During the 2015 mayor’s race, everybody in Charleston made the same prediction: Whoever follows Joe Riley is doomed to be a one-termer.
I’m as guilty as anyone, and even wrote a couple of columns making that very point.
This pervasive conventional wisdom had nothing to do with any of the candidates; it was simple political odds. Anyone would suffer in comparison with Mayor Riley’s 40-year tenure, the thinking went, and voters would judge harshly.
So one and done, clear as day.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the ballot box last week. Mayor John Tecklenburg overwhelmingly won a second term against another serious, formidable opponent.
You can write off a single successful campaign to luck, but two in a row is no accident. Especially when a known-quantity clears 60 percent of the vote.
“Elections have a way of affirming, or reaffirming, a community’s direction,” says City Councilman Peter Shahid. “The question is, is the election a referendum on the mayor’s agenda? I think it is.”
That was undoubtedly a large factor, as Tecklenburg’s priorities have been in lockstep with the people who vote in Charleston: Combat chronic flooding, keep the traffic moving, slow the proliferation of hotels, build more affordable housing, revitalize West Ashley.
All those things are about quality of life, as the mayor said in his victory speech.
Newsroom veterans have noted the similarities here to North Charleston. For years, officials there furiously pursued new business and new residents, tried to spur development to recover from devastating economic hardship. Then Keith Summey came along, talking about quality of life, and everything changed. Mayor Summey made his city better, and all those things everyone else had been chasing soon followed.
Tecklenburg made a similarly well-informed decision about what Charleston needs at this moment. Which was exactly the same thing. Riley resurrected a town that had never fully recovered from the Civil War and built it into a world-class city. Tecklenburg’s astute play has been tapping the brakes, managing that success while keeping his focus on the concerns of locals.
But there’s more to his re-election than that.
City Councilman Mike Seekings didn’t differ much from Tecklenburg on important issues. In fact, some folks figured that Seekings, a wonky favorite of insiders, was the next step in Charleston’s mayoral evolution.
By contrast, local politicos — supporters and opponents of Tecklenburg alike — regularly characterized the mayor as a nice guy. And you know what happens to those.
Yeah, Tecklenburg made dad jokes, played the piano and personified the same sunny optimism Riley preached for decades. He hugs people like he means it, in every neighborhood in the city.
He began his tenure by showing true compassion to the homeless, which is something you just can't fake. And Charleston has proven repeatedly that it wants that sort of leader.
His style led some City Council members to judge Tecklenburg a lightweight. They jumped on every political gaffe and first-term stumble, and their unrelenting oversight and criticism actually helped the mayor. It gave him the opportunity to show Charleston who he really is.
That is, a nice guy but not a pushover, an empathetic, even-tempered and mature leader who handles pressure well. Shahid says Charleston expects its mayor to be a gentleman, and Tecklenburg proved that he is.
For most of his first term, cynics viewed Tecklenburg as simply the guy who followed Joe Riley. Now, with renewed political capital, he has shed that stereotype and may force people to reassess their earlier opinions.
They would do well to take note of the crowd at Tecklenburg’s victory party. The room was filled with septuagenarians and millennials, African Americans and white residents, Republicans and Democrats. That is today’s Charleston, in all its glorious strength and history and diversity.
The one thing all those people share in common is a disdain for the division that infects today’s politics, a desire for unity and, as the mayor said, "to build relationships between ourselves."
That’s a strong message and a winning coalition, and it plays to Tecklenburg's strengths. So, in retrospect, it shouldn't be surprising that Tecklenburg avoided the fate everyone hung on him four years ago.
Because it's no accident that John Tecklenburg is Charleston’s mayor.