This summer’s racially-motivated shooting deaths of nine black worshippers inside Emanuel AME Church first affected Charleston’s mayor’s race by shutting down the campaigns for weeks as the city dealt with the funerals and widespread grief.
On Friday, it shaped the race in a different way before more than 225 people at Burke High School.
All six mayoral candidates appeared together on stage there to discuss many of the city’s persistent racial disparities and how they would address them, if elected.
If the Mayoral Forum on Race Equity was not organized directly in response to the Emanuel shootings, the crime gave its organizers a renewed sense of urgency.
Garcia Williams, the YWCA’s interim executive director, said while her organization’s long-standing goal has been ending racism, “that (Emanuel) tragedy woke us up both to the incredible connectiveness in Charleston and the incredible inequity in Charleston.”
Cathryn Zommer, executive director of Enough Pie, a nonprofit focused on the upper peninsula, called race equity “one of Charleston’s greatest challenges and one of our greatest opportunities.”
“Mayor (Joe) Riley (who is leaving office after serving for 40 years) has done a phenomenal job, and we all connected with him in a special way,” Zommer said, “but how will that connectedness transcend to the next administration?”
The six candidates hoping to take Riley’s place took turns trying to explain just that, particularly as it pertains to education, career opportunities, policing, gentrification, homeownership, wages and transportation. All agreed inequities persist.
When Susan Dunn of the ACLU asked about why so many more blacks were arrested and remained in jail for minor offenses, many candidates appeared surprised by the numbers.
City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie said, “Unlike other candidates, I can do something now. I’m a City Council member, and I’d like to get with you after this meeting to talk about those numbers.”
Candidates also were asked about how they would tackle gentrification, as a Post and Courier graphic on an overhead screen showed, the peninsula’s black population has dropped from 28,031 in 1980 to 10,455 in 2010.
Nonprofit organizer Toby Smith said this was the first mayoral forum to prioritize that issue, and she put the onus back on the audience to push for change.
“The power of dealing with gentrification rests with you,” she said. “You’ve got to stand up and scream, and I’ll be right there along with you.” She also said she supported zoning changes to address the issue.
Former City Councilman Maurice Washington said he didn’t support forcing the private sector to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, but he would try to raise people’s pay through education and workforce development. “Serious money. Serious partnership. Serious resources,” he said.
Businessman John Tecklenburg said he would try to improve career prospects for the city’s high school graduates by using the city’s support of the Digital Corridor and the WestEdge development as leverage to urge them to offer more programs and apprenticeships that could lead to good jobs.
“We have these high tech and knowledge based businesses, and they’re getting a deal from the city. They’re getting reduced rent,” he said. “There should be some quid pro quo.”
The forum’s first question, posed by a member of Black Lives Matter, asked the candidates how they would address housing and business inequities that persisted under Mayor Riley.
Ginny Deerin, founder of WINGS for Kids, said she worked for decades with Riley, who told her nothing important can be done without the city’s African-American community at the table, but added, “In actuality, I don’ think that has happened.”
Deerin said the city’s approximately 120 boards and commissions do not have enough diversity, and she would work to change that “because voices need to be heard.”
Asked how they personally promoted unity and racial equality in their own life, state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis talked about how his parents’ downtown restaurant often fed those who were hungry and how he tried to fight injustice as both a lawmaker and a lawyer.
He then referred to a conversation he had with his family after nine people were killed inside Emanuel AME.
“Nothing made me more proud than my daughter saying to me, ‘Dad, why would anybody shoot someone because of what color they are?’ ”
The forum was sponsored by the Ketner Fund for Social Justice, the Coastal Community Foundation and hosted by Enough Pie, the S.C. Association for Community Economic Development, and the YWCA of Greater Charleston.
The election is Nov. 3.
Reach Robert Behre at (843) 937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.