MOUNT PLEASANT — Mayor Billy Swails said Wednesday he won’t seek re-election as he had planned, an announcement that shocked many and changed the game in this fall’s race for the town’s top job.
The Swails era
In his message sent out through the town, Mount Pleasant Mayor Billy Swails pointed to these accomplishments during his tenure from 2009 to 2013:
• Johnnie Dodds and U.S. Highway 17 road improvements
• Hungryneck overpass completion
• Bowman Road widening
• Revitalization of Coleman Boulevard
• Shem Creek Park opening
• Senior Center Phase 2 completion
• Carolina Park Recreation Center opening
• Recruitment of Trident Technical College
• Joint acquisition of 246 acres of recreation property on Rifle Range Road
• Improved bond rating and increased financial reserves
• No property tax increase
• All-America City award
Swails, 66, said he changed his mind after talking with his wife Peggy. He said they figured his 15 years in public service — four as mayor and 11 as a town councilman — was enough and they should concentrate on family, business and friends.
“My health is wonderful. If I had a tooth, I’d be perfect,” he said. “We did a poll and we had almost a 75 percent approval rating. When you see that, you say, ‘Why don’t you just go out on top rather than running again?’ ”
“I could have won re-election hands down, in my opinion, if I would have run,” he added.
Swails’ departure leaves a wide-open field for the part-time mayoral job, which pays $24,000 a year. Only former Councilman Joe Bustos has announced so far.
Swails, a State Farm Insurance agent, was elected mayor in 2009 and was backed by former Mayor Harry Hallman, who had to step down as he battled Alzheimer’s Disease. Hallman died in 2011.
Under Swails’ leadership, the town has finished major road projects, such as widening U.S. Highway 17, expanded its senior citizens center and recruited Trident Technical College.
“We’ve got $7 million more in the bank than when I started, and we haven’t had any tax increases,” Swails said.
He urged Town Council to continue with plans to revitalize Coleman Boulevard, which Swails called “dear to my heart and, I believe, essential to the vitality of our town.”
Former Mayor Cheryll Novak Woods-Flowers, who served before Hallman, said she would not be a candidate this year, but she kept open the door that some time down the road she would like to come back.
“I’m not going to say never, just not today,” she said.
She predicted that Swails’ departure would prompt a wide array of candidates to run. “I guarantee there will be others,” she said, in addition to Bustos.
Councilwoman Linda Page said she was surprised and saddened by Swails’ news, and predicted that his legacy will be shepherding the town through an extensive and difficult period of road work.
She said she soon will decide whether to seek re-election or run for mayor, which she said she wouldn’t have done against Swails.
“Obviously, this presents an opportunity I didn’t know that I had,” she said. “Will I explore that? Of course.”
Councilman Ken Glasson said he already has gotten about 20 calls asking whether he will run for mayor. Glasson, who is not up for re-election this fall, said he likely will make a decision in a few weeks.
Former Town Councilman Paul Gawrych, who helped Swails during his 2009 campaign, said he was happy for Swails and his wife.
“I know how much he loves the town and doing what he’s doing,” Gawrych said. “At the same time, I know he has only a few years to focus on his business and enjoy his family.”
Gawrych said he loves the town and wants to serve, and will take the next few weeks before deciding whether to run.
“If enough people reach out to me and they seriously want to talk about it, we’ll look at putting together a committee and a detailed survey and see what we do from there,” he said.
Swails said he hasn’t talked to Gawrych about running, but added, “I’m hoping Paul steps up. I think he would be a logical candidate. ... Paul will be a front-runner, in my opinion.”
Unlike the strong mayors of Charleston and North Charleston, whose full-time executive roles give them broad power over their cities, Mount Pleasant’s mayor is a part-time post whose influence hinges on whether a majority of council members are happy.
Glasson praised Swails for doing “a fabulous job,” adding, “He brings all of us together in a great way.”
Town Council has talked about changing to a strong mayor before, but Glasson doubted that debate would be revived in the wake of Swails’ decision, at least not this year.
Filing begins in late August, and the election will be Nov. 5.
Schuyler Kropf contributed to this report. Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.