With a runoff just 10 days away, I’m waiting to hear more from my new friends at Citizens for a Bitter (I mean Better) Charleston LLC. Or maybe the Committee for Livability, whoever that is.
In the final days before last week’s election, my mailbox was awash in flashy fliers and postcards saying all kinds of mean things about the mayor. John Tecklenburg ripped off a little old lady. He “cozied up” to developers. He didn’t fix flooding!
South Carolina’s late, great dirty trickster Lee Atwater would have been underwhelmed, and it took The Post and Courier’s City Hall reporter Mikaela Porter about a minute and a half to track this anonymous hit job back to Jeff Leath, Mike Seekings’ former long-time law partner. Seekings said he was just as surprised as everyone else.
“I got it the same as everybody did in my mailbox. It’s not my style,” he told me. “I didn’t like it.”
The strong leader Seekings has promised the voters would have told his friend and office mate to knock it off. But the tabloid garbage kept coming.
It’s completely fair to hold Tecklenburg accountable for his record — that’s what elections are about. Tecklenburg’s decision to float himself and his wife loans from an elderly ex-teacher whose finances he was overseeing showed incredibly poor judgment, even if it eventually worked out OK for the lady. Any opponent should be challenging the incumbent over his record on development, flooding and traffic.
But Seeking (or his helpers) didn’t do that. Instead of taking on Tecklenburg directly, he allowed some opaque proxy group — nothing more than a post office box — to do it for him. Politicians know voters don’t like negative campaigning, but they know, too, that it works. And, besides, doing it himself would invite scrutiny of his own record on many of the same issues.
Take hotels, for instance.
“In 2015, John Tecklenburg ran for mayor on a promise to freeze hotel development,” Citizens for a Bitter Charleston said in its mailer. “Tecklenburg broke his pledge: Thousands of new hotel rooms since he took office.”
Tecklenburg did campaign on a one-year hotel moratorium, but it was City Council that buried it and several later attempts to curb hotel construction. Seekings was prominent among the nays.
“Hotel moratorium?” podcaster Quintin Washington asked in an interview in March 2016.
“Unnecessary,” Seekings replied.
Dig through the transcripts of City Council meetings in Tecklenburg’s first year and it’s clear Seekings was hardly leading the charge against the hotels. In a February 2016 meeting, Seekings said council had already done much of the hard work three years earlier by taking 74 parcels out of the accommodations district, leaving just six sites available for hotels on the peninsula. Six? Think again, councilman.
In August, Seekings again criticized Tecklenburg’s “Band-Aid” approach aimed at the wrong problem. “We’re not getting overrun by hotels,” he said. “We’re getting overrun by cars. That’s what we have to address.”
It wasn’t until election eve, with hotel rooms multiplying like Trump tweets, that Seekings and the council finally got on board with an ordinance limiting hotel growth.
Which brings us to all those developers and all that money.
“It’s clear: As mayor, Tecklenburg has cozied up to the developers who fund his campaign — nearly $100,000 in campaign cash,” Bitter Charleston’s mailer said.
What’s also clear is that Seekings banked plenty of $1,000 checks from developers himself, including from the South Carolina Realtors PAC. In all, I count about $85,000 in developer donations to Seekings, meaning a higher percentage of his money came from developers than Tecklenburg’s.
None of this is surprising. Willie Sutton famously said he robbed banks because that is where the money is. Local politicians turn to developers for the same reason. And few are going to bite the hand that feeds them.
Agree or disagree with my take on Sundays, you will always find my name attached to everything I write. It’s a good practice whether you’re writing a column or running for office.
Steve Bailey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @sjbailey1060.