Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg speaks in support of the resolution to formally apologize for the city's role in slavery. Council later voted to approve the resolution. Brad Nettles/Staff

People in Charleston have said for years that the city's next great mayor will be whoever follows the person who follows Joe Riley.

The implication is that practically anybody would look amateurish compared to Riley, who served for 10 straight terms; that the truly politically savvy would sit out at least one election cycle before running for office.

Mayor John Tecklenburg is testing the theory. Two and half years into the unenviable job of following Riley, he plans to impress voters enough to win the next election, too.

It's too early to tell what his odds could be in 2019 and there aren't any local polls to indicate how people are feeling about him. But, in terms of his record so far, Tecklenburg seems to be performing fairly well for a first-term mayor and political novice. 

Tecklenburg musicians at Pig.jpg

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg greets local musicians including trombonist Bill McSweeney who attend the start of the demolition of the former Piggly Wiggly supermarket on Sumar Street Tuesday, May 29, 2018 in West Ashley. Area musicians are lobbying for the site to be used as a performing arts center. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

Under his direction, city officials have collaborated with community leaders to draft bold new policies, such as the West Ashley Master Plan and the new short-term rental rules. The vision to turn a former rail line on the Upper Peninsula into a bike and pedestrian path, known as the Lowcountry Low Line, is well on its way to being realized.

He hired new fire and police chiefs, as well as a new director of traffic and transportation. The city now has its first full-time floodplain manager, as well as a resiliency director to carry out the Sea Level Rise Strategy. 

The new mayor hasn't outright solved any of the major problems facing the city, such as flooding or traffic congestion or the shortage of affordable housing. His critics often question his approach to tackling these issues, but even they will acknowledge he's genuinely trying to address them. 

That's pretty telling from a political standpoint, according to Bob O'Neil, former executive director of the International City/County Management Association. 

"Think of it as a startup. You’re not going to be perfectly smooth on every issue," he said. "I’d give him pretty high marks. I think he’s built a credible team. I think he’s stayed focused on some things he’s tried to accomplish ... and, you know, he's two years in."

Inheriting a legacy

Riley is celebrated for his leadership during and after Hurricane Hugo when he fought for every dollar he could get from the state and federal government to help rebuild the city. Around the same time, he was beginning a stunning revitalization effort on the peninsula that ultimately made the city one of the top tourist destinations in the world.

Part of the funding strategy involved extending the city boundaries to grow its property tax base. Until 1960, the city limits didn't extend beyond the peninsula, which is about 8 square miles.

Through aggressive annexations led by Riley, the city advanced into James Island, West Ashley, Johns Island, Daniel Island and Cainhoy. Charleston is now the largest city in the region at 100 square miles.

Residential and commercial development boomed in places that had been mostly rural, bringing in more people, more cars and a new, suburban way of life. 

Toward the end of the Riley era, people began to push back against the growth. Subdivisions were flooding. Traffic jams became part of their daily commutes. And while the peninsula blossomed, places like James Island and West Ashley were left with outdated and poorly connected commercial districts. 

That set the stage for Tecklenburg, who worked as the economic development director for a time under Riley but had otherwise never worked in government or politics. He campaigned on a promise to focus on improving the quality of life for residents, especially in suburban areas. 

The plot thickened almost immediately after he took office.

Council vs. mayor

Tecklenburg has faced a skeptical City Council at almost every meeting he's led. Some of his big ideas to manage the city's growth have been shot down on the chamber floor before they even fully developed into policy proposals.

Early on, council rejected a moratorium on new hotel developments downtown, one of the mayor's central campaign promises. This year, with three new council members in the mix, another moratorium on new housing on the rapidly growing Johns Island was deferred indefinitely. Opponents either thought they went too far or not far enough.

Amid a building boom, Charleston struggles over guiding growth

In many meetings, council members have turned minor decisions into drawn-out arguments about unrelated matters. 

These public defeats and tense debates have led some to believe Tecklenburg isn't as commanding a leader as Riley was. Tecklenburg tends to bring forward proposals without jockeying for individual council members' support beforehand, as Riley often did. 

"If you have a proposal coming to council ... you don’t want to wait until the meeting to find out if it’s going to pass," said Fran Clasby, a neighborhood leader in Wagener Terrace and member of the area constituent school board. "I believe council wants to be the strong council. I think the mayor should’ve established that he’s a strong mayor."

Many others echoed the same concerns. 

But a defining trait of Tecklenburg's leadership style is his collaborative nature. He feels it is his strength.

"In general, politics and policy is the art of compromise. I believe it can be healthy to have a little give and take," he said. "I believe there is more benefit to be gained from drawing on the talents and viewpoints of the 12 council members than trying to be some heavy-handed, more authoritative mayor."

O'Neil said that style is something many of the best mayors share.

"The more collaborative, engaged mayors tend to have better success," he said.

War on floods

Hurricane Matthew hit in October 2016, Tecklenburg's first year in office, and the equally destructive Tropical Storm Irma followed less than a year later.

Places that had drainage problems before now had repetitively flooded homes, emphasizing just how vulnerable the city was to the threats of climate change, worsening storms and rising seas.

Tropical Storm Irma  copy Tecklenburg progress (copy)

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, third from left,talks with flooded Hickory Farms residents in 2017. Tecklenburg and his wife Sandy were touring the flooded areas of West Ashley after Tropical Storm Irma. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

In January, Tecklenburg announced his top policy priority was to address flooding, and he reeled off a number of strategies the city would use to invest more money and manpower in fixing the city's many drainage problems.

Dozens of solutions are in the works and some are already working. For instance, check valves are being installed throughout downtown to keep the tide from rising up through drainage pipes, which seems to be helping some of the lowest areas, Tecklenburg said.

Ginny Bush, who lives in the Charlestowne neighborhood on the peninsula and formerly served as its president, said she thinks Tecklenburg is doing what he promised.

"The city has made significant progress on reversing decades of deferred maintenance on our obsolete and inadequate storm drain system," she said.

Many residents, especially in the areas seeing large-scale development, haven't been entirely satisfied.

Outer West Ashley and Johns Island were primed for growth under Riley, but a lack of large-scale planning led to drainage problems exacerbated by new developments. Those who live there don't just want better drainage, they want the city to establish new land-use policies and building restrictions to prevent the problems from multiplying. 

In interviews with The Post and Courier earlier this year, city officials defended some of the building practices that had been allowed, such as inconsistently elevating properties with fill dirt. City planning officials also rejected the concept of restricting developments in flood-prone areas, saying property owners would sue the city for violating their zoning rights.

But following mounting pressure from Johns Islanders in particular, the city has contracted stormwater experts to study each watershed in the city and draft stricter drainage rules for new developments when necessary.

"You’ve got to have that kind of science, that kind of data, to know what makes sense to do," Tecklenburg said last week. "There are just some places where you shouldn’t build. That will be part of that analysis."

Possible opponents

The dynamics on City Council might not get any easier for Tecklenburg to navigate, given the looming mayoral race.

Rumors are already circulating that Councilman Keith Waring is planning to run, but he declined an interview request for this article. 

For most of Tecklenburg's time in office, Waring has challenged the mayor on a wide range of issues.

With his longstanding ally Councilman Bill Moody, Waring opposed the bike lane over the Ashley River and held up the hiring of a consultant to draft the West Ashley Master Plan, citing budget concerns. He's routinely criticized the mayor's approaches to evaluating police practices and addressing the affordable housing shortage.

Most recently, Waring voted against the resolution apologizing for the city's role in slavery after Tecklenburg delivered one of his most impassioned speeches yet about the ways the city has oppressed African Americans.

At the same meeting, newly elected Councilman Harry Griffin mentioned he has aspirations to run for mayor, but it's unclear if he's planning to mount a campaign next year. He also voted against the apology resolution, along with Waring and three other West Ashley councilmen. Griffin didn't respond to requests for comment.

Councilman Mike Seekings is considering running, too, but he won't make a final decision until the fall, he said. The downtown councilman already raised more than $50,000, according to the latest disclosures filed with the state Ethics Commission.

He was just reelected to a third term on council and also serves as chairman of the CARTA board. 

"My plan is to remain as part of the elected leadership in the city of Charleston and put myself in the best position available to continue addressing flooding, transportation and housing issues," he said.

He doesn't think council members' interest in Tecklenburg's job will make it more difficult to work together. It's more likely that council is just more invested in the city's decisions right now than it was under Riley, he said.

"Council taking a leadership role probably serves the constituents even better," he said. "This is by far the most active council that I’ve seen in my lifetime."

Tecklenburg said he's generally positive about his relationship with council.

"I believe the collective work we’ve done is making a difference and is moving the aircraft carrier — while sometimes hard to turn — in a good direction," he said.

Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

Abigail Darlington is a local government reporter focusing primarily on the City of Charleston. She previously covered local arts & entertainment, technology, innovation, tourism and retail for the Post and Courier.