene real well: more than 300 people crammed into a small auditorium meant to hold about half that number. Residents who couldn’t get in stood in the hall, bending an ear to the open doors in hopes of hearing what the four challengers had to say.
The next day, Clark told us that the people in the crowd were likely bussed in from Summerville or Moncks Corner.
“Somebody did a lot of e-mailing — getting people over here to pack the house,” she said. “I don’t think that many people would come clamoring to hear what these four people have to say.”
Clark wasn’t the only one who overestimated her chances. The anxiety among other candidates was evident in the run up to Election Day. Each voiced concerns about shifting polling places that might help Clark or annual tax rebate checks that landed in mailboxes in the days before Election Day with Mayor Clark’s name on them.
But if there is one thing you can say about Election Day on James Island, it’s that it did not go Clark’s way. More than 3,600 voters came out to vote, with Woolsey receiving nearly 40 percent, almost double Clark’s final tally. Voters also ushered out Clark’s closest allies on the council, Parris Williams and Cubby Wilder.
Woolsey has promised deep cuts to balance the town’s budget, reviewing positions and salaries. More than $75,000 in contracts to Clark’s son and the mayor’s own $35,000 salary were both issues in the election.
They also highlighted her pet projects. History was a passion for Clark. During that first debate, Woolsey had the line of the night when he noted that Clark was attending her History and Preservation Committee meeting and “that’s a great place for her.” The crowd took it as sarcasm, but it’s true.
Clark’s passion was OK, but her political problems only increased when she started using town money. The mayor was sharply criticized for spending in advance of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, including a documentary on James Island. In the latest town budget, Clark committed $65,000 to “history and preservation” — more than 5 percent of the town’s operating budget.
Clark also had a controversial plan to seize McLeod Plantation, with the ambitious goal to preserve the site, using the house as a museum and returning crops to the fields. The property alone was going to cost the town $1.8 million, not including necessary repairs. But the council overturned its first vote to seek McLeod through eminent domain.
Regardless of the opposition to her leadership, Clark’s defeat was far from assured. The city’s election laws do not allow for a runoff, so whoever gets the most votes on Election Day wins. As an incumbent with four challengers offering similar versions of the same message, it appeared likely that they would split the anti-Clark vote.
So what was it about Woolsey? More than the others, Woolsey pointed out Clark’s refusal to work with the county and the city instead of knocking her general inexperience. After all, none of these alternative candidates had any experience leading James Island, either.
“We can’t run a town on anger and resentment,” Woolsey said at least twice during public debates and once during a City Paper interview.
Woolsey said he would serve as mayor but that he’d like to hire a town manager to provide a professional, day-to-day administration.
In the end, his victory may have come from his resumé. The town had to pull nearly $265,000 from its savings to balance this year’s budget. Even with less spending on the things Clark wanted, the town will likely have to face some tough cuts to avoid sending out tax bills. And that is just the job for an economics professor.
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.