I have received some requests to respond to Dwayne Green’s article “Planning for the Post-Riley Future: Should mayoral candidates focus on this election or the next one?” In it, Dwayne asserts that Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr.’s opponents are spending their energy in vain because there is no way Riley can lose the upcoming election. According to Dwayne, Riley’s opponents should “start thinking about a palatable vision that will take hold once the incumbent leaves office.” I agree with Dwayne on some points and disagree on a few.
The majority of people urging me to write a response took issue with his assertion that the mayor deserves “due credit for bringing greater unity to a city once divided among racial lines.” They take issue because they feel that during Mayor Riley’s administration, Charleston went from being a city that was once nearly racially balanced to one that has a clear white majority. They are frustrated because of gentrification and the city’s failure to save traditional African-American neighborhoods. They express feelings of betrayal and of being shortchanged. The racial divide that Dwayne says once existed has not been bridged for the majority of African Americans living in low-income neighborhoods in the city. It has been business as usual.
However, I have come to realize that while all the above is true, it is also true that under the Riley administration there has existed a favorable political environment in which self-determined African-American business owners and entrepreneurs can help advance an economic development agenda for the entire black community. We have to accept some responsibility for the failures of our own business and community leaders to seize the moment.
My number one issue while I was a member of the Charleston City Council was the creation of affordable housing on the peninsula, and one of the solutions to the problem was the Affordable Housing Bond Referendum in which City Council asked voters permission to spend $10 million on affordable housing. However, I have questions about whether the Affordable Housing Bond Referendum was successful. After all, how many minority contractors from within the targeted African-American communities received contracts as part of this $10 million referendum? How many even bid on the project? How many even knew about it? It wasn’t secret. It was advertised; articles were written on the project. I also wonder if the business interests in the African-American community failed to make sure this money was invested back in the community?
One such organization that could have accomplished this is P.A.S.T.O.R.S. Inc., a nonprofit made up of African-American churches dedicated to building affordable housing on the peninsula. When the organization was first formed, the City of Charleston threw its weight behind it, helping P.A.S.T.O.R.S. access federal funds and acquire property. Imagine if these churches had really thrown their weight behind this organization. Since the churches have tremendous buying power and leverage with the local banks, they alone could have slowed the rate of gentrification dramatically. Instead, the churches were not involved. Surely the contractors that attended these churches could have led building rehabilitation efforts while church members could have served as laborers and, ultimately, tenants and homeowners.
So should anyone serious about leading Charleston wait to run until Riley leaves office? The reality is that none of the candidates have been able to turn the frustrations of the African-American community and the conservative community into a viable political force that is able to defeat the Riley machine. Until that happens, things will stay the same. And maybe that’s not a bad prospect.
We can build a progressive economic agenda with Mayor Riley at the helm of local government, but only if we take our destinies into our own hands instead of leaving the work to build our community to city government and other interests.