It’s hard to go point/counter-point in the Charleston City Council District 12 race representing James Island. Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson is facing opposition from ad man Craig McLaughlin, but their goals and motivations make it seem like two different races.
First elected in 2005, Wilson was a harp player for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra until she was hired this summer as interim executive director for the struggling organization.
She’s confident of her chances at the ballot box.
“I’ve done everything I said I was going to do,” she says.
That includes repairing frayed relationships with city officials and department heads and improving communication on issues that impact island residents.
The biggest issue was a proposed Walmart expansion that would have impacted wetlands already set aside for protection. The project was eventually abandoned by the company over opposition.
“It wasn’t right what they were trying to do, and someone had to stand up and say it,” Wilson says.
She is also proud of the city’s effort to preserve land linking the James Island Recreation Center to James Island Charter High School. The property will likely be used for shared recreational facilities.
“The important thing is that it won’t go to gobs and gobs of homes, with cars pouring out on Fort Johnson and Harbor View Road,” Wilson says.
An avid swimmer known for taking on the most challenging long-distance swims in the world, Wilson has led several recreation efforts, including voicing strong opposition to rather modest plans for the new city gym on Fishburne Street.
“What was proposed was a facility that’s no bigger than the current gym,” she says. “(The final plan) is not as big as I’d like to see it, but we were able to get it almost doubled.”
Wilson is also proud of solar heaters for the city’s four public pools — reducing the dependency on natural gas for the two year-round pools and extending the use of the seasonal pools by six to eight weeks.
Wilson says she’s also addressed resident concerns about traffic improvements. She worked with transportation officials and residents to reduce the number of trees impacted by improvement plans at the intersection of Folly and Camp roads.
She’s not known for being loud or rowdy at council meetings, preferring to resolve issues before they require a bullhorn.
“My whole purpose has been to be very reasonable and rational,” Wilson says. “I do the right things for the island.”
Craig McLaughlin, who runs his own advertising and design business, says he’s entering politics because he’s realized nobody is going to carry the water for him.
“I’ve got two kids,” he says. “I could tell them I wrote a lot of editorials and complained a lot, or I could say I tried.”
McLaughlin’s concerns are largely tied to bigger issues about the role of government, personal responsibility, and freedom.
“We’ve transitioned from, ‘What can I do for my country?’ to ‘What can my country do for me?’,” he says.
Two relatively recent decisions by the council disturb McLaughlin because of what they mean for individual rights: a 2007 smoking ban for businesses and a recent $300,000 federal grant award for public cameras.
Though the cameras were for particular areas of concern on the peninsula, McLaughlin says it lays a precedent for James Island cameras in the future.
Wilson says the police and local port security see these cameras as a necessity. She’s been assured the videos will be monitored and disposed of appropriately.
McLaughlin says he’s not against safety and would call for increased officers instead of the intrusive technology. He also promises to bring a diversity of ideas to the discussion.
“A lot of people on the council look diverse, but the ideas aren’t that different,” he says. “It should be about ideas, not what I look like.”
McLaughlin wants more pedestrian and bike opportunities on James Island.
“We need to be a community of alternative transportation,” he says.
And he wants to lower tax bills to aid homeowners hit by the recession by focusing on public safety, transportation, and, to a lesser degree, recreation.
“You cut spending. It’s not hard,” he says. “Government should do some things pretty well, and some things not at all. ”
He doesn’t yet have particular ideas about where to cut in the city budget.
McLaughlin proudly says that he has an uncompromising opinion of politics.
“Why would I want to get something done if it compromises my principles?” he asks.
One issue both candidates weighed in on was an addition to Interstate 526 that would reach the James Island Connector.
Wilson says that she’s tried to stay out of the debate and that she can see valid concerns about expansive development if it’s built and strangling traffic if it’s not.
McLaughlin says the state should finish what it started.
“It’s not a question of should we extend it; it’s should we complete it,” he says.
And no conversation about James Island is complete without addressing gripes from opponents of Joe Riley both within the district and adjacent to it in the disputed Town of James Island.
Wilson says the animosity has gotten personal. For those people, “It’s James Island versus Joe Riley,” she says, noting that she has disagreed with Riley on some issues, including development near the Angel Oak.
In some ways, McLaughlin plays into the Riley rancor.
“If you believe in the things the mayor is doing, vote for my opponent,” he says.
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