The motorcycles will not be roaring in Myrtle Beach again any time soon. In an ugly off-year municipal election that was largely a referendum on the Grand Strand’s traditional motorcycle rallies, voters sent the bikers a clear message that they are not welcome.
The election was also a referendum on a controversial former mayor, and voters have sent him a message, as well.
In a state famous for its dysfunctional politics (and about to become more famous when the General Assembly impeaches Gov. Mark Sanford in a few months) Myrtle Beach has enjoyed the reputation as being its most dysfunctional city. Yes, there are municipalities where officials are more corrupt, eccentric, or just plain stupid. But Myrtle Beach is one of the largest cities — and surely the most famous — in our state. People in Europe, Canada, and Ohio, who have never heard of Greenville or Columbia and think the Holy City is in West Virginia, have “Myrtle Beach” scrawled boldly on some page of their calendars and dream giddily of the day when they will load up the SUV or board a jet for the Carolina coast.
Yes, Myrtle Beach is South Carolina’s gateway to the world, the destination for 14 million golfers, snowbirds, sunbathers, spring breakers, country music fans, and pole-dance connoisseurs. And some of those tourists have been motorcyclists — hundreds of thousands of them in fact — arriving in two enormous rallies each May. Their numbers, the sounds of their machines, and their generally rowdy behavior have become such a problem in recent years that local residents demanded something be done. Last year, Myrtle Beach City Council took action with a series of ordinances — including passing the state’s only helmet law — which were designed to throw cold water on the biker bashes. And it worked. This past May, the bikers stayed away in droves, leaving some hotels, restaurants, bars, and strip clubs hurting.
In a town where everything is taken to excess, there was a backlash, and it was hard and mean. Many local business people, as well as hardcore bikers, banded together to fight City Hall. Business Owners Organized to Support Tourism (BOOST, to its friends) sued Myrtle Beach over the helmet law and alleged nefarious and unholy alliances between city council and the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce. There were charges of slander and libel. Lawyers held news conferences and posted nasty letters on the web.
Into this storm of acrimony strode a familiar figure, one who surely felt right at home in such an atmosphere. Mark McBride was first elected mayor of Myrtle Beach in 1997, defeating a 12-year incumbent in a campaign that set new standards for sleaze and duplicity in local politics. (See my account of that campaign from my 2003 book, Banana Republic: A Year in the Heart of Myrtle Beach on my blog.)
In eight divisive, vitriolic years as majordomo, McBride got into fisticuffs with a council member in an executive session, came up on the short end of dozens of 6-1 votes, and never accomplished a single important reform or initiative. In those years he established himself as a family-values crusader and gay basher, willing to use thinly veiled racist rhetoric and to stand on both sides of several critical issues as he felt the political winds change.
One of those changes was his attitude toward motorcycle rallies. He even called for banning them altogether in 2005 when anger against the spring rallies was at fever pitch. That year he famously made the statement that he felt at times like “nudging” a motorcycle with his car. The remark flashed through the biker community via the internet, causing some 80 bikers to show up at a city council meeting in what they called a Ride Against McBride. A few weeks later the voters replaced McBride with the more seasoned and stable John Rhodes. It was under Rhodes’ leadership that city council finally took action to tame the motorcycle rallies.
All the while, McBride had been waiting in the wings, and with the support of BOOST, he jumped into the recent fray to regain his old office and make Myrtle Beach safe for bikers again. Nobody apparently commented on the fact that only four years earlier he had called for shutting down the biker rallies. The bikers needed a candidate, and he needed a constituency. It was classic Mark McBride.
In the end, Myrtle Beach voters decided they had seen enough of McBride and motorcycle rallies. In the recent municipal election and November 17 runoff, they reelected John Rhodes with 55 percent of the vote and rejected the BOOST city council slate. It was a good day for clean government and quiet streets.
See Will Moredock’s blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.