Charleston may have been the Wasilla of the conservative movement 200 years ago, but this little corner of the reddest of red states went blue on Election Day as progressive transplants and the mass appeal of Barack Obama brought voters out in droves.
John McCain may have won South Carolina, but Obama carried Charleston by a wider margin than he won nationally. Though U.S. Congressional candidate Linda Ketner lost her race districtwide, she had a more than 10,000 vote advantage in Charleston County. And Democrats picked up the highly contested Statehouse District 115 seat and were four-for-four in Charleston County Council races, including two wins for positions that had previously been held by Republicans.
“We turned Charleston County blue,” says County Democratic Party Chair George Tempel. “Obama engendered such interest, it just spilled over in all the other races.”
But the party didn’t rely on Obamamania alone. As late as Tuesday afternoon, volunteers were working the phone banks, handing out flyers, and knocking on doors to get people out to the polls. Tempel says the party took many of its cues from the Obama campaign’s ground game during the primary, but the biggest lesson has been to stay alert. In the past, the party wrangled the herd every few years and then sent them back out to pasture.
“We’ve operated on a cycle of entering and disappearing,” Tempel says. “We need to keep this same level of enthusiasm
If the party can be faulted for anything this election season, it’s for not taking advantage of the Obama factor enough. More than 44,000 Charleston voters selected a straight Democratic ticket. Henry Middleton, the party’s candidate for coroner lost by less than 2 percent of the vote. Of the six countywide offices on the ballot, all held by Republicans, it was the only race where the Democrats fielded a candidate. Of the 15 Statehouse races that went unchallenged within Charleston County borders, 11 of them were held by the GOP.
“Next time, we’re going to have a candidate in every race,” Tempel says.
Brown-Ketner Race Closer Than First Called
Delays in counting ballots in Charleston County left several races undecided for a good 24 hours after the polls closed. The problems also led local news outlets to erroneously announce a blowout for Congressman Henry Brown in his re-election bid against Ketner. In the first numbers released by the county election office on Wednesday, Brown had a nearly 30-point lead on Ketner in the precincts that had been counted so far.
But the final numbers closed the spread, showing Ketner’s solid lead in Charleston and her loss districtwide by less than four points. A loss is a loss, but the difference between a close race and a thumpin’ may mean more support from the national Democratic Party when it comes time to challenge Brown in 2010.
Ketner has no idea what her next move will be politically, but she’s determined to preserve her collection of supporters.
“I’m not going to waste this army of people,” she says. “We’re up to about 163,000 soldiers for change.”
The role of that army is not yet known, but it possibly could include some type of citizen action committee to call attention to regional issues like the environment, education, or political corruption, Ketner says.
Familiar Faces and One James Island Lawyer
There’s that old saying about doing the same thing and expecting a different result, but it just doesn’t apply in politics. Congressional approval ratings may be at an all-time low, but voters by-and-large seem to think their local legislators (whomever they may be) are part of the solution, not the problem. As evidence: South Carolina voters sent every one of their congressmen back to Washington, and all of Charleston’s Statehouse incumbents who faced re-election are heading back to Columbia, save one.
Democrat Anne Peterson-Hutto won her race against incumbent Wallace Scarborough to represent James Island and Folly Beach. In 2006, Scarborough squeaked out a win by an unbelievably narrow 40 votes, and that was only after petition ballots were counted days after the election. The time since had apparently done nothing to cloud the specter of scandal that nearly did him in two years ago. In order to refresh voters’ memories, Peterson-Hutto had sent out mailers with a grainy mug shot and references to the 2006 incident when Scarborough was arrested, but later exonerated, for firing his gun after power company employees walked onto his property.
Peterson-Hutto’s win last week came after a primary challenge from Eugene Platt that turned into a legal battle between Platt and the Democratic Party over his right to run again in the general election for a third party.
In a statement after the election, Peterson-Hutto seemed ready to put the election drama behind her.
“I plan to start work tomorrow,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
School Board Race
Charleston County’s tepid pro-district majority likely has a bit more solvency after Election Day. With five seats on the board to fill, voters threw out persistent spoiler David Engelman and denied a run by conservative John Graham Altman III.
The results put Arthur Ravenel’s hope for a conservative direction for Charleston County Schools on the ropes. Already overruled by the larger board on many issues like the district budget and support for the administration, Ravenel now only has three votes on the nine member board that he can count on with any consistency.
The results suggest more voters are paying attention to the school board races, and those voters want results, says Jon Butzon, chairman of the nonprofit Charleston Education Network.
“I think people are expecting the school board to do more than complain,” Butzon says. “It’s one thing to point out problems, but you have to come up with solutions.”
Organizers of parent-led charter schools saw most of the candidates who won election Tuesday as “anti-charter.” But all the candidates suggested they were supportive of school choice and charters, though with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
There’s good reason to be weary of these schools on a case by case basis, Butzon says. Local charters have had a mixed history of success, fraud, and failure. And board members have been critical of a state mandate to funnel district resources to charters. Charter organizers counter that they’re trying to improve public education, but have little in capital resources (namely buildings) to ensure success.
Could Mean Tax Hike
All those pesky races on the ballot and the attention on the big dance left little newspaper ink for the three constitutional amendments on the S.C. ballot on Tuesday. Fourteen-year-old girls narrowly secured the preservation of their virtue, but the two questions tied to investing government savings for retiree benefits failed like … well, a Wall Street analogy seems too easy.
Local and state governments were counting on those amendments, hoping the money made by investing long-term savings would mean tax dollars could be spent on other needs. But the implosion of the stock market weeks ago likely buried the effort and might explain the arms-length stance local municipal leaders took in arguing for the amendment.
The amendments’ failure could now mean tough choices on raising taxes or cutting services for municipalities. The City of Charleston will have to budget another $800,000 for retiree benefits, Chief Financial Officer Stephen Bedard told the Associated Press.