Mayor's auto pitch generates questions

Keith Summey

When you hear North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey's voice on the radio, it's normal to think it's connected to a political sort of pitch.

Last week, though, it was endorsing Volkswagens.

Summey took to the airwaves as an unpaid pitchman for Stokes Volkswagen in North Charleston. In scripted praise, the recently re-elected six-term mayor spoke of the business's good corporate citizenship and overall dependability. "They go above and beyond to exceed before and after your purchase," Summey said.

While Summey was not compensated, his advocacy role stepped into rare ground among Lowcountry politicians in publicly endorsing a specific brand and dealer -- something political watchers say is a questionable public display of corporate favoritism.

"He's giving an endorsement to this automaker, and Summey is an position where he should not be doing this sort of thing," said College of Charleston communications professor Chris Lamb.

"He's saying 'I like these cars better than those other cars,' " Lamb added. "I think a mayor of a town should show better judgment than that."

Summey said the decision to become a spokesman was simple, reasoning that since Stokes pays property, sales and business taxes to the city, he wanted to show support. Plus, they asked him to, he said.

"I'll do it for any dealer that asks in North Charleston," he said. "If I can encourage any business in North Charleston, I think that's part of my job."

Stokes VW General Manager Travis Westbury said he wanted to feature a local figure and asked Summey "primarily because he's got a big following in the community."

Because Summey took no money or other compensation for his participation, the endorsement is not covered by state ethics requirements. If he had been paid, he would have to abstain from matters Stokes might bring to City Hall, the Ethics Commission said. On the political front, no Stokes are listed as election donors to Summey, according to the most recent available campaign disclosure reports.

Summey, who has also done commercial endorsements for the Tanger Outlet Mall in North Charleston, said he's open to doing similar ads for other businesses, equating his support to being on hand for a new store ribbon cutting.

Lamb, however, said a door has been opened for potential conflict of interest concerns down the road because of Summey's commercial radio endorsement.

"I wonder if Summey weren't the mayor, and instead owned a struggling dealership next to the Volkswagen dealer, would he approach this differently?" Lamb said.