Whether Charleston gets the election-year debate about flooding it deserves may be decided in, of all places, a courtroom in Beaufort.
Mike Seekings, a marathon runner, is the most plausible and hungriest challenger to take on John Tecklenburg in the mayor’s race. But given the advantages of incumbency and the disadvantages of being a councilman not from West Ashley, Seekings will need a Hail Mary pass to get seriously into the conversation in an election that is now only nine months away.
And that is why that Beaufort courtroom matters. It could be his ace in the hole or a reason to fold his hand.
Seeking has spent 13 years pressing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 4,700 homeowners in the giant Hilton Head retirement community of Sun City. Now that lottery ticket may be about to pay off big-time — and could help even the odds a bit in his challenge to Tecklenburg.
A hearing is set for mid-April for approval of a $46 million settlement against South Carolina State Plastering LLC, its insurers and others over defects in the stucco exteriors in the homes. Four lawyers will equally divide a third of that — about $15 million — and as the lead attorney Seekings, 58, is in line for the biggest payday of his life.
That windfall could allow him to do some things Tecklenburg, at 63, can’t. Miles behind the mayor in fundraising for a campaign that is going to cost $1 million (Tecklenburg raised $100,000 in a single night at The Schoolhouse in West Ashley last month), Seekings could match contributions dollar for dollar. And it could even allow him to pledge not to take the mayor’s $188,722 salary — something Tecklenburg can’t afford to do.
Nothing is done until it’s done, and the settlement could well fall apart if enough homeowners opt out at the April 18 court hearing. This is a deal that was supposed to be done last summer, and still it’s not. If it collapses or is delayed, Seekings might feel obligated to stick with the clients he has represented for more than a decade and pass, yet again, on the mayor’s race.
What would a Tecklenburg-Seekings matchup look like? They gave us a sneak preview recently in dueling PowerPoint presentations. The short take: It’s all about flooding, what else?
In an unconventional State of the City address, the mayor offered a slideshow on how we got here and what his administration is doing to meet the ‘’existential threat’’ Charleston faces as the seas rise. Coincidentally or not, Seekings offered his own PowerPoint presentation a day earlier at a ‘’Councilman’s Night In’’ at the College of Charleston.
“Along with funding, what we lack currently is a clear plan and sense of urgency,” Seekings said. “Who is best to devise and implement that plan should be the subject of public debate.”
The presentations were strikingly similar, right down to identical maps of old Charleston, photos from deep inside the drainage tunnels and a travelogue on their visit with the Dutch.
But Seekings — or anyone else for that matter — has yet to offer a compelling narrative about what they can do that Tecklenburg isn’t already doing.
Under Tecklenburg, the city has improved routine drainage maintenance and hurricane preparation and is creating a city flood department. The Army Corps of Engineers is doing a three-year study that could eventually unlock federal dollars for the peninsula.
What he hasn’t done in three years is raise almost any new money to address the flooding crisis. And still to be determined is if the city has a handle on the costs, Exhibit A being the $43 million overrun on the Crosstown drainage project.
If Seekings — or anyone else — has an alternative vision for Charleston, now is the moment to stand up and say so.
Otherwise, they should get behind the mayor and get to work. The water waits for no one.
Steve Bailey writes for the Commentary page. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @sjbailey.com.