‘Out and proud’ crowd hears candidates

The seven candidates for Charleston mayor -- Maurice Washington (from left), Ginny Deerin, Leon Stavrinakis, Paul Tinkler, William D. Gregorie, John Tecklenburg and Toby Smith -- took a break from the political issues for some laughter during the Alliance for Full Acceptance debate at the Charleston Marriott Hotel Wednesday night. Wade Spees/Staff July 29, 2015

Charleston’s gay community heard from the seven people who want to be the city’s next mayor during a forum Wednesday night where candidate Ginny Deerin said she’s long been a supporter of gay rights.

She started her address by asking the more than 250 people who’d gathered in a downtown hotel ballroom who are “out and proud” to stand up and be counted.

“It is all of us who have brought us to where we are today,” she said, while raising her own hand to applause from the audience.

Statehouse Democrat lawmaker Leon Stavrinakis added that he felt the equality movement is “a great thing” and “I embrace it fully now.”

Later in the evening, he conceded that he had not always openly supported gay marriage in his political career but has changed his advocacy over time.

“It’s been a journey for a lot of us,” he said.

How the candidates perceive gay South Carolinians was the main focus in the gathering sponsored by the Alliance for Full Acceptance, the largest gay-rights organization in the Charleston area.

For about 90 minutes, the candidates took turns trying to promote their platforms as each competes to succeed Mayor Joe Riley who is retiring after 40 years. The nonpartisan election is in November.

Traffic concerns, support for the alternative car service Uber — which was widely embraced by the candidates — were all touched on at the Marriott Hotel on Lockwood Drive. But much of the questioning was geared toward how each views advancing equal rights.

“We’re all God’s children, we’re created equally,” said former City Councilman Maurice Washington in describing his attitude to gay members of the Charleston community.

Current Charleston City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie took partial credit for the city making sexual orientation a protected class in terms of housing and accommodations.

“We have to make discrimination costly,” he added, pointing to the threat of launching potentially expensive lawsuits against those who do.

Dudley Gregorie also promised to take the idea of moving the annual gay rights parade from August, the hottest month of the year, to a cooler time. The parade is this Saturday.

Businessman John Tecklenburg said he advocated the city adopting a more expansive policy that goes beyond accommodations discrimination, to require prohibitions against job discrimination for companies that provide goods and services to the city. He pointed to Myrtle Beach as a leader in the area.

He also doubted the mood of the Legislature as ready to do much about enacting protections against all forms of discrimination. “If you’re going to love everyone, you don’t love your straight neighbor and not your gay neighbor,” he said.

“They are my friends and relatives,” former city councilman and lawyer Paul Tinkler said of the gay community, adding he would happily take a gay-rights legal defense case if one were to walk into his office.

Gay rights weren’t the only focus. Toby Smith, a West Ashley resident and grant writer, said she wanted to be mayor to represent city residents who are being left behind economically in the new prosperity.

“I don’t see the push back against the gentrification efforts,” she said, adding she wanted to help “the people who don’t vote, the disenfranchised.”

There were also some light moments during the evening, including when Tinkler suggested that Dudley Gregorie has done such a good job on City Council he should probably stay there.

Dudley Gregorie also warned voters to be cautious in their evaluations, since a lot of promises are going to be made on the campaign trial.

“Judge by our ‘fruit,’ ” he said, “not our ‘toot.’”

Filing for the mayor’s races doesn’t open until Aug. 3 and closes Aug. 17. The election is Nov. 3, and if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will meet in a Nov. 17 runoff.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551