A lot of Sullivan’s Island residents tell the same sad story: They didn’t vote in the 2019 town elections, and now regret it.
Don’t expect them to make that mistake again.
That’s because a 1-vote margin for a single Town Council seat shifted the island’s balance of power two years ago. To say the new council majority made the most of that narrow victory is putting it mildly.
Last fall, the majority scheduled a debate on the island’s biggest issue in the middle of a work day, during a pandemic, via Zoom ... with minimal public notice. And then, on a 4-3 vote, signed an agreement to butcher the island’s popular maritime forest.
Make no mistake: That's the single-biggest issue in the May 4 election.
The officials who engineered that settlement are urging voters to move on from “single issue” politics. Yeah, don’t count on it — because this isn’t simply about one thing.
This election is about more than accreted land; it’s about the mindset that threatens it. And it’s about paid parking, as well as a commercial district that wants to creep into residential neighborhoods. Pretty much everything but a gate.
That stuff tends to drive people to the polls, even in municipal elections that typically garner little interest.
“The island we love and the reason we live here is at stake,” says longtime resident Larry Kobrovsky. “The question is, are we going to be part of the community, or is this island going to become the Hamptons?”
Kobrovsky says Sullivan’s old-timers are eager for a course-correction. To be sure, someone’s motivated: Four years ago, fewer than 10 of the island’s 1,800 voters cast absentee ballots. So far, absentee ballots have been cast by more than 15% of the people who voted in 2017.
Isaac Cramer with the Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration says dozens more have requested absentee ballots. That could mean anything, but some islanders suggest that voters are upset about clear-cutting the forest … and the cynical politics that made it possible.
The forest has been an issue for years, but in 2019 it didn't drive people to the polls. Most council candidates were vague about their positions, and many people likely assumed policy was mostly set. But after the election, misinformation spread that a longstanding lawsuit from front-beach homeowners was about to cost the town big money. It wasn’t.
“People didn’t see that that was even a possibility,” Councilman Bachman Smith IV says. “It’s made people aware enough this time.”
Conventional wisdom is that most people love the forest, other than those understandably upset that it blocks their ocean views. It's a popular park, and an important buffer against flooding.
The mayor’s race may measure that support definitively, because the two candidates couldn’t be any different. Councilman Chauncey Clark led the push for the forest settlement; Mayor Pat O’Neil opposed it.
“I was dead-set against it — it was a terrible agreement,” O’Neil says. “What it’s going to do is terrible; how it was done was terrible.”
The mayor’s critics have tried to saddle him with forest fatigue, but O’Neil isn’t a one-issue guy, and hasn't promised to reverse the settlement ... because he can't. It's complicated.
So instead, the mayor's talking about improving an overwhelmed sewer system, a new fire station, traffic and flooding. Which will only get worse with fewer trees, by the way.
O’Neil supporters say this election is about the future. It’s about paid parking, which the mayor opposes, but the council majority has shown great interest in, uh, studying (and is a stealth issue, much like the forest was two years ago). It’s about threats to expand the commercial district, which is now restricted by ordinance.
At 6 Wednesday, the Battery Gadsden Cultural Center will host a forum for the mayoral candidates and five council hopefuls. The topic is historical preservation, which, unsurprisingly, some insist includes the maritime forest. Expect a large crowd.
Election officials also anticipate decent turnout when the satellite voting unit returns to Sunrise Presbyterian from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday. Outgoing Councilwoman Sarah Church says that's because many islanders expect the vote will have a tremendous impact on the future.
“I feel like this election will tell us where residents want to see the island going,” she says.
Some folks hope that turnout will be high, and the resulting direction definitive. Because Sullivan's Island learned the hard way that one vote can make all the difference.