One campaign ends and another begins. Or does it?
The next time Charlestonians go to the polls will be in a year to elect a mayor. And unlikely as it may seem, the odds are increasing that Mayor John Tecklenburg will be unopposed for a second term.
That would be unhealthy for the city whether you think Tecklenburg has done a good job or bad. Elections are how we have civic conversations about where we are and where we are headed. And there is much to talk about — starting with where are we going to get the money to save the city from the rising tides?
The idea that Tecklenburg, 63, might run unopposed next November would have seemed preposterous through most of his first three years as mayor. The wise guys dubbed him ‘’One-Term Teck,’’ and the conventional wisdom was always that you wanted to be the guy who followed the guy who followed Joe Riley. Tecklenburg was supposed to be our transitional mayor.
But that kind of skepticism ignores history. The closest thing Riley faced to a real challenge in 40 years as mayor was when he was first elected in 1975, easily defeating Nancy Hawk. He was unopposed for his second and third terms and again in 1991. It has been six decades since an incumbent lost a bid for re-election when Palmer Gaillard beat Mayor William McG. Morrison by just 455 votes in 1959.
Unseating a mayor is difficult. Start with this: The mayor runs a government with about 1,900 employees, no small number when you consider Tecklenburg needed little more than 10,000 votes in a city of 135,000 to win. Better to work for the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
And then there’s the money. In the race to succeed Riley, first-time candidate Tecklenburg outraised Leon Stavrinakis $1.4 million to $1.2 million, and coasted to victory with 58 percent of the vote. Fundraising will be harder this time: The developers, lawyers and business owners with the deep pockets to write big checks are less likely to do that against an incumbent.
Just a year ago Tecklenburg had only $10,500 in his campaign account. The latest report shows he has $259,000 in the bank a year before the election. In March alone, 112 individuals and companies from Broad Street to Atlanta to New York wrote the mayor $1,000 checks.
His most-often mentioned rivals lag far behind. City Councilmen Mike Seekings had $53,000 on hand at his last report, and Keith Waring had $10,500. Stavrinakis had $43,000 at the end of October and probably less today after his re-election campaign to the Legislature.
Just as 9/11 redefined George Bush’s new administration, so it was for Tecklenburg. As a candidate in 2015, Tecklenburg’s top issues were traffic, education and housing. Then came the 1,000-year flood and hurricanes Matthew and Irma. Flooding suddenly became everyone’s No. 1 issue.
Tecklenburg has, in fact, taken ownership of Charleston’s flooding crisis. As the near miss of Florence showed, the city has learned how to better prepare for big storms, whether by lowering the level of Colonial Lake or positioning portable pumps in the most vulnerable neighborhoods. Routine maintenance has improved. His plan for a standalone flood department is overdue, and reconstruction of the Low Battery, ignored for years by the last guy, is scheduled to start next year — at considerably less than the estimated $100 million price.
What Tecklenburg has failed to do in three years is find new money to fund the flooding fixes. A $2 million-a-year hike in the wastewater fee isn’t going to get it done. He has so far been unable to convince the Legislature to give the city more flexibility in spending tourism taxes for flooding, and even if he does it is just moving money around. This can’t continue.
To win, any challenger must convince voters they have a plan to find the money — and take a tougher line on new development that exacerbates flooding in places like West Ashley and Johns Island. So far, no one is standing up with an alternative vision. Given the need to raise $1 million or more, candidates are probably going to have to fish or cut bait by the end of the year.
Waring, Tecklenburg’s most consistent critic on the council, said he thought ‘’several people’’ would run for mayor. ‘’As of now, I am not,’’ he told me. Worth noting: Waring, 63, is up for re-election and would have to give up his council seat for a long-shot bid at becoming mayor.
Seekings, 58, has made no secret about his ambition to be mayor. He dodged the question about his own plans, but said: ‘’I can imagine no scenario under which the next race for mayor is uncontested.’’
After that it is a very short list. Stavrinakis, who was trounced by Tecklenburg, declined to comment. Dana Beach, founder of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, and County Councilman Brantley Moody, son of City Councilman Bill Moody, say they aren’t in.
All elections come down to the same question in the end: Compared to what? The city needs a choice next November.
Steve Bailey writes for the Commentary page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @sjbailey1060.