You’re the student. I’m the professor in your political science class, and I propose the following hypothetical situation: We’re going to stage a mock election, and your assignment is to unseat a popular incumbent who has been in office for several terms. His average margin of victory is over 10 points, and he regularly garners over 55 percent of the vote whether he is running against one opponent or several.

To add an element of difficulty, the incumbent is widely credited with directing the renaissance of the once-struggling municipality that he currently leads. Despite some unpopular decisions, most of his political choices have been deemed successful, and he has also received due credit for bringing greater unity to a city once divided among racial lines. What do you think your chances for victory are as the head of the opposition?

Without names and on paper, this race may seem easy to handicap. Yet every four years we Charlestonians go through the same fiction when mayoral elections come around. Incumbency has its advantages come election time, and whatever the controversial topic du jour is, voters rightfully weigh that issue against a body of political handiwork that took decades to establish. This city is where it is today because of Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr.’s singular vision. Barring a Clintonesque scandal, the safe money is on the incumbent winning the “hypothetical” above and on Mayor Riley continuing to ably serve this fine city until he chooses to retire.

That being the case, if you are a student in the above-mentioned class, do you spend your efforts in vain trying to win a race you will most likely lose (and risk a failing grade), or do you start thinking about a palatable vision that will take hold once the incumbent leaves office?

All good things must come to an end, and whether it is four years from now, eight, or 12, one day the Riley era will as well. Does anyone have a remote idea of what a post-Riley Charleston would look like and how it might differ from the steadfast vision that has guided the city for 36 years?

The vast majority of Charlestonians (or at least 55-60 percent on average) never want that day to come, but it would be irresponsible for anyone who cares about the city not to think about it. A successful company should not be operated without a credible succession plan and neither should a successful city. Might an opposition movement arise that tries to undo all of the good things that have occurred during Riley’s tenure? Would that movement support James Island becoming a town, agree to put the cruise industry in handcuffs, create barriers to tourism, or possibly alienate the business community? No one really knows.

The purposeful discussion of a post-Riley Charleston does not mean that opponents of the mayor should not continue to speak their mind or that those who support the mayor should hold back in giving him the support that he needs now. We still have a democratic apparatus at work, and there is truth to the contention that opposition on some issues has resulted in compromises that have benefited the city. But responsible civic involvement should include the occasional reality check, and if anyone thinks they can run the city better than someone who has been doing it for as long as most of us can remember, I want to start reading the fine print now. If you can get a passable-looking document put together in less than four years, you get an A.

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