Post and Courier
August 21, 2014

Charleston Water System election could make history

Posted: 11/16/2013 04:14 p.m.
Updated: 11/16/2013 10:45 p.m.
By Robert Behre

The potentially historic aspect of Tuesday’s Charleston Water System runoff is also among the least relevant, according to the candidates.

Newcomer and estate lawyer Catherine LaFond is running against incumbent Commissioner and former Water System director William Koopman.

LaFond and Koopman received 44 percent and 37 percent of the votes, respectively, in the Nov. 5 election, and the two will face off again Tuesday in a runoff election expected to draw only a tiny fraction of the city’s 86,000 registered voters.

That there’s even an election here is news in and of itself: The 2009 and 2011 Water System races were called off after no one filed against the incumbent. A city election official could not remember the last time an incumbent commissioner lost.

LaFond said she was urged to run by members with Project XX, a group formed to encourage more women to run for public office, as well as the Alliance for Full Acceptance. She said she decided to run after viewing “Breaking Through,” a documentary about successful gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender candidates.

If she wins Tuesday, she will be the first openly gay candidate in South Carolina to win a contested election, said Warren Redmon Gress with the Alliance for Full Acceptance. He said LaFond already has proven herself by getting the most votes on Nov. 5.

“In electing an openly LGBT candidate, (city voters) have an opportunity to make a lasting contribution toward a better city,” he said. “Catherine is also a great role model for young LGBT persons who have likely been told they can never hold an elected office in South Carolina. She will prove otherwise.”

Koopman said he is running on his lengthy record with the utility and is working hard to turn out his voters Tuesday.

“Ms. LaFond has a very well-run campaign with a purpose. I’m out there presenting myself to the public and running on my record of 30 years experience with know-how and knowledge,” he said. “Most of all, I look at myself as a public servant.”

Koopman said he was surprised by the sudden interest in the seat, and remembered when all a commissioner had to do to get re-elected was mail out about 500 letters to friends and supporters. “We’re like the board of your local credit union,” he said.

Koopman said the utility has won state and national awards and last year was named as one of South Carolina’s 10 best places to work. Its policy of raising rates a little each year to keep up with infrastructure repair and replacement has prevented shocks to customers’ wallets and earned the utility a AAA bond rating, he added.

Koopman said the CPW isn’t perfect, but isn’t subject to politics. “We don’t make decisions and then go out and tell real estate friends where the next water line is going. We don’t even think like that.”

LaFond said the issue of her making history as South Carolina’s first successful gay candidate has not come up — except in the media.

“I’m not running on that fact, but I’m also not running from it,” she said. “I don’t think it’s going to play any role whatsoever as a commissioner. The only thing I think it’s done is excite people. Whether that means they will go to the polls, I don’t know.”

She said from what she can tell, the Charleston Water System is doing “a pretty good job.”

“The staff seems very happy to be working there,” she added. “I’m not necessarily complaining about the quality of water yet. I feel there are things that could be looked into, that we’re not testing for.” She also said she wanted to look at innovations that could help lower the cost of providing water and sewer.

Koopman and LaFond said they have met and like and respect each other. Meanwhile, their contest has set a record for spending in a Water System campaign that could stand for some time. A commissioner’s seat offers no pay or benefits — just complementary coffee and refreshments at its monthly morning meetings.

Even before their runoff, Koopman had raised $18,000, including $15,000 of his own money, while LaFond has raised almost $10,000. And that was before her supporters held a fundraiser for her last week.

And that financing doesn’t touch on the amount of time both have spent trying to interest voters in the race. “I’ve not been practicing law for at least six weeks,” LaFond said. “My days are consumed with this campaign.”

While it’s a nonpartisan race, many Charleston County Democrats have thrown support to LaFond, though she said her own politics is moderate and that she has voted Republican.

Charleston City Councilman Dean Riegal, who leans Republican and who also serves as a CWS commissioner, said LaFond may be getting Democratic support as the party seeks to build its farm team, candidates who potentially could run for higher office one day.

But the city’s most prominent Democrat, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, has sent out a letter on Koopman’s behalf, calling him “the most qualified, experienced and dedicated individual in this particular race.”

Other political houses have been divided. State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, has backed Koopman, while his wife Ann helped sponsor a recent fundraiser for LaFond.

Charleston County Democratic Chair Richard Hricik said LaFond is getting support because people want competency in local government.

“Part of her appeal is she is a woman,” he added, “and I think we need more women to serve in government generally. ... Women are underrepresented in government in South Carolina.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.