Charleston's longest-serving city councilman faces several opponents this year, including a repeat challenger, a former school district spokesperson and a downtown criminal defense attorney.
When Councilman James Lewis was first sworn in 24 years ago, his downtown council district was about 65 percent black. Now, he said it's about 70 percent white.
As more people moved to Charleston, the district lines have changed. Lewis now represents residents in the Hampton Park Terrace and Wagener Terrace neighborhoods, Gadsden Green and the Maryville-Ashleyville and Ardmore-Sherwood Forest neighborhoods in West Ashley — a rapidly gentrifying district where concerns have shifted away from crime and more toward flooding and new development.
After narrowly defeating challenger Jimmy Bailey in a runoff vote in 2015, voters will decide if Lewis still has their support to hold the seat for another four years.
Lewis has the advantage as a longstanding incumbent, said Kendra Stewart, a political science professor at the College of Charleston. Stewart described Lewis' role in the election as follows: "The race is his to lose."
Stewart said the district's changing demographics likely fueled the unusually high number of challengers in the race. In 2015, two ran against Lewis; in 2011, four ran against him; in 2007, he faced two.
"Council member Lewis has attracted challenges because people think he is vulnerable because of how the district has changed," Stewart said, but added that Lewis "knows what he has to do to win, and he does it every time."
Lewis said, if reelected, he'll look to maintain his communication with constituents. It's his personal policy to get back to residents within 24 hours of any phone call. He said the district has changed from a rundown area with high crime to one where residents care about flooding and transportation issues.
Lewis' challengers include returning candidate Luqman Rasheed, local business owner and former Charleston County schools spokesperson Jason Sakran and criminal defense attorney Jason Taylor. Cason Gaither will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot, but he said Tuesday that he is ending his campaign and supporting Taylor.
The race has been very visible on social media and along district sidewalks, where lawn signs stand in many yards. It's included heated neighborhood association meetings and a white powder scare that closed off downtown Broad Street for several hours in front of Taylor's office. South Carolina Law Enforcement Division is investigating the Sept. 10 incident, and its spokesperson said Tuesday that the case remains open.
Rasheed, who ran against Lewis and lost in 2011 and 2007, said he's running again because he can. He's motivated by ongoing racial tensions and wants to work toward solutions for the impoverished in the community. His plan to address those issues is to bring them before City Council and talk through it.
"There's more than just flooding issues in the city of Charleston," Rasheed said.
Sakran, who received an endorsement from the Lowcountry Livability PAC, has lived in the city on and off since 2001. His resume includes jobs for the United Way and Boys and Girls Club, a national education advocacy nonprofit in Washington and as a spokesperson for Charleston County Schools. He currently co-owns the Asian restaurant's Bon Banh Mi on Spring Street and in Mount Pleasant and works as the director of Expanded Learning in Charleston County School District's Kaleidoscope program.
"It wasn't until the last two years that I saw things, particularly in my neighborhood downtown, heading in a direction that was not positive," Sakran said.
It is his work history in the local government and small business entrepreneurship that sets him apart from the other candidates, he said. Sakran sees the top three issues as flooding, an uptick in crimes of opportunity and a lack of affordable housing.
Taylor, a self-described "Lowcountry boy," said his vision for Charleston is one that is more inclusive. He said he'd propose that property tax increases not be passed on to anyone who owns a home and collects Social Security.
Taylor, an attorney in downtown Charleston the last 7 years, sees himself as an advocate and knowledgeable of civil law. He's traveled to Columbia, he said, to advocate for future constituents. He taught at the College of Charleston for nearly a decade.
The biggest issues for Taylor includes those of livability — getting better crosswalks, road improvements that discourage drivers from speeding, and equalizing services for those with limited incomes. He said he wants to revisit the charter setting up the Charleston Housing Authority.
Both Sakran and Taylor have criticized Lewis for his communication with residents. They said they've heard complaints that Lewis doesn't get back to them. Lewis refuted the claim, adding, "I don't know where they're getting that from."
The election is Nov. 5, but if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will face off in a Nov. 19 runoff.