Charleston Election

Marcus Amaker votes at Burke High School Tuesday, November 19, 2019, during the runoff election for Charleston mayor and district 3 council race. Brad Nettles/Staff

This year's Charleston municipal election saw a national trend hit home: campaign spending by organizations beyond candidates' control.

Aside from the $280,000 in contributions cumulatively raised in City Council races, and the roughly $1.7 million raised in the 6-way mayoral race, the city's elections saw more non-candidate spending than ever before, at least in recent memory.

The spending paid for mailers, radio ads, robo-calls and polling. 

Third parties — groups not connected to a particular candidate — raised at least $61,000 this fall and spent at least $24,000, though the actual amount may never be known.

That's because only one of these third party groups, Lowcountry Livability PAC, reported the money it raised and spent to the State Ethics Commission, which listed the PAC's donors and expenses on the commission's website.

The committee's efforts paid off: It endorsed five candidates in Charleston's City Council races, and four won, including newcomers Jason Sakran (District 3), Karl Brady Jr. (District 5) and Ross Appel (District 11).

The committee also endorsed incumbent Councilman Peter Shahid, who maintained his seat.

But for the second time in 10 years, dark money entered Charleston's local election under registered limited liability corporations like Citizens for a Better Charleston or without any record at all, like The Committee for Leadership Integrity, and others.

Because of court rulings, such groups do not have to disclose their donors, nor are their donors subject to the $1,000 per donor per election limit that applies to city candidates.

Citizens for a Better Charleston sent out targeted mailers against Mayor John Tecklenburg and played radio ads. Some ads, created by the Committee for Leadership Integrity, targeted a City Council candidate in District 3.

It isn't illegal to form an LLC, collect money and send out campaign-related literature, but it leaves an unsavory taste for some. Tecklenburg criticized the spending.

The rise of such outside spending shouldn't come as a shock, said College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts.

Last year's Charleston County School Board elections also were noted for big spending from a third party group, the Charleston Coalition for Kids. That organization vastly outspent the candidates themselves, and its chosen slate of four candidates all won.

"It's not surprising that this is happening more at the local level," Knotts said. "It's something that's happening in national politics. What happens locally ends up mirroring what's happening at the state and national level."

The third party groups may be moving into a void left when longtime Charleston Mayor Joe Riley exited City Hall. While Riley rarely, if ever, made public endorsements in City Council races, his grip on the local political scene was tight, and most council members worked well with him.

As a new face, Tecklenburg has not enjoyed as much cooperation. His mayoral opponents this year included two sitting City Council members; three other council members endorsed the mayoral campaign of Councilman Gary White.

In 2017, as frictions between Tecklenburg and council members were becoming clear, the Lowcountry Livability PAC formed. It includes seven members, and one of its first successes was the election of Councilwoman Carol Jackson in District 12 two years ago.

Dana Beach, one of the Lowcountry Livability PAC's members, thought this year's council race outcomes were better than the group had hoped. 

He was careful not to overstate the PAC's influence in those outcomes, but Beach said he feels the PAC "gave people an opportunity to express their concerns and their hopes for this new council in an organized and intelligent way." 

The candidates they selected — Sakran, Brady, Christian King, Shahid and Appel — were candidates that wanted to create solutions, not cause a gridlock on projects and ordinances in City Council chambers, he said. 

"It's a new day for the City Council," Beach said. "I think we will not have the kind of grandstanding and obstructionism that has been the hallmark of city council for the past four years."

Though District 7 challenger Christian King didn't win against incumbent Councilman Keith Waring, Beach still saw it as a success of sorts: She came within 178 votes of Waring (a 56-44 margin).

In Appel's, Brady's and Sakran's races, the Livability PAC spent money on flyers, robo-calls and website ads. For Shahid's and King's races, the PAC gave the candidates $1,000 each, the maximum allowed, Beach said. 

Beach said Shahid was the sole incumbent to win a Livability PAC endorsement because "he's really been a leader in trying to solve problems and not cause them."

Beach said the new era of local government is different from that of former Mayor Riley, and it's one that takes an involved electorate. 

For Knotts, the College of Charleston professor, transparency is key. 

"I'd rather there not be so much money in politics, but, if there's going to be money, I think it's important that what the groups are spending and who their donors are is known," Knotts said.

"I think people have a First Amendment right to advocate for candidates," he said, "but voters should have an understanding who the group is supported by."

However, state lawmakers have been reluctant to approve bills that would require more transparency.

In Knotts' independent exit polling on Election Day, he and his colleagues found the top issues on voters' minds were livability and over-development, so he said it wasn't surprising that candidates endorsed by a political action committee focused on livability and over-development saw success.

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Reach Mikaela Porter at 843-937-5906. Follow her on Twitter @mikaelaporterPC. 

Mikaela Porter joined The Post and Courier in April 2019 and writes about the city of Charleston. Previously, Mikaela reported on breaking news, local government, school issues and community happenings for The Hartford Courant in Hartford, Conn.