John Tecklenburg said he is the only Charleston mayoral candidate who can play “The Charleston.” And then he did.
The businessman sat down at the keyboard inside his West Ashley home and launched into an unexpectedly rousing version of the 1923 jazz standard, one that belies his normally mild and soft-spoken manner.
Shortly after he stopped playing, Tecklenburg got in his car and spent the next few hours crisscrossing the city to explain why he is running for mayor.
As he weaved through traffic, he talked about how his family, his experience in business, his service under outgoing Mayor Joe Riley and his ideas make him the best choice.
But before he left, he could not resist playing his campaign theme song — an equally lively number that’s too long for a TV spot but still touches on the issues of education, mobility, housing and civic participation that he often speaks of on the campaign trail. “Charleston has come such a long, long way,” he sang. “We honor the past, but it’s a new day.
“So let’s wake up the Holy City!”
The first Tecklenburgs arrived in Charleston in the 19th century — and succeeded during a difficult time for the city. He drove under Bethany Cemetery’s stone gate, built to honor Johann Tecklenburg, who immigrated here in the 19th century to escape conflict in his native Germany.
“I do kid a little bit that I’m still working on my ‘Beanyeah’ status,” he said, a reference to the Gullah term for someone who has been in the Lowcountry a long time (the opposite of “Cumyeah”).
Still, his political base may be the city’s many residents who have known or done business with his extended family over the decades. He’s raised more than $422,000 — among the top fundraisers — from those who work in his real estate sphere but also from a diverse mix of others.
It was Tecklenburg’s late father Henry and his mother Esther who influenced him most — his late father by teaching him that business was a means to an end, “and that end is living a good life and giving back and helping.”
Henry Tecklenburg set the example by chairing the State Ports Authority and State Development Board, while his mother served on Charleston City Council early in Mayor Joe Riley’s tenure. “Mom was involved with Waterfront Park and that was a really big deal,” he said, “and she also was involved with Charleston Place, and that was a really big deal.”
Although he graduated from Georgetown with a degree in chemistry and a possible future in medicine, he later followed his father into the oil-distribution business. He soon learned that one had to grow or fade, and he built sizable operations in Charleston, Columbia and Savannah before deciding to sell to a competitor in 1995.
“It was a good sale for me,” he said. “That gave me an opportunity to look around and find something else,” which would be serving as the city’s economic development coordinator under Riley.
But six years later, the entrepreneurial bug returned and he opened the first store on Daniel Island. Tecklenburg enjoyed the business, but a grocery store moved to the island sooner than he expected and ultimately led him into his current job as a commercial real estate broker.
While Tecklenburg touts his business experience, the Charleston Area Chamber of Commerce threw its support to his opponent, state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis.
Being ‘a mini-mayor’
Tecklenburg said his business experience would drive his approach to the mayor’s office.
He would seek metrics on how city departments are performing and try to change the city to make it more friendly to its customers — its residents — by routing all citizen calls through a central operator who could guide people to the right place for requesting a trash can or clearing a clogged drain.
But he said his time working under Riley may be the most significant as far as qualifying him.
Tecklenburg worked with businesses along upper King Street to get their consent to tax themselves to help pay for burying power lines, planting trees and adding new bluestone sidewalks — aesthetic upgrades that set the table for the street’s current success.
Phil Noble, Tecklenburg’s longtime friend, said Tecklenburg’s work to rally a diverse group of business owners behind the plan and to help solve their problems during the construction phase showed he has the skill to lead the city. “That was sort of like being a mini-mayor,” he said.
Tecklenburg said if elected, he would take a similar approach to try to make similar improvements to several of West Ashley’s commercial areas.
Tecklenburg has more ideas than simply how to upgrade West Ashley. On Thursday, he released his full platform — five sections, each which several subsections and a series of bullet points he would work toward.
As Tecklenburg drove around the East Side neighborhood, he pointed to drainage grates covered with debris. He said while the city needs multimillion-dollar drainage upgrades, it also could do smaller things like keeping high-tide floodwaters out of drainage lines and clearing city drains more often.
But perhaps Tecklenburg’s biggest idea is how the mayoral race has changed fundamentally since June 17, when a gunman shot nine people to death inside Emanuel AME Church.
“I really sense the question has changed from ‘What happens after Joe Riley?’ to ‘What happens after the Emmanuel 9?” he said. “I view this terrible tragedy as one of those occurrences in our city’s history where we now have this incredible opportunity to come together and work on some of these deep-rooted issues and challenges.”
Tecklenburg was inside Second Presbyterian Church earlier this summer, part of the overflow crowd attending the funeral service for librarian Cynthia Hurd, one of the victims in this summer’s Emanuel AME shootings. When the video feed failed, Tecklenburg walked to the front of the church and began playing, “Amazing Grace.”
“It’s like a release, a therapy,” he said of his piano playing. “It’s my spiritual flow. It’s how I connect.”
Noble said it also may foreshadow how his friend would lead. “He’s a jazz player,” Noble said. “Jazz players have to listen and cooperate, and I think that’s very much his style.”