Campaigns to replace Riley well underway

A record number of candidates could vie for Charleston Mayor Joe Riley's job in 2015.

No one knows what was Charleston's most crowded mayoral race, but many expect the record - whatever it is - will be broken this year.

The city rarely sees a political vacuum like the one being created by Mayor Joe Riley's decision to leave office after serving a record 40 years. While the election is almost a year away, the campaigning and jockeying are well underway.

College of Charleston political science professor Kendra Stewart said the field almost certainly will be larger than the five who ran in 2011 - and ultimately could contain 10 or more candidates.

"This race is going to generate a lot of attention, not just in Charleston but across the state, because for so long it's been a foregone conclusion as to who is going to be mayor," she said. "This will be the first time in 40 years that the seat is actually open."

Not only are candidates gearing up, but residents and advocacy groups have launched efforts to identify the issues they want the mayoral hopefuls to talk about.

Whitney Powers, a Charleston architect who recently launched the website, ifyouweremayor.com, said Charleston voters have gotten "sort of flabby" in recent years, figuring that Riley had everything under control.

"We're going to set ourselves up for a big disappointment if we don't pick up some of the slack ourselves as a community," she said, adding that the new website and Facebook page "are basically crowd-sourcing ideas people have for what's down the road."

Four candidates have announced and started raising money. They include Charleston businessmen John Tecklenburg and Dick Elliott as well as former City Council members Paul Tinkler and Henry Fishburne.

Tecklenburg already has raised more than $100,000, while Elliott has raised more than $80,000. Tinkler and Fishburne have raised more than $10,000.

Meanwhile, several others are expected to join them soon.

State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, said he is running, although unlike those four, he has not raised enough money to open an account and file with the State Ethics Commission.

State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, said he is getting close to a decision on whether to run. "We'll be making an announcement soon," he said.

City Councilman Mike Seekings said he will make up his mind this month, while Ginny Deerin, who ran Riley's 2011 re-election campaign and recently ran for S.C. Secretary of State, also may run. She already has moved back into the city from Sullivan's Island.

"I am thinking very seriously about it and want to make a final, final decision soon," she said.

Former City Councilman Maurice Washington said he is talking with family members and community leaders about a potential campaign, and current City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, who has run for mayor two times before, might figure the third time is his charm.

"I've never stopped running," Gregorie said, "but I'm not ready to formally announce."

State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, City Council members Dean Riegel and Aubry Alexander said they are not inclined to run but haven't ruled it out. Alexander said he will announce his plans Monday. And other candidates also could emerge long before filing begins Aug. 3.

Others have announced they won't run, including former Rep. Jimmy Bailey, publisher Andy Brack, businesswoman Linda Ketner and council members Bill Moody and Kathleen Wilson.

The first event of the campaign already has been set for Feb. 23, when the Coastal Conservation League, the Historic Charleston Foundation and other nonprofits deeply involved in advocacy on the city level plan to hold a luncheon forum at the Francis Marion Hotel.

Dana Beach, the league's executive director, said the format is still being settled, but the idea is begin a discussion of what the next mayor could - and should - try to do.

"What it reflects is our belief in the magnitude of this election," he said. "Our real interest is getting good ideas out there and having something for candidates to respond to later."

Stewart said the race not only could attract a record number of candidates, but a record amount of heat as they seek to separate themselves from a packed field.

It is expected to be practically impossible for anyone to get the 50 percent plus one margin needed to win the Nov. 3 election, and the top two vote-getters might prevail by firing up particular constituencies, such as West Ashley voters, conservative tea party types, black voters or business interests.

Stewart said Riley has been seen as a figure able to cross a lot of different constituencies and keep tensions between them relatively low, "but having so many candidates representing different areas will create a very different political atmosphere."

While candidates might covet Riley's endorsement, he has said he won't have an heir apparent in the race.

Still, he ultimately may weigh in, particularly after the field is narrowed down to two.

"If there was one candidate that I thought was exceptionally well qualified and a candidate that I thought, you know, had deficiencies that, understanding the job as I know it, would hurt their effectiveness, I may get involved," he said shortly after his last re-election.

Stewart said there is a lot of concern about who is going to follow Riley "and how will they fill his big shoes, to the point there's even fear, and the candidates are going to play on that."

"In my opinion right now, it's anybody's race."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.