Charleston-area voters head to the polls on Nov. 5 to vote for mayor, city council, and other local offices. For the next few weeks, we’ll highlight local races you’ll find on the ballot. This week we have the Charleston mayor’s race; next week (10/23) we’ll look at city council; and then (10/30) we’ll give our endorsements. Find additional profiles at charlestoncitypaper.com/election. – Sam Spence
Nearing the end of his first term in office, the first after Joe Riley’s 40-year tenure, Mayor John Tecklenburg says he feels “Charleston is headed in a good direction.”
Asked why he thinks Charlestonians should re-elect him, Tecklenburg is quick to clarify that his priorities on the campaign trail are one and the same with his day-to-day work as mayor. “I kind of judge my day as being meaningful and purposeful if I’m working on flooding and drainage, affordable housing, and public safety.”
Addressing criticism by Councilman Gary White that more needs to be done in the short-term to address flooding, Tecklenburg says that after his four years in office, “In a way, I think we’re already at the place Gary is calling for … We’re there now. We’ve got $100 million in projects underway, another $100 million worth that we’re teeing up,” Tecklenburg says. “We’re taking action now.”
New stormwater guidelines informed by the Dutch Dialogues study, will be before council in November, the mayor says, and will attempt to account for “every drop of water” that falls on Charleston.
“I’m not kidding when I tell people I’ve become obsessed with the flooding and drainage thing,” Tecklenburg says. “I really have.”
As the impacts of climate change and rising water are exacerbated by new development, Tecklenburg says safeguards are needed to protect properties from repeated rising waters, but that those regulations belong in the stormwater plans.
“That’s where the ‘fill and build’ type regulations belong in my view — [created in] a comprehensive, thoughtful, balanced way — to make sure that future development cause any harm from a water and drainage point of view.”
Residents affected by flooding, and most recently by Councilman Harry Griffin, have floated the idea of banning “fill and build” — when fill dirt is brought in to raise the level of new developments, causing runoff to surrounding areas.
But the intent of any new rules related to construction and fill would not be to stop all development, Tecklenburg says. “I think it needs to be slowed down responsibly,” he says, but that a citywide ban on the practice would be “reactionary.”
Tecklenburg likewise dismisses White’s speculation that the mayor’s office has lost respect in recent years. “I think he’s blowing smoke,” Tecklenburg says.
To create more affordable housing, Tecklenburg hopes the city can partner with developers to identify where homes can be marked as affordable for long periods of time. Rattling off projects that will bring more than 600 affordable units online, Tecklenburg says the city is also doing what it can to fast-track developments where builders meet certain requirements.
Coming into office shortly after the Emanuel murders and on Riley’s coattails was an eye-opening experience, Tecklenburg says, and it informed the city’s passage of an official slavery apology and creation of an office for diversity and racial reconciliation.
“I think listening to our citizens, not just to their words, but to their hearts and what inspires them and what they aspire to, is an important job for a mayor,” Tecklenburg says. —Sam Spence
With an interest in politics that was sparked when she was younger, Sheri Irwin has decided enough is enough and something has to be done about the direction her community is headed.
Describing what she saw at a West Ashley public meeting over the summer, Irwin said, “They were showing all these slides, had plans for every square inch. I thought, ‘They are going to be taking people’s homes. They can’t do that.'”
Irwin has made personal property rights a cornerstone of her campaign.
“Your city should never be coming in and randomly changing zoning laws to get you out so someone else can come in and make money,” mentioning quickly gentrifying historic areas of West Ashley.
Irwin hopes to lessen the impact of development on those who remain in local communities by government playing a smaller role in building.
“I think it’s time for private-sector builders to be the ones taking the risk,” she says.
Should unrestrained development move ahead, Irwin hopes to reinvigorate some of the structures that preserved historic areas of the city.
“These high-rise apartments, that’s just made [congestion] worse, and now they’re doing it [in West Ashley], and [that is]one reason I’m running and trying to stop them from doing it more.”
Irwin says the process of building and running her campaign hasn’t been about political fights, but a way to connect with other local residents unsure of what is coming next.
“This isn’t political, this is Americans losing their homes. We don’t care what your background is.” —Skyler Baldwin
Society has hypnotized the public into thinking that the government is the primary driver of change in our community, says organizer and Charleston mayoral candidate Renee Orth.
“I believe that kind of mindset is one of the reasons I believe we are where we are in regards to the climate crisis and the myriad of other societal ills,” she continues.
Though Orth does not call herself a politician, she believes the city is a platform to voice her concerns and beliefs.
“Everyone is focused on politics,” she says. “So, I’m going to get into the politics spotlight and wave my hands around and say, ‘Hey guys, there are many things that we can be doing as citizens to transition our community to something that works better for everyone and in harmony with the natural systems that we are a part of.'”
These natural systems — agriculture, climate change, and sustainability — all go hand in hand and tie closely into the problems she observes in the city.
“In many ways [flooding] is a symptom of the way that our culture has been thinking for a long time — and we are paying the consequences of that — this idea that we can somehow work and exist outside natural systems.”
Orth says current development goes directly against these systems, and believes that it’s time for people to start considering other models besides the urbanization we are familiar with.
“Having people live far away from where they work and where they shop and where they find entertainment is contributing to gridlock,” she says. “And, the system’s way of addressing that is putting people in close proximity to the services and the jobs.”
“Thankfully, the state government and the city government are, at least on paper, proposing these things. The West Ashley revitalization plan speaks to this need for multi-use development.” —Skyler Baldwin
Mike Seekings has represented the southeastern corner of the peninsula since 2010.
Transportation has been a focus for Seekings during his tenure, also serving as the chair for the city’s Traffic and Transportation and Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory committees and the CARTA chairman since 2015.
On the topic of mobility, Seekings says his biggest commitment is that every new building project is multimodal.
“We have to give people the opportunity to succeed outside of their car if they want to,” he says, listing a West Ashley bike share facility as a priority. “We can’t force people to do that, we just have to give them opportunities to do that.”
Seekings has also been a supporter of the proposed Ashley River pedestrian bridge, calling it a “must build.”
Seekings believes that transportation projects connect the community and improve quality of life, and alongside attainable housing, will help local hospitality workers.
The hospitality industry, where wages can be low and the hours long, should be supported by the city with attainable housing that would allow workers to live near their jobs. Seekings does not support increasing property taxes, out of fear of adverse effects on workers.
On housing, Seekings says that Charleston needs regional coordination to create a plan that is agnostic to city limits.
“We have to work with North Charleston, we have to work with the county, we have to think about those issues as we manage what is becoming decreasingly available land to build housing on.”
“We are flip-flopped right now. The private side is ahead of the public sector and we need to change that,” Seekings says
Infrastructure and zoning need to be appropriate in West Ashley and Johns Island, Seekings says.
“Density is an opportunity for us to put housing, mobility, workplace all in one area or in close proximity to each other, and that’s what makes a good and vibrant city.” —Heath Ellison
Maurice Washington announced his bid for mayor in August, previously serving on City Council from 1991-2000.
Growing up on Charleston’s Westside, Washington attended Burke High School and graduated from South Carolina State University.
The only African-American running for mayor this year, Washington says he provides a different perspective. “I think the next mayor of Charleston needs to have a living experience of both worlds,” Washington says. “We’ve got to understand that we make this city, create an environment where every citizen has a chance to prosper in this city, and we level the field of prosperity.”
When asked about development, Washington quickly responded, “It’s too damn fast.”
In response to growth, Washington believes the city needs a moratorium on hotel and housing development.
“Moratoriums won’t kill this community at all.”
Washington says the city needs a long-term solution for affordable housing.
“What is more sustainable is investing in people, investing in their education, investing in workforce development and job training, and attracting the kind of jobs to our region that would allow people to make a rent payment or a mortgage payment, and still have money leftover to put food on the table and have a social life.”
Washington’s strategy for traffic and transportation echoes his development plan, because one leads to the other, he explains.
“When you extend roads and widen roads, and you don’t have your planning and zoning piece in place, you exacerbate traffic conditions. The minute you do it, more development ensures.” —Heath Ellison
Charleston City Councilman Gary White announced his bid for mayor flanked by seven current and former members of City Council, calling the assemblage a “vote of no confidence in the current administration.” There are some policy approaches where White differs with the mayor, but much of their difference lies in leadership style.
White, a Daniel Island resident and investment strategist, says he has grown frustrated with inaction after the mayor’s first three years in office and thinks that he can do better with 12 years of council experience under his belt.
Tecklenburg has frayed relationships between the mayor’s office, county, and state officials, White claims, which is one reason why he believes he has the support of fellow councilmembers.
“I’m very interested in seeing things done now,” White says. “If I’m going to invest my time to be mayor of the City of Charleston … I’m going to make sure I have an impact.”
“We’re going to be very focused on saying, ‘OK, we can study and we can look at all this stuff, but how are we going to impact that guy’s house who’s flooding now?'”
On the subject of flooding, White says gridlock inside the mechanisms that bankroll drainage improvements is causing a backlog, and he believes improved relationships could go a long way to finding the money to catch up.
On transportation, White believes expensive transit planning to serve existing economic hubs is wrongheaded and that job centers need to instead be decentralized to diffuse traffic bottlenecks.
Serving on council’s Community Development Committee, White says the city needs to create a zoning classification to sustain development of affordable housing and focus on making sure that housing remains affordable without sunsets. Regulations also need to be re-examined for new high-density development, where developers make units available under market rate or pay a fee to fund affordable housing elsewhere, White says.
With persistent economic disparities between white and black families in Charleston — 23 percent of black families live in poverty as opposed to just 2.7 percent of white families — White says the city can take a more active role in local schools as a vehicle for economic mobility. “If you really start thinking through, ‘How do you have an impact on someone’s future earning potential?’ The one thing that historically [has been consistent] is that education can help and drive, ultimately, people’s income in the future.”