On Jan. 11, John Tecklenburg will be sworn in as the new mayor of Charleston. By now, everyone has had enough time to let that sink in, but two questions remain: How did we get to this moment, and what are the next few months going to be like as the city transitions from the leadership of Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., one of the country’s longest-serving mayors still in office?
After 40 years, it’s difficult to imagine Charleston without Riley at the helm. Since he first took office, the nation’s gone through seven presidents, the internet came to be as we know it, and the city’s population has nearly doubled. During his time in office, Riley has dealt with everything from devastating natural disasters like Hurricane Hugo to the horrific act of violence witnessed at Emanuel AME Church, and through it all, he’s managed to hold the city together. Now as he prepares to leave office, it’s time to face life after Riley and figure out how Tecklenburg will lead the city.
“It’s a big thing, replacing this figure that is beloved,” says Gibbs Knotts, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the College of Charleston. According to Knotts, exit polling conducted after the Nov. 3 mayoral election found that about 80 percent of voters still support Riley. That’s an incredible popularity rating for anyone, especially someone in office.
“It’s a reminder that we have a strong-mayor form of government in Charleston, and so in some ways the mayor is an even more important position because the person that is elected, in this case Tecklenburg, not only has to be a political figure in the city and legislate, but also run the city,” says Knotts. “They’re going to have hiring and firing authority, making decisions about who’s going to direct the different departments and who’s going to stay from the Riley administration, who he’s going to bring in who’s new.”
The day following his election, Tecklen-burg met with reporters on the front lawn of his West Ashley home. After waking up and realizing that it wasn’t a dream that he had been elected mayor of Charleston, Tecklenburg spent the morning thanking the volunteers and supporters who proved vital to him in winning the office. According to Knotts, the deciding factor in Tecklenburg’s victory was the endorsement of former candidate Ginny Deerin, who finished third in the Nov. 3 election behind Tecklenburg and state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis.
“That was a big win for Tecklenburg, obviously. Also, I think they just had a big organization, a lot of volunteers, and they were able to make so many calls and really ensure that their supporters came out to vote,” says Knotts.
One important strategy employed by team Tecklenburg was to focus on voters whose favorite candidate didn’t make it to the runoff election, such as Deerin or William Dudley Gregory, but named Tecklenburg as their second choice for mayor. Mobilizing these voters to return to the polls paid off big for Tecklenburg in the runoff.
“When they went in and had their army of volunteers in the field and someone said, ‘Hey, I’m for Deerin, or I’m for Gregory, but my second choice is Tecklenburg,’ that was somebody they really focused on. They prioritized contacting that person over the person who said, ‘I’m for William Dudley Gregory, and my second choice is Leon.’ They weren’t calling that person to vote,” says Knotts. “I don’t have any reason to think the Stavrinakis folks didn’t do that, but again, just an example of Tecklenburg using volunteers and being thoughtful and careful about how they ran the campaign.”
The power of the Tecklenburg campaign is evident in his margin of victory in the runoff election. Just two weeks prior, fewer than 300 votes separated Stavrinakis from the frontrunner, but by the final election, Tecklenburg was able to grow his lead to more than 3,500 votes. Tecklenburg won in James Island, Daniel Island, and downtown, but perhaps the most surprising development was his victory in West Ashley.
“Tecklenburg won three out of every four voters downtown, just domination in the runoff, and I think he did well across some of the different socio-economic areas downtown. He did well South of Broad, but he also did well in some of the lower-income communities throughout the downtown area,” says Knotts, “but what struck me was Tecklenburg actually had a slight edge in West Ashley. That really blew me away because that’s the area that Stavrinakis represents in part in the legislature and Stavrinakis was certainly the lead vote-getter in West Ashley in the initial contest. To be able to win West Ashley or make it almost a tie in West Ashley was extremely impressive by the Tecklenburg folks.”
Much of Tecklenburg’s success can be attributed to his ability to stay out of the fray as some of his fellow candidates went on the attack. He was able to ride out the momentum from his victory in the initial election and shrug off any efforts to pull him from message.
“I think the voters really responded to the fact that we kept a very positive campaign and just spoke about the issues and solutions to challenges that we have in our community going forward,” says Tecklenburg. “It was very uplifting, very positive.”
Unlike his fellow candidates, Stavrinakis was never quite able to regain his footing following a heated back and forth with Deerin and aggressive campaign ads directed toward Tecklenburg. As an established local politician and state legislator, Stavrinakis was viewed as the man to beat for much of his campaign, but by the end of the election, he was unable to stay on point.
“Stavrinakis, as I understood, his core message was he’s the experienced candidate. … In some ways, he was tailor-made to bring together all the parties to be able to move Charleston in a positive direction, and I feel like he did get a little bit away from that,” says Knotts. “He’s responding to a negative attack, or he’s going on the attack himself. Ultimately, the voters for whatever set of reasons decided to go with Tecklenburg, who had less experience in government, but certainly had a good number of contacts across the city of Charleston.”
But now that the voters have spoken, it’s time for Tecklenburg to follow through with his campaign promises and prove that he’s more than just a smiling face. In recent days, he’s met with Mayor Riley and his staff and has started working on his transition team. One of Tecklenburg’s first goals as mayor is to perform an internal audit of city departments to pinpoint ways to improve efficiency. He says he’ll arrange a team consisting of existing city staff as well as outside MBAs and business experts to do a thorough review department by department. Tecklenburg also hopes to streamline the city’s building permit process, so that local businesses aren’t left out in the cold.
“I think it’s appropriate when you’re building a brand-new building from the ground up to have a thorough review of your plans, make sure you meet all the codes and all that, but I know examples where someone is up-fitting an existing business just because they’ve got a change in the tenants, and it still takes four to six months sometimes to get a building permit,” he says. “Clearly, sometimes that can just be because of the workload, so I want to sub out or be able to outsource planned reviews when the lead times are too long. I’m sure a property owner might be well willing to pay an extra fee in order to expedite his plan review in order to get his up-fit done and get that new business in there and get those new employees in our city. I plan to try to expedite our review process, particularly for renovations.”
Of course, all this depends on Tecklenburg’s ability to work with City Council. Tecklenburg says he’s been reaching out to members of council to build upon the relationships he’s already established — relationships that he’ll rely on more than ever as mayor.
“He put a diverse coalition of supporters together to get elected, but I also think he needs to have a diverse coalition of people as both his official advisors and staffers and his unofficial people that he talks to, obviously, tapping into the knowledge of Mayor Riley, which I’m certain he’ll do,” says Knotts. “Another important thing for Tecklenburg to focus on is to really nurture the relationships with City Council because Tecklenburg’s going to be limited in what he can do if he doesn’t have the support of council. With council, you’re going to make decisions about the budget, and you’re going to make these big-picture policy decisions that will really shape the future. The mayor is certainly a strong mayor in Charleston and does have significant power, but he or she can’t do the job completely alone.”
Moving forward, Tecklenburg seems comfortable as he prepares for his new role as mayor. With only a matter of weeks before he takes office, Tecklenburg has a tough act to follow, but he appears confident that he’s up to the challenge.
“I served as director of economic development for the city and worked directly for Mayor Riley, so I feel like I have some real institutional knowledge about the city, some boots-on-the-ground experience,” he says. “I’m prepared to serve, and I am looking forward to the next couple of months of the transition period just to get caught up on everything, be ready to go Jan. 11.”