It’s a bit of a mystery why anyone would want to follow Joseph P. Riley Jr. as mayor of Charleston. In 40 years on the job, he has been unbeatable at the polls. He is one of the most admired politicians in the nation, and by almost any measure he has been spectacularly successful, taking a sleepy, run-down little port city and turning it into one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
Now Riley is stepping down and his successor will be governing in his shadow, will be measured by his record, will be walking in his shoes. That’s a daunting prospect for any politician. As with the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, generations of Charlestonians have come and gone knowing Joe Riley as their mayor. And generations of politicians have come and gone awaiting their chance to replace him. Now six of them are making their case to the voters of Charleston, who will go to the polls on Nov. 3 to usher in a new era in Charleston history.
All of the six nonpartisan candidates — Ginny Deerin, William Dudley Gregorie, Toby Smith, Leon Stavrinakis, John Tecklenburg, and Maurice Washington — seem reasonably well qualified for the job. Some bring years of experience in public office. Deerin, however, sets herself apart not for her political experience — she has never held public office, though she did run for statewide office in 2014 — but for her concern for people and for social justice. In this regard she would make a worthy successor to Riley.
She is the founder and former president for 17 years of WINGS for Kids, an after-school program to help underprivileged children develop social and academic skills. The Post and Courier has described WINGS for Kids as “hugely successful,” with 96 percent of children involved in the program increasing their standardized test scores and 98 percent having average or above-average grades. Today, WINGS has a $6 million budget and operations in six Southeastern states.
Deerin has also demonstrated she knows how to organize and run something big. Like WINGS, the City of Charleston is not a business. It exists to serve human needs, but it requires skilled management and dedication. Deerin has both.
She has also done her homework on most of the critical issues facing the city. In an interview last week, she was measured and vague on some of the solutions to these problems, avoiding the politician’s impulse to make pie-in-the-sky promises.
Regarding the thorny issue of cruise ships, Deerin said the current fleet of ships that dock along Charleston’s Cooper River waterfront are too large and out of scale for this old city with its 18th and 19th century buildings. She wants to put “everything on the table” with the cruise industry, including discussions for smaller ships and moving the cruise terminal from Union Pier to some point north and farther from residential areas. As for installing on-shore power for visiting ships, Deerin said most of the ships in the Carnival fleet are not equipped to use on-shore power and it would be a waste of money to install those facilities until they are.
Like all the mayoral candidates, she wants to finish building I-526 to the James Island Connector, and like the others, she is stymied on how to pay for it. She spoke vaguely of using public/private partnerships to fill the funding gap in the $700 million project.
As for the Beach Company’s controversial Sgt. Jasper project, she said, “I think the uprising is the result of just feeling like developers are taking over. Developers are becoming too bossy … The Sgt. Jasper dispute is about more than Sgt. Jasper.”
Bringing suit against the city’s Board of Architectural Review is bad for Charleston, she said. “We must work this thing out … I can tell you, as mayor I’m not going to allow something that would be harmful to the city to be built on that property.” She has publicly criticized two of her opponents for taking donations from the Beach Company.
She would fight gentrification with a community land trust and add density to the Robert Mills Manor public housing. And she said she has a plan to build a “world-class transportation system” that would take people out of their cars and ease the city’s infuriating traffic congestion.
It all sounds good, but it’s a vision that will take years to accomplish. At 65, Ginny Deerin will not have 40 years at City Hall, as Joe Riley did, but she deserves four years to put that vision in motion. Please give her your vote on Nov. 3.
Will Moredock is the author of Living in Fear: Race, Politics & The Republican Party in South Carolina.