Clay Middleton’s childhood was spent in the old Bayside Manor Apartments on Charleston’s eastside where he said he was blessed to be surrounded by people who protected him. | Photo by Herb Frazier

“Creating opportunities and public service is at my core.”

In his sophomore year at Burke High School, Clay Middleton shadowed then-Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I said I want to be sitting right where you are, sir,” Middleton said with a chuckle. “I have not been planning this since then, but I have not arrived at this decision lightly.”

The 40-year-old Middleton plans to launch his bid to be the next mayor of Charleston this week with a short introduction video and website as he begins to speak publicly about his desire to shape his hometown’s future.

Middleton spent his early years in the former Bayside Manor apartments on the city’s eastside. He envisions a Charleston where young people will not flee to other cities for fear the city has nothing to offer them. “A lot of my peers didn’t see themselves here,” he said. “I didn’t see myself here either.” 

Yet here he decided to stay. After graduating in 2003 with a bachelor’s in political science from The Citadel, Middleton then went on to earn a master’s degree in social science from his alma mater. He has enjoyed a busy career that spans government, politics, the military and the private sector. He works from his West Ashley home as the managing director at Mercury, a global public affairs firm, based in Washington, D.C. He’s also a S.C. Army National Guard lieutenant colonel who commands a battalion of combat-ready troops. He is a combat veteran and Bronze Star Medal recipient for his service in Iraq.

Middleton has also held a variety of key government and senior-level positions with the Obama-Biden Administration, Biden-Harris transition team, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. and U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C. He was the director of business services for the City of Charleston from 2017 until 2019.

Tired of empty promises

In 2008, Middleton ran unsuccessfully for the S.C. House of Representatives District 111 seat currently held by Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston. Taking his second run at an elected office, Middleton said he’s in the race because he’s tired of candidates’ empty promises that have not led to equitable economic development in the city. “This is a way for me to give back to the city that has given so much to me,” he said. “We have not planned for life after gentrification. There is more we can do, and I am confident in my capabilities to do that with a good team.”  

To have a say in Charleston’s future, Middleton estimates he’ll need to raise more than $1.5 million to take on the daunting task of unseating Mayor John Tecklenburg and two other candidates in the nonpartisan November 2023 race. Charleston City Councilman Peter Shahid, an attorney and 2019 mayor pro tempore, is running, too. Outgoing S.C. Rep. William Cogswell, R-Charleston, is also considering whether he’ll enter the race. The filing deadline is in August 2023.

Sipping his morning coffee on the patio at Kudu Coffee and Craft Beer shop on Vanderhorst Street, Middleton emphasized he doesn’t consider himself to actually be running against his opponents, but rather running on behalf of the city of Charleston. “I am running to be that new brick in an old foundation as our city progresses,” he said.

Middleton said he is concerned about issues affecting West Ashley, James and Johns islands, the balance between tourism and quality-of-life in the city, flooding, small business support, affordable and workforce housing, reliable public transportation and, of course, gentrification.

“We have already been meeting with people to share our vision and those [talks] will continue, but in a more public manner,” he said. Those conversions have included people who he may not agree with politically. “It is always healthy not to surround yourself with people who think like you,” he said. “You have to allow other voices in the conversation.”

Some may say there are fundational issues of race in the old Holy City and slavery’s legacy has stymied two previous black mayoral candidates, Maurice Washington, who ran in 1999 and again in 2018, and William Dudley Gregorie who entered the races in 2007, 2011 and finally in 2015. As church bells chimed on a quiet Saturday, Middleton said his decision to run “is not about my hue, but it is putting forth a vision for the future for the city” and for his sons, Jeremiah, 7, and Joshua, 5. “Others may try to make this about race, but it is not,” he emphasized. “This is about creating a city that works for everyone.”

Middleton has not yet staffed a campaign office but that will come soon as he looks to slog through an 18-month campaign of knocking on doors, asking for votes and money and listening to voters’ concerns. A campaign launch event is being planned.

With his array of skills Middleton often calls himself “a problem solver, solving problems and creating opportunities.” He wants to be a leader, he said: “who does not come with an attitude of knowing it all.”

Middleton called his upbringing and professional life a manifestation of the sum of his experiences rooted in a close knit-family. “I am driven to be a positive return on the investment that so many people and this community have made in me,” he said. “My life could have gone in a number of other directions, but a lot of people, extended family, mentoring programs and church have shaped me.”

Growing up under Bayside’s watchful eyes

Clay Nimoy Middleton is the son of Donna R. Simmons and Henry Clay Middleton, a former Marine. In Bayside, he was called “Moy.” Relatives on his father’s side called him “Little Clay.” From birth until he was about 10, Middleton lived with his mother, his maternal grandmother, Mary Lou Simmons, two aunts and, for a brief time, an uncle before he left to join the U.S. Army.

Crammed into a three-bedroom, one-bath apartment, the living space got even smaller at times when other relatives came to visit. As many as four people shared a bed with someone sleeping on the living room sofa. 

One of his aunts left for college then his grandmother and the other aunt who lived with him left Bayside. 

Crime in Bayside didn’t affect Middleton much, except when a burglar stole his video game. “Crime in the neighborhood was offset by the love in the home, and love from neighbors,” he said. He fondly remembers a woman who kept an eye on the entire neighborhood from her second-floor balcony, overlooking an open grassy space between rows of two-story apartment buildings where he and other boys played rough games of tackle football. That closeness in Bayside paid off when Middleton entered Burke where an older boy from the community forcefully convinced a boy bullying Middleton to back off.

When he was 10, Middleton’s mother rented a three-bedroom, one-bath, house downtown on Sans Souci Street where he was assured of his own bedroom. His paternal grandparents, Wilhelmina Middleton and Charles Gathers, lived in the city, so a grandparent was always near to babysit.

This extended family has also given Middleton family connections with Mount Pleasant, and Johns and Wadmalaw islands.

“My story is no different than countless other people,” he said, “That is partially why solving problems, creating opportunities and public service is at my core.”

Gaping holes to fill in a global city of riches

After leaving The Citadel, Middleton purchased a house in Rosemont, and he lived there before he and Nicole Rumph Middleton were married in 2012. They moved to West Ashley in 2017. Middleton often returns to the old Bayside community that is now called Bridgeview Apartments. “We are not going to just talk about the issues, we are going to focus on the solutions and things we can do right now,” he said. “For example, there needs to be an infinity relationship with the mayor’s office and the school district to close achievement gaps and develop public-private partnerships. We can do more as a city,” he said, pumping his clenched fist.

“Our community centers should be extensions of learning. Our schools should be cathedrals of learning that extend to communities. Every community center should have Wi-Fi and some educational program for [children] in that community.

“My training and upbringing tell me like-minded people can solve any problem, but we have to be intentional and there is an element of that missing,” he said. “This is a marathon, not a sprint. I am not taking anything away from Tecklenburg and Riley, but there are still too many gaping holes … that are not being addressed.”

Charleston City Paper will publish in-depth profiles of each Charleston mayoral candidate in the coming months leading up to the election. 

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