Maurice Washington always thought he had the potential to be a leader despite a hardscrabble childhood in the city’s Gadsden Green public housing complex.
He was the ninth of 10 children raised by a single mother with a second-grade education, and often had to rummage through the city dump for things he needed or wanted. He found bicycles, wagons, drums and other treasures there, he said. “It was our front yard.”
Washington, 54, is one of six mayoral candidates hoping to take the reins from Charleston’s Joe Riley, who will step down January 11 after serving for 40 years.
The businessman and former Charleston city councilman walked through the historically black Maryville-Ashleyville in West Ashley one day earlier this month. He shook hands with voters and told the story of the neighborhood, which originally was formed as a town of primarily black residents in 1886.
He served on council from 1991 to 1999 and helped annex the area into the city of Charleston in the mid-1990s. Back then, the city cherry-picked the kinds of neighborhoods it wanted to annex, he said. It left out a lot of black and poor neighborhoods.
Washington, who lives on the city’s upper peninsula, said as mayor, he would focus on city residents. “We’ve done an amazing job building a city that people all over the world want to visit,” he said. “Now it’s time to focus on the people who live here.”
Riley is a great public servant, Washington said, “and we both agree that Charleston should be the most livable city in America.” But the two have different management styles, he said.
Riley came in at a time in the city’s history that required top-down management, Washington said. But his management style is more inclusive, and allows input from more people, he said. “It’s time for bottom up.”
He also said he would work regionally, instead of focusing just on the city. Regional solutions are needed for traffic, housing, education and economic development.
Riley also had an upper middle-class background, and “our background shapes how we see things,” Washington said. “I think I understand the plight of the working poor. That’s why I’m so opposed to raising taxes and fees.”
Washington walked out to the city’s Higgins Pier, which stretches into the Ashley River from Maryville-Ashleyville. He pointed across the river to Brittlebank Park, which is built over the landfill near his childhood home, and talked about how he and other neighborhood children went crabbing in the river to bring home food for dinner. “We took it home, cooked it and fed everyone on the block,” he said.
He and his siblings many times would have gone hungry without food from the river, he said.
His mother did domestic work for Charleston families, he said, and often they had no money, even for basic needs. For several years, when his stepfather was alive and part of the family, life was a little better, Washington said. He was a sanitation worker with the city, and brought home a regular paycheck. But he was crushed to death in a sanitation truck when Washington was 9 years old. “His body was dumped in the landfill and recovered several days later.”
One of his mother’s jobs was working as a nanny for the parents of Leon Stavrinakis, another candidate for mayor, Washington said. “I wish my mom was alive today to see one of her sons was running for mayor against one of their sons.”
Despite his tough circumstances growing up, Washington excelled at Burke High School, landing the post of class president senior year, and being voted “most likely to succeed.” He lettered in football and baseball. “I always thought I was a leader,” he said.
He took the bus by himself to college at the historically black South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. The only money he had was $250 per month in Social Security benefits he received as a result of his stepfather’s death. But the school helped him with financial aid, and he landed the Student Government Association president’s post twice, a job that brought in another $500 per month. “I graduated in four years with no debt,” he said.
Former City Councilman Henry Fishburne, who was a candidate in the mayoral race until March, has endorsed Washington. He’s the candidate that can unite the city, Fishburne said. “He has the best combination of personal story and leadership skills.”
Washington owns an insurance and investment consulting business. And for years has been active in politics.
During his eight years on City Council, he said, he had many accomplishments including starting a collateral loan program for minority and women business owners so they could meet their daily needs. He also brought in money for computer labs at several inner-city schools, he said.
And he ran for other political offices, sometimes as a Democrat and other times as a Republican.
He ran against Riley in 1999 in the nonpartisan mayor’s race and lost. In 2002, he ran as a Republican for the state Senate District 42 seat and lost to then-incumbent Robert Ford. In 2013, he ran for that same seat as a Democrat and lost to Marlon Kimpson in the Democratic primary.
“I’ve suffered some defeats running for public office, but it never broke me,” Washington said. “The recovery period is short.”
He also went on to serve for 12 years on the Board of Trustees for S.C. State, his alma mater. He was chairman for six of those years. He’s proud of his service there, despite the school’s long history of management and financial problems. When he led the board, he said, the school made strides in fixing enrollment and financial problems, he said. And he brought in new, professional, business-savvy board members. But politics got in the way of reform, he said. “The General Assembly ran off the corporate folks and replaced them with the disaster we ended up with,” he said, referring to a recent high-profile public corruption case in which a former board member and the former board chairman were among those found guilty of financial crimes related to the university.
Arthur Lawrence, a retired administrator for the Department of Defense, said he grew up with Washington and is supporting him in the race. “He understands the dynamics of the city,” Lawrence said. “He’s independent and he won’t rely on the power brokers to make decisions for him.”
Washington so far has raised $17,250 for the race, not nearly as much as some other candidates. Stavrinakis so far has brought in $510,628; Ginny Deerin, $476,323, and John Tecklenberg has raised $437,885.
But that doesn’t upset him, Washington said. After growing up in Gadsden Green, “I know how to stretch a dollar,” he said. “Besides, we’re not trying to buy City Hall.”
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknch.