Democratic strategist Clay Middleton (left) and S.C. Rep. William Cogswell, R-Charleston, (center) are both eyeing Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg’s (right) seat | Photos provided

Outgoing S.C. GOP Rep. William Cogswell and Democratic politico Clay Middleton are sizing up their chances to become Charleston’s next mayor, a job that incumbent John Tecklenburg wants to keep.

While only Tecklenburg has formally announced a bid for the seat, Cogswell told the City Paper he is considering a run, and Charleston native and political strategist Clay Middleton said he is weighing his options, too. 

Middleton looks at the city’s future

Middleton said he has been seriously considering running in recent months — if not for the last couple years — but things have been coming into greater focus. He said when he’s talked to folks around him about his thinking, nobody has been surprised he’s pondering a campaign for mayor. 

“It’s about the future, like all elections,” he said. “If I do decide to run, it’s going to be focused on my role in shaping the future of Charleston, the city I grew up in, and the community that invested so much in me and my upbringing, as a way to give back.”

Middleton graduated from Burke High School in 1999, and he recalled how many of his classmates were itching to leave the city. “They didn’t see a future for themselves in Charleston,” he said. But his time in Washington D.C. and his work with powerful U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., steered him back home. And now that he’s 40, his perspective on the community evolved as his family matured.

“When you have kids, you actually look at things differently — go figure,” Middleton said. “So I’ve been looking at it with that lens — what do the next 40 years look like? The next five years? What does the city that birthed me, that invested in me, look like?”

“I don’t want my 5- and 7-year old to not see themselves in Charleston — that there are no opportunities for them — that they feel compelled to leave because there isn’t anything here for them,” he added.

Cogswell has hope for more civility

Colleagues on both sides of the aisle have encouraged Cogswell to make the run, he told the City Paper this week. 

“It started a few months ago when a number of individuals and groups from different sides of the political spectrum contacted me saying they wanted a choice,” he said. “Charleston has been through a lot and has a lot of challenges ahead, and while I like John personally, new ideas can be a good thing.”

Furthermore, he added, his time in the Statehouse is getting more difficult. Not only is it becoming harder to remain effective as a moderate in an increasingly polarized political sphere, he explained, but the time traveling away from his family has been taxing. Cogswell did not file for reelection, though he said that decision was not directly tied to the potential run for mayor.

“I have enjoyed my time in Columbia and have learned a lot,” he said. “I have made some good friends — both Democrats and Republicans — and despite the polarization mentioned above, the ability to break bread at the end of the day has given me some real hope that the national political discord has not fully spread to South Carolina.”

More challengers expected 

There will almost definitely be more challengers stepping up as the city inches closer to the November 2023 election. Tecklenburg’s tenure as mayor since his election in 2015 has seen some political turmoil in the city, including nationwide protests against police brutality and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the fact that the mayoral race is nonpartisan, national politics are playing a larger role at the local level. A three-month fight to pass the city’s Commission on Human Affairs and Racial Conciliation spotlighted political divisions in the community and the city’s leadership. It also  put conservative groups like the American Heritage Association and progressive organizations like Black Lives Matter on opposite ends of local politics. 

But Middleton chalks up a lot of the smaller struggles Tecklenburg has faced to something other than national partisanship.

“I think [Tecklenburg] has handled being the guy after Mayor Joe Riley as well as anyone could have,” Middleton said. “Think about it — Riley ran this city, every department, every division, operationally. He built the structures of city hall. You have someone coming in after that — there’s a lot of layers to peel, and people don’t naturally adjust to change well. Anyone who would have come after Riley would have had a tough task.”

Tecklenburg says he has more work to do

In the meantime, Tecklenburg is still mayor, meaning his work is unfinished. 

“The next city election is still a full year-and-a half away,” Tecklenburg told the City Paper in a statement. “Between now and then, my job as mayor is to stay focused on the common-sense priorities that matter most to our citizens — fixing flooding, fighting crime, easing traffic and building affordable housing — and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

In his time in office, multiple citywide programs addressing these issues have been set in motion, including the city’s:

  • Revamped Low Battery project, which entered its penultimate construction phase this month; 
  • Rapid Transit Program, which is more than halfway through its final phase before construction; 
  • Comprehensive plan, which includes measures for development that prioritizes higher land to avoid flooding;
  • Housing Trust, which Middleton lauded as a transformational idea pushed ahead by Tecklenburg. 

Middleton also listed programs like the West Ashley Revitalization Plan as prime examples of some of the not-so-sexy but oh-so-important work by Tecklenburg during his time in office. 

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