Joe Riley moonlights as Mayor of the United States

Mayor Joe Riley cuts the ribbon during the Re-dedication ceremony of the renovated Charleston City Hall Tuesday June 12, 2007 in Charleston, S.C.. (Grace Beahm/Staff)

WASHINGTON — Joe Riley is trying to get to a meeting where the director of the National Park Service is speaking, eager to update him on plans for Charleston’s African-American Museum.

But he can’t cross the second floor of the Capitol Hilton without being stopped every few feet.

A Wisconsin mayor asks if Riley will pose for a picture. Steve Williams, the Huntington, W.Va., mayor, wants to thank him “for giving us the chance to redevelop our city.”

And Mayor David Bowers of Roanoake, Va., wants to update Riley on how well his advice sparked the restoration of his city’s downtown.

“People still love him, talk about him coming to the city,” Bowers says. “That was 20 years ago.”

Few locals realize this but Riley — who has been mayor here for nearly 40 years — has also been the mayor of mayors for decades.

Attending his last winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors here last week, city leaders from around the country angled for a few minutes with the man they simply call “The Dean.” He is their idol, their role model, their leader.

Riley may be popular in Charleston, and he certainly has his detractors (yeah, James Island, that means you), but outside of the Lowcountry Joe Riley is a full-fledged rock star, a legend among municipal politicians.

And that says as much about Charleston as it does about him.

Riley joined the U.S. Conference of Mayors back in the 1970s, partly out of tradition.

“Palmer (Gaillard) had been a member,” he says.

Riley quickly rose through the ranks as people took notice of what he was doing with Charleston. Within a decade, Riley took his turn as its president.

And it was then that he came up with The Idea.

Riley created the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, a workshop for mayors — all expenses paid — to help them solve their city’s biggest problems. Funded by the conference, the American Architectural Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the concept is deceptively simple.

Twice a year, the Institute hosts a workshop for eight mayors — no staff, no press — to come in and talk with professional planners, architects and, often, Riley himself. They bring their problems, their dilemmas, and they work on solutions.

One of those biannual meetings is held in a different city each year, the other is always in Charleston — because mayors around the country want to see what we are doing.

More than a decade ago, Mayor Elizabeth Kautz of Burnsville, Minn. — a city 15 miles south of Minneapolis — came to Riley and the Institute with her town’s greatest dilemma. There was a 54-acre tract in the middle of downtown that she described, quite bluntly, as “blighted.”

No one knew what to do with it. So the Institute helped her develop a plan for mixed-use development anchored by a performing arts center.

Nowadays, Kautz says, Burnsville is thriving.

“All around the country, you can see all the great things that have happened because of the mayor’s initiative,” Kautz says.

The Mayors’ Institute staff announced last week that more than 1,000 mayors have been through the program. When they did, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said it was all because of “The amazing Mayor Riley.”

When Vice President Joe Biden spoke to the mayors on Thursday, he did what any good politician would — he made reference to various people in the audience.

Biden mentioned the mayor of Detroit, of Philadelphia, of Boston. But when he twice used Riley as an example, he simply called him “Joe.”

Even Biden knew who was the best-known Joe in the room.

Don Plusquellic, Akron’s mayor and the man second in seniority at this conference, is a pretty savvy, confident guy. He’s been in politics as long as Riley, mayor of his city for nearly 30 years.

He credits Riley and his Institute for City Design for “forcing people to think differently.” And Plusquellic says he still leans on Charleston’s mayor. Not so long ago, he was thinking of quitting. His campaign wasn’t going well and he asked Riley for advice.

“Everybody looks to him, he is that senior leader,” Plusquellic says. “He told me elections are about the future.”

Plusquellic ran for re-election and, using Riley’s advice, won.

On Friday morning, several members of the Obama cabinet came in to answer questions from the mayors. At the end, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson — this year’s conference president — lightened the mood by asking a lightning round of questions. He asked one cabinet member who would win the Super Bowl; the next, his favorite movie. And then Johnson asked Jerry Abramson — former Louisville mayor and the White House director of Intergovernmental Affairs — who was hands-down the best retail politician in the country.

“Joe Riley,” Abramson said.

The mayors of this conference like to compare themselves favorably to other politicians. They cannot afford to sit around in wallow in gridlock like Congress, they say. Their battle cry is that they “get things done.”

And they look at what Riley has done for Charleston as the gold standard.

That should be a source of pride for Charleston.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com