Charleston is a slow and gracious old city, which is both its charm and its curse. People here get used to a way of thinking, a way of behaving, and they seem to forget that there might be another way of doing things.
The voters went to the polls last week and elected Joe Riley to his ninth term as mayor. Thirty-two years just wasn’t enough.
Not that Mayor Joe is corrupt or incompetent or ineffective. In the first 20 years of his governance he sparked the renaissance which has turned the Holy City into a major international tourist attraction. For better or for worse — mostly for the better, I think — his leadership has transformed the peninsula and much of the Lowcountry.
Riley had several big advantages going into his ninth mayoral campaign. First, he is a natural and intuitive politician. No one doubted that he would win this election in a landslide (64 percent against three opponents, as it turned out), yet he campaigned with enthusiasm and sincerity, as if his political life depended on every vote. It’s hard not to like a guy who respects you and the democratic process that much.
If everybody doesn’t love Joe Riley, it seems safe to say that nobody hates him (except perhaps former City Councilman Kwadjo Campbell). And that is the secret of his longevity in office. He has never polarized any large group against him, not even blacks, who are systematically being gentrified off the peninsula. A significant number of them apparently supported the long-time incumbent, who built his early career as a racial progressive and political moderate and has coasted on that reputation for decades.
And that brings up Riley’s second great advantage — he is white in a white city, in a region where very few whites will cross the line to cast their votes for a black candidate. As The Post & Courier pointed out, Riley carried white precincts overwhelmingly and made serious inroads in black precincts. A greater percentage of blacks voted for Riley than whites who voted for his black opponent, William Dudley Gregorie.
Charleston’s racial divide was clear enough in the candidates’ respective post-election parties. Gregorie’s supporters — almost all black — gathered at the Moulin Rouge Club on Rutledge Avenue, a hole-in-the-wall famous for its live jazz and R&B, but short on amenities. The Riley campaign held its party at Jason’s Deli in West Ashley, where a more racially mixed crowd grazed on a free buffet and took advantage of a free bar.
And that points out Riley’s third great advantage — money. Gregorie’s campaign was largely self-financed to the tune of some $112,000, according to the P&C. Riley spent four times as much as his three opponents combined, much of it coming from major Lowcountry developers and realtors. And that brings up a problem many people have with the mayor. To my knowledge, no one has ever accused him of corruption, but he does seem to be very cozy and comfortable with people that a wiser man might keep at arm’s length. Of course, that’s the way it has always been in this cozy and comfortable old town, and Joe Riley is only maintaining a long tradition.
During his last mayoral term, Riley was faced with the embarrassment of city property manager Daniel Molony. Molony was an old family friend, who Riley authorized for the job in 1989. In 2003, Molony pleaded guilty to embezzling some $700,000 from the city by means of fake invoices, in a 10-year conspiracy he ran with his son, Mark Molony.
Riley expressed personal and professional outrage at this betrayal. Some city council members blamed the mayor for not having proper financial controls in place. Others predicted that the incident might tar him in the election later that year, but the voters did not hold him personally responsible. He skated through to his eighth overwhelming election victory.
This year came the Sofa Super Store fire and the horrible deaths of nine firefighters. In the aftermath of that debacle, an independent review commission made 200 recommendations to reform Charleston Fire Department’s command structure, procedures, and equipment.
In light of such a monumental tragedy and withering critique, any self-respecting chief would have resigned, and if he had not, any responsible mayor would have fired him. Yet Chief Rusty Thomas is still there, and Mayor Joe Riley is vowing to stand by his chief.
I am one of many who is mystified by the relationship between the mayor and the chief, but whatever their relationship, it did not stop 64 percent of the voters from casting their ballots for Mayor Joe last week. But it also points to the problem of a man who has perhaps been in office too long and gotten too comfortable for the public good.