Harry Griffin had big plans for last week’s Charleston City Council meeting.
The West Ashley councilman had a long series of items on the agenda, among them a repeal of the 9 p.m. live music curfew, questions about the destruction of a column that once held John C. Calhoun’s statue and a return to in-person council meetings.
Most of that wasn’t even discussed, and by Saturday, Mikaela Porter reported the District 10 councilman had announced he wouldn’t seek a second term.
Don’t look for a direct cause-and-effect here. This wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction to the tepid response, or even behind-the-scenes lobbying against his proposals, which some of his colleagues considered grandstanding (the music curfew expires in a few weeks anyway, they note).
No, all that simply confirmed what Griffin was already thinking.
“It’s been an accumulation of things,” he says. “I’ve been trying to figure out if this is an effective use of my time.”
In other words, he can count, and another four years on the losing end of 12-1 votes held little appeal. And make no mistake, that’s where he was headed.
When Griffin joined City Council in 2017, the West Ashley contingent took a shine to their youngest member in modern times. They shared geography and a common philosophy, mainly that West Ashley doesn’t get its fair share of city resources.
They often found themselves opposing Mayor John Tecklenburg, which said more about City Hall diplomacy than differences of opinion: The mayor, another West Ashley resident, shares many of their concerns.
Regardless, Griffin quickly gained notoriety by questioning the mayor’s wife’s use of city-issued business cards. The investigation cost exponentially more than the cards.
It went downhill from there.
In last year’s election, Bill Moody and Marvin Wagner exited stage right ... and Griffin has since found himself the lone voice of dissension on several issues, including the city’s response to the pandemic.
He would like to lift COVID-19 restrictions on businesses, even though most of the remaining ones are state mandates, and he has consistently voted against the city’s mask ordinance. Although Griffin himself wears a mask in public, he calls the ordinance unenforceable and a waste of resources.
Of course, there’s more. Griffin voted to take down the Calhoun statue but regrets how it turned out. He was critical of the city’s response to the riot and opposes suing oil companies for contributing to Charleston’s flooding woes.
He says council should get back to in-person meetings to improve transparency and public input. The city, for its part, says it gets more public feedback via phone and Zoom than it generally gets at in-person meetings.
The real problem here, as Griffin says, is he’s a conservative in an increasingly blue city, and that puts him at odds with most of council.
To be sure, he is council’s most outspoken conservative voice. But several members of City Council are plenty conservative. They quietly aren’t wild about some of the coronavirus restrictions either, but follow medical advice even when it’s politically unpopular … and endure the grief from their constituents.
So this is where Griffin finds himself, odd man out in a supremely odd year.
City Council has a long tradition of members, usually one at a time, who go against the grain, and their colleagues. Think Tim Mallard or Kwadjo Campbell. Griffin is following that path, but he’s not interested in re-upping, even if his supporters say it’s important for him to give voice to their issues.
“Maybe that’s not what’s best for me personally,” he says. Which is a mature and self-assured position for a 25-year-old.
Griffin says he’ll finish his term but thinks it may be better to work on West Ashley issues as a private citizen. Perhaps, he says, he’ll run for another office in a few years. Which is a thinly veiled reference to the next Charleston mayor’s race (he briefly considered running in last year’s race.)
In his last year on council, expect Griffin to remain the same ol’ Harry, even if some of his colleagues aren’t wild about him. A few privately say he’s a pain, and that’s fair.
But they may also find that, whether he’s right on any specific issue, just raising questions is a valuable addition to the debate. Sometimes.