Standing in front of City Hall last Monday, Jan. 13 to mark the swearing in of the mayor and city council, Charleston poet laureate Marcus Amaker called for local elected leaders to embrace the city for its diversity. With big issues looming for our leaders, Amaker is right: Steering big change in Charleston must take into account all residents of the Holy City.
As a new crop of younger, forward-looking decision-makers take their seats on Charleston City Council, its members have a renewed opportunity to work together to steer change. Not only did voters demand it in the results of the 2019 elections, but working together is the responsible way to change course.
Realizing the vision for a unified city will not be easy. Charleston residents come from diverse backgrounds with varied economic interests, frames of historical reference, and personal preferences. But true leadership will require the mayor and city council to see past anecdotes, history, and personalities. After all, sea level rise pays no mind to the developer with a permit to slash and build, or the neighbor whose yard will flood long after the model homes close. The water is still rising.
Regardless of momentum and public support for change by council, the window for opportunity is small. District lines will change by the next mayoral election in 2023 as lawmakers make updates statewide to reflect demographic shifts over the last decade. Areas of Johns Island, where some precincts have seen the number of registered voters double as more people move onto the island, may very well be redistricted, affecting newly elected Councilman Karl Brady. Councilman Mike Seekings told the City Paper in November that he expected his downtown district to shift, possibly looping in new constituents west of the Ashley. New council members Jason Sakran and Marie Delcioppo, whose districts span areas on and off the peninsula, could also feel effects from redistricting. If members squander the city's unique chance to make change now before more potentially partisan maps are drawn, voters may not get another chance for some time.
As leaders tackle long-standing challenges faced by city residents, they must also look ahead and find innovative approaches to make our city a better place to live for everyone along the socio-economic spectrum. In his inaugural address this month, Mayor John Tecklenburg called for state-level changes that would let the city use tourism tax money to "help save the city" by funding much-needed flooding projects. The mayor's sentiment rings true as tourism-related growth is straining our city, making it more expensive for people to live here. Let's not concede that tourism is a runaway force. Let's manage it — just like we must manage rising seas.
"She may be old, but her best days are ahead," Amaker said of Charleston, which marks its 350th anniversary in 2020. "Whatever challenges await, we will face them together because she hears us, people of change."