Come January, Charleston will have a decidedly different City Council — slightly more progressive, a little more female and a whole lot younger.
And probably significantly more receptive to Mayor John Tecklenburg’s agenda.
The November election resulted in four new members on council — a 33 percent turnover — and there’s no doubt the Lowcountry Livability PAC played a part.
The group, led by some prominent local conservationists, endorsed early, donated to some campaigns, and in a few races sent out targeted mail focused on issues that matter most to Charleston: flooding, traffic and overdevelopment.
In all, the PAC spent about $150,000. Based on the strong showing of its slate — four of the five candidates it endorsed won — the PAC has established itself as an influential political force. But as Post and Courier reporter Mikaela Porter notes, the group has downplayed its role.
“The voters were clearly not satisfied with the current behavior of council, but what that means is not 100 percent clear,” says Dana Beach, founder of the Coastal Conservation League and a Livability PAC board member. “There was inchoate dread. That’s a good climate if you want to change the makeup of a body. So, in a way, things were teed up.”
He's absolutely right. And given the mayor’s strong showing, it isn’t particularly surprising that most of the candidates who signaled a willingness to work with him also won.
But still, the Livability PAC deserves credit. And Charleston County Council candidates should take note because the livability folks intend to get involved in those races, too.
“Absolutely this is a long-term thing,” Beach says.
Keith Waring, the only City Council incumbent to survive a challenge from one of the group’s candidates, says local politicians should take heed.
“I think a lot of people took them for granted, and it caught them off guard,” Waring says. “In the future, I think if you ignore them, you’re going to be defeated.”
Waring says it likely will be harder for the Livability PAC to influence elections in County Council districts, which are larger, and during the 2020 election, when turnout will be much higher. But anyone who ignores the group, he says, does so at their own peril.
Don't confuse the Livability PAC with the dark money groups that clandestinely got involved with the mayor's race. This group lists its donors with the state and does everything transparently.
Still, Waring felt their criticism of him was misleading and suggested he was indiscriminately pro-development. Because most of the board members and donors are downtown residents, Waring worries their influence could shift the focus away from West Ashley issues.
“If they pay your way, when they call, people are going to pick up the phone,” he says. “If they say downtown needs all the money and West Ashley has to wait, as it has been, voters will have something to say about that.”
Some county officials whisper similar concerns. They say many ongoing downtown issues don’t particularly translate to the rest of the county. And they note many Livability PAC leaders oppose the completion of Interstate 526.
But the group wisely steered clear of 526 in council races, given its popularity among West Ashley voters, and made little of downtown causes, such as limiting cruise ships.
Beach says the PAC wants to recruit more members for better geographic representation. They realize that, outside of downtown, horse carriages and the like aren’t burning issues.
He says the Livability PAC’s message resonated precisely because it focused on countywide issues — namely all that flooding, traffic and overdevelopment.
“Flooding is really bad on Johns Island, James Island and in West Ashley,” he says. “The Church Creek basin needs millions of dollars.”
The point, he says, is that all areas of the community need to work together on common goals. As much as City Council has been stymied by a poor working relationship with the mayor, the city and county also don’t cooperate as much as they should.
Which sounds like a preview of the coming County Council races.
So candidates take note. Better have some livability on your campaign platform, or you may not survive the next election.