After 16 years in the legislature, Floyd Breeland announced earlier this year that he wouldn’t be running for reelection. With no heir apparent in place, three candidates are seeking the seat: City Councilman Wendell Gilliard, Congressional aid Clay Middleton, and university trustee Maurice Washington.
Voted the Best City Council member by City Paper readers for three years in a row, Gilliard says he’s running with the same goal he’s had on City Council: constituent service.
“I’m already on the job and I’ve been doing it for 10 years,” he says.
While Clay Middleton may not have the name recognition that his opponents carry, the 26-year-old says his career of addressing constituent concerns in Congressman Jim Clyburn’s office and working as a field organizer with the state Democratic Party, as well as his service in the military, including a year in Iraq, has proven his commitment to public service. He says his experience has given him a unique understanding of the legislative process that his opponents don’t have.
“I’ve been able to see firsthand how you affect change and make things happen,” Middleton says. “This isn’t City Council or the Board of Trustees. This is 124 people — and that’s a big difference.”
Washington has most recently served as chairman of the S.C. State University Board of Trustees. Prior to that, he had two terms on the Charleston City Council representing District 5 in the ’90s.
“It became an attractive opportunity to once again represent the people I represented on City Council for eight years,” Washington says of the Statehouse race.
Home to the struggling Burke High, it’s not surprising that the candidates see education as a top priority.
An advocate for a cost of living increases for city staff, Gilliard says the state needs to improve teacher pay and benefits, including merit pay.
“Our teachers should be awarded for their performance,” he says.
The state’s funding formula, which has historically put land-rich counties like Charleston at a disadvantage, needs to be fixed, both Gilliard and Middleton say.
But districts should also be encouraged to do more advanced planning and develop more public/private partnerships, Middleton says. Improved teacher resources should be a state priority, as well as incentive packages to retain quality instructors, he says.
Parental involvement is also important to keep students engaged, Middleton adds, as well as a comprehensive review of the state’s curriculum from age four to graduation.
“You can’t just throw money at the problem,” he says.
State spending is in line with other states, Washington says, but his concern is more about facilities.
“The environment in which we teach our kids is very important,” he says, noting classrooms have to be internet-equipped and schools have to be safe. “I think our challenge isn’t how much we’re spending per child, but in redirecting existing funds to improve the academic facilities our kids are being taught in.”
The state should also look more at before-school programs, particularly for at-risk students whose parents can’t provide assistance at home. Washington says programs he’s assisted have improved tutorial services, career counseling, and college assistance at Burke. He’s also worked to provide computer labs to area schools and after-school programs.
Questions about quality jobs and higher wages lead Washington back to education.
“We have to start early,” he says, by offering vocational training at the high school level and coordinating tech schools and four-year schools with high school programs.
“A skilled workforce attracts industry and higher wages,” Washington says.
Gilliard also says there’s a need for students who don’t enter college to be prepared for the workforce. The industrial job market is expected to have 5.5 million new jobs in coming years, he says, but they won’t have the capable staff to fill them.
“Burke used to be the center of industrial trade jobs,” Gilliard says. “Why not have a trade for students to fall back on?”
Gilliard also sees an opportunity for coordination among the region’s five economic engines: military, health care, shipping, tourism, and development.
“There’s no network between them,” he says.
Through an economic forum, Gilliard would spur these different markets to share ideas and resources regarding universal concerns like pay and benefits, young entrepreneurship, and training.
“I see them coming in a room and leaving with a plan to stimulate the local economy,” he says.
Programs for residents of the district are also a priority for the candidates.
Gilliard has provided air conditioning units for those suffering without during the hot summer months. He would continue to press for more state and federal money for infrastructure needs to address dirt roads, poor lighting, and the Crosstown’s infamous flooding problems.
Charleston’s housing program that encourages residents to become homeowners should be emulated elsewhere, Gilliard says.
“I’ve always seen the state lacking in that area,” he says.
Financial literacy should be accessible in the district, Middleton says, educating homeowners, and particularly the elderly, about how to keep their homes.
“If I’m 80 years old, I should not be paying rent or a mortgage for my home,” he says.
The state should also make sure that lenders are being responsible and look for ways to help seniors with their tax burden through programs that help with their tax bills to ward off gentrification. But Middleton says these efforts don’t have to be run by the state.
“Elected officials are powerbrokers,” he says. “They can put pressure in the right places.”
Washington suggests a land trust coordinated by local groups that would help avoid displacing residents by supporting diverse communities.
Residents are also concerned about Medicaid benefits, fretting over their ability to receive service and the state’s ability to pay for it, Washington says.
“We’re going to have to look very seriously at this process and try to move some of the challenges out of the pipeline so that service delivery is improved and the quality of the service is improved,” he says.
Crime prevention is another plank in Gilliard’s campaign. He’s organized events to bring law enforcement and residents together. Those conversations have led to more foot patrols in neighborhoods and surveillance cameras that have been welcomed by residents, he says.
Gilliard will press for law enforcement to share successful programs and methods statewide, and he’ll support Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen’s call for a regional training academy.
“We have the people. We just don’t have the means to get them out on the street fast enough,” he says.
Environmental concerns are another issue in the district.
Middleton wants to encourage alternative fuels and provide more incentives to taxpayers and businesses that go green.
In a district that runs up the banks of the Ashley River, Washington says voters are anxious to preserve the river from over-development.
“We have an obligation to leave as much of the natural beauty of this city for generations to come for their use and enjoyment,” he says.
With no opposition in November, the winner of June’s Democratic primary may have that obligation in their hands.