HICKS COLUMN: Saving Charleston Harbor in 30 seconds flat
The mayor had just about a minute.
Joe Riley was at the White House on Jan. 18 for a meeting with administration officials and other mayors when he was given the chance to talk briefly with President Barack Obama.
There was only one federal issue on Riley’s mind — dredging Charleston Harbor — but he didn’t want to seem parochial. After all, he’d brought up the dredging in another White House meeting with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in January 2011. He feared sounding like a broken record.
But this is his job, so he came up with a nice way to do it: The mayor thanked the president for all his staff’s hard work on the harbor dredging project. And then it happened.
“George Will thinks it’s a good idea,” Riley recalls Obama saying.
Two weeks before this meeting, the Washington Post columnist had written a piece lamenting the bureaucratic red tape holding up work on one of this nation’s most important ports.
Obama had not only read the piece, he remembered. Then the president turned to Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser, and said to make sure Charleston Harbor was in the budget. Just like that.
And then he took a picture with Riley.
When the mayor got his signed copy of that photo, an Obama staffer included a note that said, “Best use of 30 seconds in the history of the White House.”
That may be the political understatement of the year.
Last week, the White House announced that the timetable for dredging Charleston Harbor is being moved up by one year.
It’s amazing news, seeing as how a week earlier the Army Corps of Engineers lopped four years off the waiting period. All of a sudden, our dredging is imminent.
This is huge. In a couple of years, the Panama Canal will open to larger ships with deeper drafts, and any harbor that can’t accommodate them will see its business dry up. Charleston can’t afford that. South Carolina can’t afford that.
But for a while, that looked like a very real possibility.
The way a city used to get such federal service was through earmarks. But since our own Sen. Jim DeMint made some people believe that all earmarks are the work of the devil, Charleston Harbor was put in real danger.
Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Jim Clyburn tried everything they could, and the State Ports Authority made its case as well.
Finally, the South Carolina Legislature helped the cause immensely this year by setting aside $300 million to pay for the whole project if need be.
It’s funny, but none of those people thumped their chests last week quite as loudly as another politician whose main contribution to the cause was yelling something at the president across a crowded room.
Putting country first?
Riley is very quick to disavow the notion that he deserves all the credit for this, even though other politicians admit his persistence and good relations with the White House likely made a difference.
In fact, Riley said nothing of this until he was asked. And then he praised Graham, Clyburn and State Ports Authority President and CEO Jim Newsome for their work.
Make no mistake, this is not about party politics. Obama has absolutely no chance of winning South Carolina in November. So if he was spending political capital, it was a waste of money.
Riley says the truth is that Charleston Harbor made the priority list because it is vital to the local, state and regional economy, and the administration recognized this.
He’s absolutely right.
And it’s worth noting that this was accomplished by well-meaning politicians reaching across the aisle — which is how it is supposed to work, no matter what screaming zealots claim.
Of course, Riley, Graham, Clyburn and the Legislature were simply doing what we elected them to do: promoting the state.
Meanwhile, others just promote themselves.
Reach Brian Hicks at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @BriHicks_PandC.