North Charleston mayor’s race chock-full of accusations

John Singletary an incumbent Keith Summery are two of the candidates for North Charleston mayor.

The mayor’s race in North Charleston has become a show that many residents don’t want to miss.

“It has certainly got my attention,” said Park Circle resident Almajean King-Jones. “I haven’t always paid attention to these elections, but I will be sure to attend any future forums so that I don’t miss anything.”

Candidate John Singletary, 53, has accused Mayor Keith Summey of nepotism, cronyism and public corruption during his time in office, and questioned the leadership and methods of the police department.

“I have run for mayor a lot of times,” said Summey, who has led the city for 21 years and is running for his seventh term. “It’s never been a negative campaign, and this one is not going to be a negative campaign either. I’m not going to say a negative thing about (Singletary) or either of the other two candidates.”

The forums are “good for democracy and good for the citizens,” said Gibbs Knotts, chairman of the Department of Political Science at the College of Charleston. “They are constant reminders of what an important impact these elected officials have in people’s lives.”

Hundreds of residents turned out last week for two forums that featured the four mayoral candidates. Both became tense as Singletary lobbed accusations and Summey became frustrated, saying Singletary was publicizing “made-up concepts.”

Often office-holders don’t attend forums “because they’ve got more to lose” than their challengers, Knotts said.

“You have to take your hat off to somebody who is an incumbent who’s willing to go out and be involved in these kinds of events,” Knotts said. “You have to admire (Summey) for being willing to go out and do that.”

Summey has said he is not focused on political newcomer Singletary and the two other challengers, Clifford Smith and the Rev. Chris Collins, but is instead running for the job.

“I will not lower myself to the negative stuff,” Summey, 68, said. “I will not say anything negative about (Singletary’s) family as he has about mine. He’s got to answer for himself to the general public. ... If the general public wants to believe what he says, I would ask them to ask for ultimate proof of what he says, and there is none.”

Smith and Collins have largely stayed out of the fray while the verbal jabs have been thrown by Summey and Singletary, who is working full time on his campaign. Singletary held a news conference Thursday in the lobby of City Hall.

“I think John’s done some research and he says he has proof so I’m just basically going to step back and let him take the lead on that,” said Smith, 66, who is also taking his first run at office. “I’m not out to say, ‘He’s a guy who did this or this.’ My approach is to tell people what I plan to do: ‘This is how I plan to bring positive energy to the government.’ ”

Collins, who won’t give his age, said the tiff between Summey and Singletary has hurt the campaigns of all the candidates.

“I don’t like what I see,” he said. “I think there is a much better way to criticize someone for their faults. I think it could be done with a lot more style and wisdom. I don’t see how it’s going to benefit (Singletary) or the people. Finding fault in someone’s leadership doesn’t justify that you’re a better leader.”

He said he is afraid it will affect the African-American vote. The city has just over 54,000 voters, more than half of them African-American, according to election officials.

“The way it is now, we are simply dividing up votes,” said Collins, who is a member of the Charleston County School Board. “It definitely impacts the African-American vote, that’s for sure. How much I don’t know, but I believe I’m the No. 1 contender outside of Mr. Summey, and I think it’s hurting all of our campaigns. If people judge us based on what he’s doing, it can have some impact.”

Collins also challenged Summey four years ago, losing to him by a vote of 6,119 to 1,722.

Knotts said it’s not uncommon for claims to be challenged during election season.

“There are even some disputes in the presidential debates,” he said. “Folks say things and then there’s an effort to fact-check them. We’re in an era with so much information out there that oftentimes you can find some points that support a position and other forces that don’t support that.”

When campaigns become adversarial, “Candidates have to decide how much they want to take on their opponents or if they want to let the opponents make the claims and then let the people decide for themselves,” Knotts said. “Sometimes, you do want to set the record straight, if it’s something so egregious or really calls your credibility into question, but at forums, all this requires thinking on your feet. You don’t have time to meet with your advisors to decide how to respond. There probably are certain things where it’s better to let the comment speak for itself and not look like you are going after a critic.”

Singletary stands by his claims.

“I have nothing against the mayor,” he said on Thursday. “It’s not that I’m out with a vendetta against him. I’m simply stating the facts. I have not spoken directly to the mayor in any of the debates. I’ve always spoken to the public and presented the facts and made him defend his record. He has been speaking directly to me because he chooses not to defend his record because there is no defense.”

At a forum on Sept. 9, Summey at one point refused to answer when the moderator asked candidates to name the biggest issue facing the city, saying, “I’m just tired of listening to an angry man,” referring to Singletary.

After Singletary made the same comments at a forum three days later, Summey addressed him directly: “You’re talking about made up concepts within your head,” he said. “And that you need to prove. If you can’t prove it, then I would expect you to take your Citadel (class) ring off because it says you’re supposed to be a man of the truth.”

On Thursday, Summey said Singletary has an issue with him and the city.

“Here’s the issue: (Singleton’s) an extremely angry individual,” Summey said.

Singletary filed a lawsuit against the city in 2009 over a zoning issue at his Evanston Estates home, Summey said.

“He sued us through every level of court as high as it could go and lost every battle,” Summey said.

Singletary, whose team has been preparing a platform for about a year, said, “I haven’t been angry as I’ve been accused of being. I’m doing what we set out to do, which is to educate the public so that at the end of the day we have a more intelligent, more informed voter who is going to actually vote for someone who is in the community’s best interest.”

At the forums and at his news conference, Singletary said Summey gives jobs and favors to friends and family, often without advertising and overlooking minorities who are more qualified. He pointed to police Chief Eddie Driggers, a former police chaplain hired by Summey in 2012 to lead the force.

“Driggers was hired for the position ... when we have experienced African-Americans on the force, who have been on the force, well-educated with master’s degrees, who could not get consideration when it came to the position,” Singletary said.

Driggers has many years of experience with Charleston County Sheriff’s Office and North Charleston Police and was well-qualified for the job, Summey said.

“I saw something in him that I needed: police experience, police knowledge and a heart for people,” Summey said Thursday.

Singletary also pointed to $37,000 the city spent in August 2014 “to do yard work” for Summey’s son, Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey.

The city repaired the sidewalk on city-owned property in front a rental house the younger Summey owns on the corner of Buist Avenue and Old Park Road, according to officials. At the time, Elliott Summey said he didn’t benefit from the city work, and about $4,000 in damage was done to his property during the sidewalk repair.

“When you take $37,000 in taxpayer money and you give that to a relative by the way of improving in front of their yard as well as their yard, the aesthetics brings value to the home,” Singletary said.

Collins said, “Some of (what Singletary is saying) is true... but that doesn’t make you win the election. That still doesn’t say you’re a viable candidate.”

In addition, he said, “if all the accusations are true that Singletary is claiming, that would mean that the City Council people aren’t doing their job, yet we don’t have one complaint on City Council that I know of. These people have been elected to represent us and serve the public, so if he’s corrupt then everybody else is corrupt also.”

The candidates have also been at odds over alleged department-mandated quotas of traffic stops.

The defense team for Michael Slager, the white former North Charleston police officer who shot Walter Scott, a black man, to death in April, said last week that Slager was just trying to fulfill his traffic-stop quota when he pulled over Scott.

“I’ve heard that (there are quotas),” Singletary said. “I’ve spoken to officers who have said that — white and black officers — who confided in me enough to say that there are quotas. ... If you’re white and live in those black areas, then you get the same treatment, so it’s not just because you’re black, it’s because you’re in a low socioeconomic area that happens to be predominantly black.”

Summey denies the accusation.

“To my knowledge, there were never any quotas,” he said, adding that officers are expected to work when on duty. “I can tell you that I know of none that are established. That’s not to say some sergeant may have said to one of his guys, ‘Pick it up. You’re not producing.’ ”

There are at least two more forums planned for mayoral and council candidates. All 10 city council seats are up for re-election, and nine of the races are contested. Summey said he plans to attend the forums, even though he expects Singletary to continue to pursue him.

“It seems like these forums are serving their purpose,” Knotts said. “The whole goal is for the people to make informed decisions.”

Reach Brenda Rindge at (843) 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.