After getting trounced in a Charleston City Council election that featured some negative tactics, Councilwoman Anne Frances Bleecker has proposed new regulations for campaign ethics and civility, enforced by a new commission appointed by the mayor.
"I am completely at peace with my loss, and will exit gracefully in January, but I wanted to do something to say this is not how we do business in Charleston," Bleecker said.
Opponents of the proposed ordinance think it's unnecessary and that it limits free speech, and they worry that the proposed commission would be allied with the mayor.
The commission could issue public reprimands and fine candidates up to $500.
Bleecker said the ordinance is necessary and respects the First Amendment.
"It's proactive in that it makes a statement that the city doesn't approve of the tearing down of campaign signs and sending out mailers with malicious lies," she said. "What could be bad about civility and ethics? Who would vote against that?"
But Tim Mallard, who captured 63 percent of the vote to win Bleecker's City Council seat, said he doesn't see the need for new campaign regulations.
"For my part, I found my first election last month to be an altogether pleasant experience which allowed me to meet thousands of my neighbors for the first time," Mallard said, after learning of the proposed ordinance Monday. "I don't think city of Charleston elections are any less civil than all other elections, and given our city's historic reputation for gracious hospitality, our elections are probably more civil than others."
During the campaign, Mallard's literature falsely accused Bleecker of violating regulations for obtaining a downtown parking permit, and on the eve of the election told voters Bleecker "has embarked upon a misleading desperation campaign based on personal attacks."
Mallard supporters circulated e-mails containing photographs of Bleecker's car and repeating the parking sticker allegation, while Bleecker supporters sent out e-mails noting Mallard's arrests on drunken driving charges.
Bleecker said she never authorized staff or supporters to talk about Mallard's DUI charges.
Marc Knapp, a frequent and sharp-tongued candidate who ran for mayor of Charleston this year and once ran against Bleecker, said the proposed ordinance "is about as totalitarian as you can get."
"Free speech is a very, very protected right in this country, and these guys are trying to quell free speech," said Knapp. "That's like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and the rest of them. Anne Frances is, I guess, exceptionally (angry) about losing the election," he said.
Councilman Larry Shirley of West Ashley, who has won five City Council elections, said he thinks the ordinance is unnecessary, and said it might be illegal.
Shirley noted that opponents of Mayor Joe Riley have been on the receiving end of negative campaigning, such as when then-Councilman Robert George was accused by former state lawmaker Herbert Fielding of being a racist, in a campaign mailing that supported Riley-ally Kathleen Wilson during a runoff election.
George lost the election by a razor-thin margin and sued Fielding for defamation. In August, a judge sided with Fielding. George said at the time that he planned on appealing the decision. Shirley questioned how a committee appointed by the mayor would have ruled on that campaign mailing.
"The thing would be jury-rigged from the beginning," Shirley said.
"I think everyone proposing to be elected should have the right to say what they want to say," he said. "I think the intent of the ordinance, to a degree, has some civility in it, but this is not kindergarten."
City Council meets at 5 p.m. today at City Hall, 80 Broad St.