Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. says this will be his last term if he’s re-elected. But who can believe him?
He’s had nine chances to quit this job, and he just keeps on running. In 2003, he told the local press that his eighth term would likely be his last. Nearly eight years later, the mayor is going for a record 10th term. If Charlestonians once again vote for Riley in November, he’ll have served four decades as mayor, retiring in 2015 at the age of 72. That is, if you believe him.
But we can’t really blame Joe. He just puts his name on a ballot. The voters are the ones who can’t get enough of him. And Riley isn’t alone.
Mayor Berlin Meyers in Summerville is retiring after nearly 40 years, and Mayor Keith Summey is back on the ballot this November in North Charleston. Hell, U.S. Sens. Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings were both South Carolina politicians of the 1940s who represented this state into the new millennium. They weren’t just from an era before mouse pads and smart phones. They were from an era before credit cards, superglue, and Mr. Potato Head.
From time to time, Mayor Riley’s political opponents have suggested that Charleston establish term limits, which you can think of as intervention of sorts for a voting populace hopelessly hooked on Joe. Not surprisingly, Riley has spoken out frequently against term-limits, noting that voters get a chance to change the guard every four years. And they have: Anne Frances Bleecker and Yvonne Evans, both Riley allies, lost re-election bids in the last four years.
Of course, the alternative to term limits is to give the voters somebody worth voting for. The headline in a March 1975 News and Courier column by political reporter Barbara Williams read “Can Anybody Beat Joe Riley Jr.?” The paper was rebranded The Post and Courier long ago, and Williams is now editor emeritus for the paper, but the question is just as relevant today. Williams wrote back then, “At this point, if he is to be beaten, it appears that his contender would have to have that magic ‘something’ that captures the public imagination in order to overcome what now appears to be a strong Riley coalition organization.” It’s been nearly 40 years, and Charleston has yet to find an opponent with that magic “something.”
Although filing for November’s elections doesn’t begin until August, by this point in the election cycle serious contenders in the mayor’s race need to already be in the field, raising money and reaching out to neighborhood leaders. Political observers have been eyeing a short list of possible mayoral candidates, like state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis and City Councilmen Mike Seekings and Timmy Mallard, but who would get in this race while Riley is still running? On Monday, City Councilman Dudley Gregorie announced his plans to challenge the mayor, joining untested political novice David Farrow as Riley’s last political opponents.
“We’re about to slip”
The mayor is running on experience. In the past 36 years, Charleston has become an international destination with a revitalized shopping district and a cadre of world-class events.
“If you look at anything, a city or a corporation or a state, that is reaching new heights of achievement under the current leadership, then that would arguably speak well for the leadership,” says Riley. “So it’s not the length of tenure. It’s rather, I’d argue, the quality of the achievements that citizens and voters would look to in determining who they would want to have as their mayor.”
Riley’s opponents are arguing that the mayor’s more than three decades in office is enough — and some Charlestonians feel the same way. After all, the last few years have shown that Joe has his fair share of political warts.
Investigations in the wake of the tragic Sofa Super Store fire in 2007 revealed an antiquated, aggressive fire department and a leadership — including the mayor’s office — blind or ignorant to its deficiencies. As Riley did with Police Chief Reuben Greenberg a few years earlier, the mayor stood in defense of Fire Chief Rusty Thomas long after it was evident that change had to start at the top. Since Thomas’ retirement and Greenberg’s departure, Riley has argued, quite rightly, that both departments have been positively transformed under new leaders. Critics say it took too long.
And then there are the current events that Riley will have to address on the campaign trail. Work begins soon on an $11 million project to beautify the Crosstown with new gutters and landscaping. But it’s a small piece of a $148 million project that will once and for all stop the highway from flooding, sometimes during even the mildest of showers. And Mayor Riley’s unflinching support for the State Ports Authority’s cruise business and Union Pier redevelopment has raised the ire of peninsula neighborhoods, environmentalists, and some business owners.
“We’re about to slip,” warns Gregorie, who also challenged Riley in 2007. He says voters encouraged him to run again. “While people may not be outwardly saying it, they’re ready for change.”
The most notable candidate not in the race against Riley is City Councilman Tim Mallard. Timmy, as he’s known, is the kind of guy you’d expect to run against Riley. No one has been more vocal in challenging the mayor’s management style or the tremendous amount of power the mayor holds when it comes to city government.
Since Mallard was elected in 2007, he has led a philosophical shift on city council. Occasionally, Mallard is willing to even go out on a limb by himself in order to oppose Riley.
Earlier this month, Mallard announced that he would be running for a second term representing West Ashley, ending speculation that he would challenge Riley. When we ask Mallard who should be in the race, he huffs, and then answers quite honestly, “I should be.”
Mallard pauses for a second — perhaps he’s running the decision through his head one more time — before he says, “The timing’s wrong.”
Truth be told, Mallard would love to be mayor, but he wants to get a little more experience under his belt. And the always forthcoming councilman doesn’t mind laying out the stakes either.
“I’m not sure the citizens of Charleston have had their full fill of Joe,” he says, noting any serious challenge would need a big bank account, help from Washington, D.C., and a large door-to-door campaign. “I’m not sure Joe can be beat.”
However, despite Mallard’s reservations, now might be his best shot at winning the mayor’s office. If Riley declines to run for an 11th term, a host of candidates with less baggage and a less abrasive style will surely enter the ring. Mallard would perhaps stand a better chance presenting himself as the anti-Riley now, rather than just being another new name on the ballot in 2015.
“By the way, I’m running for mayor”
“I’m in love for the first time in my life — what a cool thing that is,” says David Farrow, an author and journalist who is currently the lone man to throw his hat in the ring against Riley.
Farrow’s girlfriend is a successful lawyer in Maine, and the pair had planned for Farrow to head up there during the Northeast’s six temperate months of the year. He’s starting an e-publishing business with a book of short stories coming out this spring. “That was my plan, and I can do that anywhere,” he says.
But that plan changed on Dec. 15 when he saw the headline on the paper: “Riley announces 2011 mayoral bid.”
“Not this time,” Farrow said to himself, perhaps in the same gravelly tone he offers when recounting that morning. “You’re not getting this for free.” He called his girlfriend, and they spent six hours talking about it. In the end, she gave Farrow her blessing.
Over the years, Farrow has built up a considerable amount of complaints about Riley. “Damn it,” he says, “it’s about time somebody said what everybody is thinking.”
To Farrow, that “everybody” is a silent majority of city residents opposed to the mayor and his legacy — like the Charleston Maritime Center.
“I’ll sell that damn thing so quickly it’ll make your head spin,” Farrow says. “This whole city thing for attractions, I’m not for that at all. Private people want to do it, and we approve of it, good. I don’t think it should be the city’s responsibility.”
Farrow also opposes the new Union Pier cruise terminal, the $142 million Gaillard Auditorium rehab, and the city’s plan to purchase land around Angel Oak Park that developers have already promised to protect.
“It is the ruling class,” Farrow says. “These people have decided that they’re the smartest people in the room, and they don’t have to ask anybody else. This has to stop, because it’s your tax money and it’s my tax money.”
When Farrow entered the race, he didn’t realize his campaign would get this kind of attention. “I started taking it seriously because I had to,” he says of the campaign. “I’m having to learn how to be a politician and a mayor at the same time … My whole thing was that I had to turn philosophy into policy, and the next step is policy into protocol.”
Farrow says he’ll be rolling out agenda items this summer and will challenge the mayor to debates in the weeks leading up to Election Day. Meanwhile, he offers a biting critique of the mayor whenever he can.
“I’m a novice,” Farrow says. “I’m not a Republican. I’m not a Democrat. I’m not a Tea Partier. I’m not a progressive. I’m not a Green. I’m not anything. How do I build a base? Throw bombs. Is it strident? Yes. Is it a little harsh? Yes. But it’s the way I feel.”
He’s also promising one four-year term, just one of several clues that Farrow isn’t your typical South Carolina politician. Another clue came from a recent visit to the Lowcountry Cajun Festival at James Island County Park. Farrow says a friend got upset with him when the candidate wouldn’t glad-hand and kiss babies.
“I can’t do that, and I never will be able to do that,” Farrow says before offering a checkout-line style of campaigning. “Where I get people is when I’m standing in the line and I’ll say, ‘You from the city? Where do you live?’ Then I start talking to them and I say, ‘By the way, I’m running for mayor.’ And I’ll give them my card, and I’ll say, ‘You got a computer?’ And they’ll say yeah. I’ll say, ‘Look at my website. You don’t have to vote for me. I’m not asking for your vote. Just look at what I have to say.’ ”
“I suspect that this is it”
At the risk of stating the obvious, the Joe Riley that voters will be considering in 2011 is not the same Riley that voters were looking at in 1975. In his first victory, Riley was a 32-year-old untested politician who brought with him 11 new members to a 12-member City Council, including five who were in their 20s or early 30s.
“There will be a learning process that will be, at times, tedious,” Riley said on Election Night in ’75. “And it will take some time to gain familiarity with the operation. But I think they will bring a freshness, an enthusiasm, to city government that will be so positive that it will overcome whatever negative that will be encountered.”
That freshness has since faded away, replaced by a certain stale reliability, but Riley still campaigns on his energy and enthusiasm. “It’s not that I come here and think of the number of years I’ve been serving. I come here thinking of the work that needs to be done,” he says.
The agenda has also changed over the years. When Riley was first elected, Charleston had to address a city still experiencing Civil Rights-era racial tensions, a King Street that was a blighted and depressing stretch of road, and a feeling that the peninsula wasn’t safe. The mayor highlighted each of these issues in his inaugural address and has long since led the city past those challenges and a few more, including Hurricane Hugo and the shuttering of North Charleston’s Navy Base.
Many people talk about the mayor’s vision for Charleston, but Riley seems uncomfortable with the term. “I didn’t come to the job with clairvoyance, or with some vision that I alone created,” he says. “Always, the overall vision, the thought that should always be there, is to achieve excellence — to make it a great place. That sounds trite, but, as time changes, then the specific challenges may change, but the goal of the vision is the same: How do we become an even better, finer place?”
Riley highlights some of the areas where he’ll take on skeptics. He’s worked to build the Charleston Promise Neighborhood, a nonprofit developed with former mayoral opponent Jimmy Bailey to support schools in low-income neighborhoods. The mayor will also be talking up the city’s growing support for technology companies. The city is opening a second downtown office offering competitive leases for startups. And the city is moving forward with the Horizon Project, a redevelopment near the Medical University of South Carolina that will focus on health-based technology companies.
Riley will also be defending the delays to fix flooding on the Crosstown, a problem caused in part because the road is under federal jurisdiction. With such a long tenure, it should surprise no one that the city first began addressing the flooding problem under Riley’s leadership — 30 years ago.
“People just accepted back then that it was going to flood in Charleston. There had never been a comprehensive drainage plan. We completed the drainage plan and began addressing it,” Riley says. “My commitment is to have the funding together to tackle this large infrastructure challenge. While it’s essentially stayed a national responsibility, I’ve accepted the responsibility of getting it done.”
It’s understandable if anyone has a tough time believing this will be Riley’s last term. We had one likely 2015 candidate ask that we be sure to get this last quote in print.
“When my last term ends,” Riley says. “And I suspect that this is it — this will be it if re-elected — that you would want to leave and expect the next mayor to come forward wanting to continue the progress that has been made on lots of fronts.”
Wait. There will be a Charleston in just four years without Joe Riley at the helm? We ask the mayor whether we’ll be writing the same story in four years about a planned 11th term. Riley pauses and walks back his comment, saying, “It’s unlikely.”
That should make 2015 challengers about as comfortable as they were in 2003.
The Riley File
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley is looking for four more years at the helm. His first 36 years offer successes for his supporters to cling to, challenges that his opponents will exploit, and national recognition that makes Riley one of America’s most recognizable mayors.
Riley elected to first term
Spoleto Festival USA is founded, the most recognizable symbol of the city’s support for the arts. An opening ceremony is held at City Hall every year.
Charleston Place hotel opens, signaling the dawn of a new revival in the King Street shopping district. Riley creates the Mayors Institute of Civic Design. The group annually honors a mayor with the Joseph P. Riley Award for Leadership in Urban Design.
Hurricane Hugo hits the Lowcountry. Mostly impacting coastal East Cooper homeowners, it also damaged downtown houses and businesses. It was an early blow to the city’s burgeoning tourism market.
Riley runs in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, losing to Nick Theodore in a runoff by 1,600 votes of nearly 125,000 cast.
Charleston Navy Base closes, hitting the city’s job market just as it was recovering from Hugo.
For five days, Riley marches 120-miles to Columbia in opposition to the Confederate battle flag hanging over the Statehouse.
After winning election to an eighth term, Riley tells local media he likely won’t seek re-election.
Longtime Police Chief Reuben Greenberg retires after he frightens a woman in a case road rage. It was the last of a string of unusual incidents over several years that gave the chief a reputation for being volatile.
The Sofa Super Store fire claims the lives of nine Charleston firefighters. Like he did with Greenberg, Riley mounts a spirited defense of Fire Chief Rusty Thomas, but investigators site insufficient equipment and staffing, as well as a caviller attitude toward fighting fires.
For his support of urban design Riley was awarded the National Medal of Arts, along with Bob Dylan and Clint Eastwood.