State of City sets stage for series of last-year tributes to Riley

Grand Marshal, Tommy Baker of Baker Motors Company walks with Mayor Joe Riley at the start of the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday parade Monday January 19, 2015. (Grace Beahm/Staff)

It was a moment of history for Charleston, but Joe Riley didn’t seem to notice.

In fact, the mayor looked nervous as he stood at the podium waiting to begin the live telecast of his 39th and last State of the City address.

The ornate City Council chambers had grown quiet as the television lights went up, leaving the dean of America’s mayors alone in the center of a very crowded room.

Joe Riley waited for his cues, oblivious to the crowd’s focused and silent attention on him as he fidgeted through some last minute rehearsing of his written speech.

But his audience sensed a special moment, the mayor’s final State of the City message, the beginning of the end of a remarkable political tenure — and the beginning of legacy accounting.

The room was packed with Riley’s family and friends — and all but one of the announced and probable candidates who will soon campaign to replace him.

The mayor was on task, looking like the runner nervous for his race to begin — not a preening politician preparing for a victory lap.

No fancy teleprompter and no digitized notebooks, he would deliver his final State of the City message the old-fashioned way — from words written on paper with a softly-cadenced and earnest voice.

Whatever the crowd’s expectations about “history,” Joe Riley was at work and seemingly eager to get on with it.

Last week, Gov. Nikki Haley sent a plane to Washington to fetch Mayor Riley from a conference of U.S. mayors and back to the State Capitol where she honored him in her State of the State message. The General Assembly gave him a standing ovation.

Surely these are heady times for Joseph Patrick Riley Jr.

And folks want to be a part of these torch-passing moments.

But a State of the City is a work-product and Joe Riley was on duty.

The telecast director called for sound and lighting checks. The mayor obliged, often looking down to exchange smiles with his wife Charlotte, sons, Bratton and Joe III, and his 9-year-old granddaughter Mary Gail. They had front row gallery seats.

Those who noticed these exchanges were reminded that Joe Riley, the legendary mayor, is also Joe Riley, the private and devoted family man. He and Charlotte will soon celebrate their 48th wedding anniversary. Last Tuesday was Mrs. Riley’s first attendance at one of her husband’s State of the City messages.

His 2015 speech was a summary of highlights of major public works and parks projects planned and underway: He touted the architectural beauty and functionality of the Gaillard Auditorium complex; he declared that public safety was city government’s most important priority; he mentioned the merits of completing Interstate 526; he reiterated the importance of deepening Charleston Harbor and nurturing the competitiveness of the Port of Charleston; he profiled the opportunities and special challenges of the evolving “entertainment district” on upper King Street; and he discussed growth frontiers west of the Ashley and on Johns Island.

He generally avoided controversy, such as the cruise terminal expansion plans, but he did use the words “amazing” and “wonderful” dozens of times to describe city employees and civic leaders.

It was a brisk garden-variety agenda speech for a mayor who surely understands he’s tacking toward his finish line.

If he was messaging at all about endings and beginnings, it was the signal that he intends to finish strong in a job he started in 1975.

We can believe he’ll do just that, but Charleston is beginning a year of salutes and ovations for a mayor elected and re-elected 10 times — and a lively municipal election season that will determine who’s next.

History is unfolding in the Holy City. It’ll be interesting to watch.

Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, is a North Charleston city councilman. He can be reached at rbrin1013@gmail.com.