Riley used successful 2007 blueprint

Mayor Joe Riley, who had little trouble earning a 10th term as Charleston mayor, chatted outside a polling site Tuesday with campaign chairman Capers Barr.

During the past 36 years, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has converted his former political adversaries -- white suburban Republicans --into the bloc that has given him his re-election landslides.

Riley's first few mayoral bids in the 1970s succeeded with strong support from Democrats and African-American voters.

Unofficial results show that he won almost all of the city's 90 precincts Tuesday -- with his largest margins coming from the predominantly white enclaves of James Island, West Ashley and Daniel Island.

Riley's first mayoral bids were partisan contests. He ran as a Democrat against Republican Nancy Hawk, and he ran on a platform of racial healing that caused some to give him the nickname "Little Black Joe."

But the city moved away from partisan races after 1995, and Riley's last two re-election bids were quite different.

This year, as in 2007, Riley's chief opponent was City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, a retired housing administrator who was seeking to become the city's first black mayor.

Race played little role in the politicking, as candidates rarely, if ever, discussed it during their campaigns.

But race was reflected in the results. On Tuesday, as in November 2007, Gregorie came closest in predominantly black precincts.

He eked out narrow wins in a few precincts in his home turf south of Hampton Park, including precincts that vote at Burke High and Mitchell Elementary schools.

Gregorie also won the predominantly black precinct that voted at St. John's High School, and he came in a close second at other largely black precincts that voted at the W.L. Stephens Aquatic Center and St. Andrews Middle School.

Gregorie said the results reminded him of what happened in 2007, when he and Riley split the black vote and Riley cleaned up in white precincts.

College of Charleston political science professor Andy Felts said he is not surprised that Riley continues to hold his own in black precincts, because many remember his earlier record on racial healing and his support for affordable housing.

Jerome Smalls, of the group People United to Live and Let Live, held up handmade protest signs outside Riley's campaign headquarters Tuesday afternoon. Smalls criticized the mayor because downtown has fewer black residents these days.

Smalls also said he was not backing any of the mayor's opponents either. "None of the candidates are talking about gentrification," he said.

That Riley -- still seen by many as one of South Carolina's most prominent Democrats -- fared well in traditional GOP areas was not necessarily a surprise.

Several current and former Republicans on Charleston City Council had endorsed him last week.

And Riley found some of his strongest support on Daniel Island, where he won over Gregorie by an 8-1 ratio.

In largely white precincts that vote at West Ashley High School, C.E. Williams Middle and Harborview Elementary schools, he beat Gregorie more than 3-1.

And Riley's support of cruise ships apparently didn't cost him much either. He won the Charleston precincts whose neighborhood associations have filed suit against Carnival Cruise Lines, though those wins were by 2-1 ratios.

"It's sometimes difficult to see how deep some of that (anti-cruise) sentiment goes," Felts said. "I've heard people say this before, that there are so many things that Mayor Riley has done that he deserves a pass on some things."

Overall, the results show that neither cruise ships nor flooding on the Crosstown expressway nor Riley's lengthy tenure got the electorate very worked up -- Tuesday's 20 percent turnout was lower than it has been since the mayor ran unopposed in 1991.

"My base perception is that Mayor Riley had pretty well figured out what he needed to do for this election," Felts said, "and that was to stay below the radar."