SUMMERVILLE — For a town in the homestretch of a Nov. 5 election that could chart its course from a historic, small municipality to a growing metropolis, the 2019 mayoral race has been surprisingly cordial.
Public events are steeped in southern charm, and when the candidates disagree, they do so without being disagreeable.
An issues-based campaign mostly devoid of the vitriol that often consumes state and national politics, the four-man race to replace the controversial Mayor Wiley Johnson has centered around how to move the 30-square-mile town forward.
The challenges facing the town, as the candidates mostly agree, can be solved by using the mayor's office to bring Town Council back together to work cohesively. A unified vision — and the temperament to make that vision a reality — is key for governing the Flowertown in the Pines.
It's something candidates — current Dorchester County Councilman Bill Hearn, real estate agent Brandon King, local musician and artist Fleming Moore, and former longtime town fire chief Ricky Waring — say has been missing over the last four years and must return before tackling the growth and traffic concerns that dominate the town's discourse.
A town of fewer than 3,000 people for more than a century, Summerville's population has grown exponentially to more than 56,000 during the past decade. Planning estimates say the town could top 60,000 people in the next three years. All that growth has naturally created growing pains, particularly infrastructure and traffic concerns.
There are more cars on Summerville roads than ever before. Construction projects like the third phase of the Berlin G. Myers Parkway extension have been bogged down in federal permit gridlock since 2006, and the town is struggling to keep up.
"If we continue to do things the way we've been doing them, there's not much more (growth Summerville can handle), honestly," Hearn said. "We've got to get out ahead of this, we've got to plan for this and understand what's happening around us. ... My vision for the town of Summerville is still to keep it preserved and keep that historic look."
A big part of addressing growth, Waring said, is that the town can't continue to remain isolated from its surrounding cities and counties. Local municipalities have to work together to avoid growing in a bubble without regard for what's happening around them.
"I look at it as we are 30 square miles in a 500 square mile county," he said. "We've got to start with Dorchester County, because if we started doing something to control growth in Summerville and Dorchester County does nothing we're wasting our time. You need to get on board together to try and find a way to work with our growth — same with Berkeley County and Charleston County."
Moore, who prides himself on being the only entirely self-funded candidate in the race, cautioned against making promises as a candidate that may not be able to be kept. Summerville has a strong council form of government, meaning that the mayor is only one of seven votes on Town Council.
"I have a plan for traffic. But the voters don't realize the minuscule amount of power the mayor has in a strong council," Moore said. "We're setting them up for disappointment by making those promises, and I'm not making those kinds of promises."
A main aspect of King's plan to manage growth includes implementing an adequate public facilities ordinance, which would try to ensure infrastructure is in place before new developments are allowed.
But implementing an APFO is the platform that has gotten the most public blowback from other candidates, including criticisms of how similar ordinances have played out in other cities around the country.
At a public forum in mid-September, Hearn said he couldn't support such an ordinance because "it hasn't worked. It is tried, it is failed. We need something different and something better than that."
Waring said when he served on Summerville Town Council, council members voted down an APFO. Other cities have found that adequate public facilities ordinances end up handcuffing developers and ultimately increase the price of services. They also have found ill effects in other areas, such as affordable housing.
Nonetheless, King said he still believes it's the way to go to manage Summerville's growth going forward.
"If we can get that infrastructure, and can get the developers to pay for it before everybody comes in, I think it's a very plausible thing that we can get done," he said. "My biggest problem with government contractors is it takes twice as long and it's half as good as a private company doing it."
What the voters say
Jan Martin has lived in Summerville since 1983 but said this is the first time she's been actively involved in a mayoral race. She supports Hearn but said the town is "fortunate that we have some really good men that are running for mayor."
Since Hearn has experience through his current role as a county councilman, he is the candidate best equipped to deal with the town's growth, she said.
"It will help him in the position of mayor where he’s already made connections throughout the town, county and state to start building on the infrastructure and things that need to be done in the future," she said.
Tillman Millhouse Jr. has lived most of his 78 years in Summerville and said he has known Waring for most of that time.
Millhouse said he knows Waring as a man, as a fire chief, as a town councilman and as a community member. And while Millhouse said he gets along well with all four candidates, Waring is the one who has earned his support.
"Anybody who had a problem in any district could call Ricky. He’s a person who’s a people person. He's well qualified, he loves his town and his community, and he has my support," Millhouse said. "Death, marriage, whatever it is, Ricky would be the first person there to see how he could help."
The contest seems to have piqued interest across the town, with a September public forum packing a local coffee shop to the brim and engagement high among all four candidates in Summerville-related social media groups.
Summerville does not have a runoff, so every vote matters on Nov. 5 as the four candidates seek the post.
After having the same mayor for 40 years in the late Berlin G. Myers, the town is still getting used to competitive races every four years. This cycle figures to be as competitive — and expensive — as ever. As of the July financial filing deadline (another is scheduled this week), the race has already has seen triple the money that was spent in 2015.
Hearn and Waring have raised an overwhelming majority of the money, about $73,000 each. They have spent it on advertising and campaign consultants. Moore reported only $250 at the July deadline, which he donated to his campaign and spent on Facebook advertising.
The July filing deadline passed before King formally declared his candidacy.
After Johnson announced in July he wouldn't seek a second term in office, he has stayed away from the race and told The Post and Courier he would not endorse anyone to replace him.
“There are reasons (why), but I think it’s important that I stay somewhat neutral,” he said in September. “It fits in with the strategy that the people of Summerville are going to have to make an independent decision.”
Hearn said the issues will decide the race, adding, "I want to represent all of Summerville regardless of where they live or how long they lived here."
Waring said what sets him apart from this field of candidates is his decades of hands-on experience with the town's government, as well as the fact he can retire, if elected.
"I'm going to be a full-time mayor if I get elected, and I am going to be in that town hall every day," he said.
Current Town Councilman Bill McIntosh praised all four candidates in a Facebook post on Oct. 3 in a political group called Positively Summerville.
He noted Waring's "dedication to community" is unparalleled; Hearn and his wife Libby were "two of the most sincere and genuinely nice people I have ever known;" and spoke of Moore's "passion" for the town. McIntosh wrote that while he did not know King well, he "would be very pleased — honored really — to serve with any of them."
Councilman Aaron Brown posted in the same group that he supports Waring.
"I served on Town Council with him and got to know him well as a common sense decision maker who seeks input from others to build consensus," Brown wrote.
Other council members haven't weighed in publicly, and the race will hinge on which candidate can lure the most of his supporters to the polls on Nov. 5.