The recent City of Charleston municipal elections have altered the balance of power on council in an interesting way not seen in decades.
In municipalities such as Columbia, Summerville, and Mt. Pleasant, which employ a council form of government, the mayor chairs council meetings, but has essentially the same powers as a member of council.
The City of Charleston has a mayor-council form of government. The mayor has executive, fiscal, and appointing authority, but also has a vote, and can break a tie of council when it occurs. In the mayor-council form of government, the council acts as the most significant check and balance on mayoral authority. Part of this is because the mayor must enjoy the support of a majority of council in order to get any significant legislative initiatives passed. To the extent city council and the mayor do not agree, an independent council can forge distinct legislative priorities, even in a mayor-council form of government.
For years, under former long time Mayor Joseph P. Riley, the only operative question regarding council support was the question of how large of a majority it would be supporting the mayor’s agenda. Over his 40 years as mayor, Riley was able to compile an early list of accomplishments which translated into political clout allowing him to bring more supportive councilmembers into office. In the political vernacular, Riley had “long coattails” which translated into support for his council member allies.
While different city council members may have occasionally opposed Riley on isolated votes, for his major initiatives he could almost always count on a majority of council to support his agenda. Vocal Riley opponents on council often found themselves facing stiff competition from challengers who coincidentally enjoyed Riley’s tacit support. Many of those challengers subsequently found such support to be determinative in future municipal elections.
In the post-Riley era, a major fault line on council has emerged over some of Mayor Tecklenburg’s key initiatives. On issues such as the West Ashley bridge bicycle lane, the unsuccessful moratorium over new hotels, and the threshold for overturning recommendations of the City Planning Commission, some longtime members City Council, have provided a powerful counter to some of Tecklenburg’s more controversial proposals.
On contested council votes such as these, Tecklenburg could consistently count on the votes of at least two councilmembers, Rodney Williams and Dean Reigel for support. For that reason, much was at stake this past November as Councilmembers Keith Waring and Bill Moody openly supported opponents of Williams and Reigel, and also challenged both incumbents on alleged ethical violations.
In response, and in support of his campaign, Williams went so far as to publish campaign ads in the Post and Courier, openly touting his support of and by the Mayor. One ad even displayed headshots of Williams and Tecklenburg together, as if they were running mates. More so than any other council candidate, Williams explicitly sought to bootstrap his candidacy to Tecklenburg and his support of Tecklenburg’s agenda in an attempt to win re-election.
That strategy proved less than effective. Despite being a two-term incumbent, Williams lost his seat by an almost two to one margin to political newcomer Kevin Shealy. Adding political import to the outcome was the fact that Shealy had been openly supported in his candidacy by both Waring and Moody.
Reigel, whose eligibility to serve on council was questioned by Waring and Moody due to residency requirements, lost to political newcomer, Harry Griffin. Somewhat significantly, Summer Massey, the Reigel challenger who was supported by the same council members, did not prevail.
William Dudley Gregorie, far from a Tecklenburg loyalist, was the sole city council incumbent to earn re-election. This was despite the fact his opponent, Amy Brennan enjoyed the support of a pro-Tecklenburg political action committee.
The changes in council potentially augur a sea change in the political dynamics of City Council, and may also speak to the Charleston electorate’s collective opinion on which direction they would like the city to go. Waring and Moody have been clear about the need to invest in the redevelopment of West Ashley, employing a cautious approach to banning short term rentals outright, and adopting sensible strategies in an attempt to control increasing traffic and congestion.
Tecklenburg’s agenda and his articulation of priorities (outside of his laudable support for affordable housing) have been much less well-defined. Charleston voters have sent a clear message by approving the ouster of at least two overt mayoral council allies. It will be very interesting to see what the new majority does with their added clout, and how those results alter the calculus leading up to the next city municipal elections in 2019.