Leon Stavrinakis didn’t set out to be a politician, but his parents nudged him toward that path by teaching him that public service was an important part of life.
They didn’t necessarily do that with words, Stavrinakis said last week. They did it by feeding hungry and homeless people at The Coffee Cup, the family restaurant on Meeting Street where Jestine’s Kitchen now stands.
Stavrinakis, 49, has the most political experience among the seven candidates who have filed for the mayoral race or announced they would run. It’s a historic race because the winner will follow the popular, nationally recognized Joe Riley, who will have been at the city’s helm for 40 years when he steps down on Jan. 11.
At his suburban West Ashley home last week, Stavrinakis talked quickly with his wife Anne about schedules over the next few days before she and the couple’s three children rushed out the door to a soccer game.
Then he sat down at the kitchen table and pulled out a yellow legal pad where he had listed the accomplishments and qualities that have prepared him to lead the city. Caesar, a little Italian greyhound, bounced around his ankles begging for attention.
The calm, focused lawyer said he supports improving local roads and public transportation, completing Interstate 526 and investing in West Ashley.
The lifelong Charlestonian also would work to balance economic prosperity with livability, keeping the city from being a victim of its success. And he would champion improving public schools, even though the mayor is not in charge of the school system.
“We need a hands-on mayor who is ready on day one,” he said. “I think I stand out.”
Stavrinakis grew in the suburban Lenevar neighborhood in West Ashley.
The youngest of five children, he recalled an idyllic childhood, riding bikes with his siblings and four cousins who lived nearby.
His father had nothing when he left Greece as a teenager to come to this country, Stavrinakis said. His father worked hard and he did well, opening the restaurant and providing well for his family.
“It was very middle class,” Stavrinakis said of his childhood. And it was all about family. It still is all about family.
But the Stavrinakis children had to work. “We grew up in West Ashley and in that restaurant,” he said, “busing tables and peeling potatoes.”
Stavrinakis said he’s a careful, somewhat reserved person.
“Some of it is natural. I’m analytical,” he said. “But a lot of the time I’m quiet, I’m listening. I listen and make thoughtful decisions.”
He’s been part of the local and state political scene since 1999, when he landed a seat on Charleston County Council. He served on council until 2006, the last two years as chairman.
The Charleston Democrat won the District 119 state House seat in 2007, and has held it since then.
When he was on County Council, he was part of establishing the first urban-growth boundary, a line beyond which intense development isn’t permitted.
He also was part of approving plans to preserve green space, keep the city’s public transportation from going under and pay for infrastructure projects. He’s especially proud of leading an effort to use local-area projects funded by the county’s half-cent sales tax as the required local match money for the Interstate 526 completion project. “It was a dormant project,” he said, but the match plan kick-started it.
At the Statehouse, Stavrinakis said, he continues to be a strong supporter of the controversial highway.
He also said he’s proud of being part of successful legislative efforts such as incentive packages for Boeing and Daimler AG, passing a domestic violence bill, and bringing in funding for the Medical University of South Carolina’s new children’s hospital and an aeronautical training center at Trident Technical College.
One of Stavrinakis’ major accomplishments in the Legislature was writing and sponsoring the Boland Act, which passed and has kept guns out of the hands of many mental health patients known to be dangerously ill.
It’s named for Alice Boland, who tried to fire a handgun at officials at Ashley Hall school in downtown Charleston in 2013. She pulled the trigger, but the gun didn’t go off because no round was in the chamber.
Anna Murray, a parent of an Ashley Hall student who was on campus that day, said she was one of a group of parents supporting the bill and encouraging legislators to pass it. That’s how she met Stavrinakis. “Leon was the first person to respond,” Murray said. “He got on it right away.”
State Rep. Jim Merrill, a Charleston Republican, said he also will vote for Stavrinakis. “Leon can work with Republicans and Democrats,” Merrill said. “He works on the issue.”
The mayor’s race is nonpartisan. But Merrill said Stavrinakis’ stands on fiscal matters will appeal to Republicans and conservatives.
But Stavrinakis has faced some controversies during his years at the Statehouse.
In 2013, the General Assembly elected his brother, local businessman Michael Stavrinakis, to serve on MUSC’s Board of Trustees.
It’s not unusual for family members or others with close ties to legislators to land unpaid positions on college and university boards. But some people in the state and the Legislature frown on the practice, saying legislators feel obligated to support well-connected nominees.
Leon Stavrinakis said there was nothing untoward about his brother landing the post; he campaigned for it on his own, and he’s a hard worker who will do a good job.
He didn’t nominate his brother and abstained from the vote that elected him, he said.
And Stavrinakis in 2007 voted to support the controversial Defining Marriage bill, which proposed a constitutional amendment that makes marriage between a man and woman the only domestic union recognized by the state.
Stavrinakis said he has since changed his position, and now supports gay marriage. And even at the time he cast the vote, he said, he supported domestic unions and domestic partner benefits for gay couples.
Despite these issues, Stavrinakis has a great deal of support for his campaign. He has raised $510,628 so far, more money than any other candidate in the race.
And he’s ready to take on the job, he said. He juggles a lot of responsibilities between his law practice, the state Legislature and his family, he said. But he’s demonstrated that he can balance public service and family life. And that helps him relate better to people who are raising families, he said. “I’m not waiting until retirement to run for office.”
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.