Let the jockeying begin for the City of Charleston mayoral race. It is still early, but the battle for mayor already has two young, ambitious contenders ready to challenge Mayor John Tecklenburg in his bid to be re-elected as the mayor of the City of Charleston.
Longtime Daniel Island councilman Gary White has announced his plans to run, as has first-term Councilman Harry Griffin. While Griffin’s announcement was relatively low-key, White’s announcement was notable because of the other city councilmembers, past and present, who appeared at his kickoff event with words of praise for White in support of his candidacy and sharp words of criticism for the current administration.
The Daniel Island News reported that current Councilmembers Bill Moody, Keith Waring, Kevin Shealy, and William Dudley Gregorie stood in support of White during his announcement, as did former councilmembers Aubrey Alexander, Kathleen Wilson, and Larry Shirley. Gregorie, for one, pulled no punches in explaining why he would be supporting White in his candidacy over the current mayor: “It’s obvious that council has concerns with regards to the current leadership,” he started, calling the show of force a “no confidence vote in the current administration.” Ouch. Waring echoed these sentiments, stating that White was “a great family man” with the “financial intellect that the city needs right now.” The support of these council members which represent a powerful voting bloc on council, as well as huge swaths of West Ashley, suggest that White’s candidacy will be a force to reckon with.
Along with the key support of several of his peers, consider that White’s experience and background seems to go a bit deeper than either of the other candidates who have announced thus far, including Tecklenburg. Not only has White served as the councilman for Daniel Island for three terms, having first been elected in November 2007, but he also is the nephew of renowned and esteemed former city attorney, the late Bill Regan.
Regan along with his wife, Frances Cantwell, led the legal team that helped deliver many landmark legal victories to the city under Mayor Joe Riley’s administration. These include, but are not limited to, battles over the incorporation of James Island, the annexation of Daniel Island, closing of city bars at 2 a.m., the ban on smoking indoors, and the city’s ability to collect hospitality taxes. While White can hardly claim credit for any of those legal victories, his family lineage and early familiarity with city hall through this family connection helps buttress his claim that he may be the most experienced candidate running.
Newcomer Harry Griffin’s record, as compared to White’s, is substantially less accomplished. While it is admirable that someone as young as Griffin would stake a claim to the mayoral seat without having finished a term of council and just a few years after having graduated from the Citadel in 2016, it should be noted that Tecklenburg also had no previous experience in elected office when he ran for mayor.
More disconcerting about Griffin may be his sensitivity on racial issues as evidenced by his comments during the debate over whether or not the city should offer a formal apology for its role in the slave trade. While there were African-American council members who voted against the resolution because they felt it did not go far enough, Griffin offered a very interesting rationale for his no vote. As reported by the Post and Courier, he stated: “The majority of Charlestonians that I talked to, from personal experiences, were not willing to apologize for something they did not take part in.” Accordingly, he voted against a resolution that he not only initially supported, but helped to draft.
This logic fails on so many levels it is difficult to know where to begin. The same justification has been used by many to oppose affirmative action initiatives and policies designed to help African Americans harmed by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
While this philosophy may not transfer over to how he might govern as mayor, it shows a remarkable insensitivity to racial issues which is significant in any city with an engaged African-American electorate. To that end, one of Griffin’s main challenges may be attracting any of the African-American vote, a constituency which Tecklenburg has assiduously supported throughout his tenure. This is a constituency he should be extremely concerned about attracting, especially if an African-American candidate enters the race, as is widely expected.
This much is sure: The race is about to get interesting. And with the power players on council already casting their lots for one of their own to replace the incumbent, it is virtually certain that Tecklenburg’s bid for reelection will be anything but a cakewalk.
This article, written by Dwayne Green, first appeared in the Charleston City Paper on April 10, 2019. View Dwayne’s full archive of articles at the Charleston City Paper as a guest columnist. Photo of Charleston City Hall by Spencer Means on Flickr.