Mayor Joseph Riley, Jr. has been the dominant political figure in the City of Charleston for more than 30 years. His contributions to the city are innumerable, and, as a result, his supporters are legion. There is no question that his legacy in the fields of historic preservation, economic development, affordable housing, and support for the arts will define the Holy City well beyond his tenure as mayor.
Because municipal elections are nonpartisan, members of City Council can sometimes be best described as either “pro-Riley” or “anti-Riley.” This characterization oversimplifies the point, as there are few council members who either agree or disagree with the mayor on every issue. It is probably fairer to say that, historically, there have been council members who are more likely to support the mayor and those who are more likely to challenge him. This distinction is borne out by the voting records of individual council members and whether they have stood with the mayor on particularly contentious matters.
The Post and Courier recently pointed out what might be considered a watershed moment in modern municipal political history. At a recent vote, City Council voted seven to six to defeat a proposal the mayor supported. While this may seem like an insignificant vote to some, when one considers that three of the council members in the majority were newly elected, the vote becomes more noteworthy. And when one considers that two of the newly elected members all gained their victories over longtime pro-Riley incumbents, the vote becomes much more significant. Because the removal of an incumbent is such a rare event in local politics, one might ask what does this subtle shift mean?
My belief is that the shift has less to do with broad support for Riley and more to do with what many perceive as a proper balance in local government.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a longtime Riley supporter. I believe he will serve as mayor for as long as he wishes, and I also believe the good he has done for the city far outweighs whatever criticism his detractors have of him.
That being said, many believe the democratic process works best when there are properly operating checks and balances, particularly between the executive and legislative branches. In the minds of many voters, it may no longer be enough to vote for a council member because they support Riley. Voters want a clearly articulated position on many issues that will affect the city for years to come.
Where do they stand on cruise ship traffic and tourism’s role in the local economy as a whole? How about the construction of new hotels on the peninsula? What is their position on the annexation of outlying county areas or the viability of James Island as a town? These are questions that many Charlestonians have never had to seriously ponder because of an unwavering faith in the man whose hands are on the wheel.
Now, maybe for the first time, Charlestonians may be wondering what municipal government will look like after the only mayor we have ever known leaves office. The likelihood of a successor assuming office with the same degree of public confidence which our current mayor now enjoys is unlikely. The need for a well-balanced government at that point will never be more important.
I probably have plenty of company in my hope that Mayor Riley blesses this town with several more years of exemplary service. I believe that he will. But I also realize that nothing lasts forever. We have been lucky to live the life of Riley for the past 32 years, but as responsible citizens, we all have a duty to support a vision of what we want our city to look like into the indefinite future. This includes voting for and holding accountable city council members who share that vision.