COLUMBIA — South Carolina Democrats looked back at the 40-year career of longtime Charleston Mayor Joe Riley on Friday night, calling him a beacon for the party and a visionary leader at the party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner.
Speakers, including U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, heaped praise as they honored Riley and his storied career.
Riley, though, took his remarks in a different direction.
Living up to his reputation as a leader with boundless energy and enthusiasm, the longtime mayor mostly wanted to look forward to perhaps his greatest yet-to-be-finished project: a campaign for a new African American Museum in Charleston.
“I’ve been working on it 15 years. I’m a slow worker,” Riley said to laughs. “And it will honor 250, 300 years later, it will honor those who came, they and their descendants who helped build this great country.”
Riley also shared some insight into leadership, saying a key is “understanding the hearts of the people he or she serves ... Not looking at polls and not dithering about the next election.”
Decisions need to be made trying to imagine what they mean 50 or 100 years down the road, Riley said.
The dinner surveyed Riley’s career through part of a documentary called “The Mayor,” his son Bratton Riley and U.S. Rep. Clyburn.
Clyburn said Riley was an early supporter when he first ran for a Statehouse seat, at a time when the General Assembly was all white, one of many stories about Riley’s fight for civil rights.
“Joe is a great innovator, compassionate, caring mayor but better than that he is all those things as a person,” Clyburn said.
Riley, who is retiring this year, was held out as a beacon of what is possible for Democrats, as the party seeks to rebuild after its 2014 trouncing and diminished numbers in the Statehouse.
Riley entered Charleston politics at a divisive time. In the 1970s, the city was divided, often along racial lines. Riley worked to bring people together and grow the city at a time when people around the country were flocking to live in suburbs.
He gradually brought them back, managing a tap dance not often successful in modern politics: staying scandal free and keeping a majority content with his leadership. He did so while pushing the envelope and making tough decisions, Democrats said.
In 2000, Riley led a march from Charleston to Columbia to demand the Confederate flag come down from atop the Statehouse. He and others succeeded.
Riley was as adept at those grand gestures as the laborious details of urban planning — no detail was too small for his consideration, from sidewalk building to poring over architectural plans with a perfectionist’s panache.
R.T. Rybak, the former mayor of Minneapolis, Minn., for 12 years, told the Democratic attendees that he marveled at Riley’s energy for a job that can be draining and demanding. Rybak remembers seeing Riley at a conference in 2013, bounding around the room with a legal pad, brimming with new ideas to bring back to the Holy City.
Rybak said in an earlier interview that many mayors around the country view Riley as a mentor. The Riley legacy, Rybak said, goes beyond Charleston.
“Make a beautiful place but make sure everyone can access it,” Rybak said of Riley’s philosophy. “You can see Joe Riley’s imprint on cities all across America.”
Brian Hicks contributed to this report. Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.