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Charleston South Carolina Mayoral Race: Inside The Issues Driving This Election

Rising tides, rising crime, rising budgets … which candidate has the answers?

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As residents of Charleston, South Carolina prepare to go to the polls this Tuesday (November 7, 2023), candidates for mayor of the Holy City are making their final pitches to voters. While six candidates filed, the race’s fundraisers by a significant margin are incumbent mayor John Tecklenburg and former state representative William Cogswell, a real estate developer.

Tecklenburg’s tenure as mayor – and his campaign for a final term in office – have been predominantly focused on the issue of water management. Specifically, keeping Charleston from becoming South Carolina’s version of Venice, Italy. Tecklenburg touts his greatest achievements at mitigating the risk of encroaching sea water and flooding from rains as “fill and build” construction – a practice which prevents long term flooding risks, and the funding and construction of numerous drainage improvements across the city. The city’s $25 million West Ashley drainage upfit successfully mitigated flooding during Hurricane Idalia, providing an example of effective stormwater management.

Perhaps the most ambitious flood prevention effort currently under construction is the Spring-Fishburne Drainage Improvement Project. Once completed, this tunnel will transfer 360,000 gallons of flood water into the Ashley River every minute, which should significantly reduce flooding in Charleston’s medical district. Unfortunately, unforeseen issues have dramatically slowed construction – and city officials’ failure to adequately adjust budget projections as construction slowed left council members and the public shocked when the city asked for an additional $43 million in 2018.

Then-councilman Bill Moody said he didn’t want the project to become “Charleston’s V.C. Summer nuclear plant” (a reference to this fiasco) – and argued city officials should have alerted the council and public of the overages “a long time before now” at a council meeting following the budget revision.

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(Via: Spring-Fishburne Drainage Improvement Project)

According to Tecklenburg, the project should be a source of pride.

“When construction problems were identified, staff pulled together and found solutions,” he wrote in The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier. “When acts of God stopped work, project leaders moved quickly to get it restarted. And when rising inflation created a need for supplemental funding in later phases, the city was able to secure an additional State Infrastructure Bank grant of $21.5 million to finish the work.”

Tecklenburg also touted the city’s planned pedestrian bridge to West Ashley, a project city leaders have repeatedly celebrated as being “fully funded.” They first made this claim in 2019 when they obtained $22 million for its completion – only to make it again three years later after securing another $42 million following an upward budget revision. The project is now expected to cost $76.5 million – a price tag Tecklenburg downplayed at last week’s (hopefully final) groundbreaking ceremony for the project.

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Mayor John Tecklenburg at the Spring-Fishburne construction site. (Facebook)

William Cogswell, Tecklenburg’s chief rival, issued a statement saying “I support this project, but now more than ever, I believe money matters.”

“Inflation has less of an impact on project budgets in Charleston than mismanagement,” Cogswell said. “The mayor is charged with being a good steward of your money, and the buck stops with him for letting the price of this project triple.”

While both candidates support the pedestrian bridge, they are at odds over the city’s most serious potential infrastructure upgrade – the construction of a sea wall around the peninsula to mitigate the risk of a storm surge causing catastrophic damage. Tecklenburg has argued the city should invest in continuing research alongside the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to determine the feasibility and cost of a potential peninsular protector.

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A computer generated rendering of what a the Charleston sea wall could look like.

USACE brigadier general Jason Kelly believes the sea wall is a win for Charleston taxpayers.

“For every dollar invested, ten dollars could be prevented in future damages,” he said.

Yet some South Carolina conservationists – who have been sounding the alarm on rising sea levels for years – oppose the structure. The S.C. Coastal Conservation League (SCCCL) has consistently challenged USACE and city leaders to go back to the drawing board on the $2 billion project.

“With a price tag this massive, the Corps should take a more holistic approach to flooding and should find solutions that create greater benefits for the community,” the group noted in its initial opposition to the wall.

Environmental activists have argued that since the USACE was tasked with preventing a storm surge from taking out the peninsula, they neglected to address other more common flood management priorities such as “chronic tidal flooding and intensifying rain events combined with a low-lying, aging stormwater drainage system.” They further criticized the plan’s failure to protect lower income communities as well as its reliance on a singular concrete wall when natural barriers could be erected to provide more cost-effective, ecologically sound and aesthetically endearing protection.

Politically, it is unclear if residents of areas which the project would not protect – but whose tax dollars would fund its construction – are willing to divert funds from projects that would keep their homes above water to a project which would not directly benefit them.

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The federal government’s offer to cover roughly two thirds of the project’s cost gives city leaders an opportunity to protect local tax dollars – and those who don’t support the construction of a seawall surely understand the city will likely have to go out of pocket on a greater portion of expenses accrued while constructing an alternative flood mitigation system.

Bottom line? There’s no sane argument to be made that significant investments aren’t needed to keep Charleston livable in coming decades. City residents must decide which water management approach they think is best, and vote accordingly.

The two candidates’ party affiliations have been of little import up to this point in our discussion, but Cogswell’s accusations that city leadership failed to prevent the looting and destruction of more than 150 King Street business during the George Floyd riots are objectively true – and highlight why political philosophies are important in local elections.

Charleston’s leaders must have been aware there was a potential for protests to turn violent after multiple other American cities were engulfed in flames in the days leading up to to the May 30, 2020 riot – yet when the sun set after a day of peaceful protests, Charleston police failed to keep control of the city.

(Click to View)

(Facebook)

In an interview with Live 5 News Charleston business owner Ken Schneider said “when the mayhem started, we cried for help 10 times to the police department, 911, and they showed up not a single time.”

According to then-sheriff Al Cannon, the failure of Charleston police to intervene was no accident.

“The city’s position was that they were not going to arrest, and we followed that lead,” he said.

Former Post and Courier reporter Sara Coello, who provided excellent live-tweet coverage of the riot, overheard one Charleston police officer tell another “Nobody’s getting arrested tonight … There’s no accountability.” Coello’s tweet was issued from Halls Chophouse minutes after gunshots were heard on the just outside the restaurant’s King Street storefront.

Business owner Jack Handegan III took to Facebook to share his story.

“We sat for three-plus hours with no assistance to protect our businesses,” he wrote. “We watched them slowly and methodically smash and steal every single item out of (our) neighbors place while the police never came. Three-plus hours of chaos.”

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Protesters Ignite a Charleston Police Car during the George Floyd Riots (Via: USAO)

Charleston restauranteur Steve Palmer publicly confronted Tecklenburg after the riot saying “never in my life” had he “seen such a complete and utter failure on the part of the city.”

The Post and Courier editorial staff’s endorsement of Tecklenburg critiqued a Cogswell campaign ad (below) focused on public safety, claiming it “plays into the claim that the mayor ordered police to stand down — an idea that was thoroughly discredited in a report prepared by the police department’s command staff that also spelled out what was done right and what was done wrong.”

While they mayor may have never explicitly ordered a stand down, all available evidence suggests he didn’t order police to “stand up,” either – and it is disingenuous of the editorial staff to ignore the reporting of its own journalists and on-the-record statements made by the Charleston County Sheriff in an attempt to discredit Cogswell’s valid critiques.

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(Via: YouTube)

The paper’s endorsement of Tecklenburg also claimed Cogswell failed to clarify “what the city should have done — or should do — differently.” I’m not sure how the Pulitzer Prize winning journalists over at the Post and Courier missed the line where he pledges to “give the police the support that they need to enforce the rule of law.”

Its a very basic concept: The mayor should have told police he would support them in enforcing the state’s laws, it appears he failed to do so, and Cogswell pledges to not repeat that mistake.

Although Cogswell’s public safety stance tacks right, his votes as a lawmaker indicate he is a moderate Republican. Cogswell is clearly no fiscal conservative, having co-sponsored the bill that increased South Carolina’s gas tax. He’s no social conservative either, having voted against the state’s fetal heartbeat abortion ban, against permit-less carry of handguns, and did not vote on a bill that would require those wishing to participate in women’s sports to be biological women. While this may disappoint those looking for a red meat conservative in the Holy City – it increases his electability in the state’s most liberal major metropolitan area.

The Tecklenburg campaign clearly recognizes this, and was caught earlier this week in a ham-handed attempt to tie Cogswell to the conservative Moms for Liberty group. Team Tecklenburg appears to have used Republican attorney Butch Bowers (the same attorney Alex Murdaugh allegedly attempted to have facilitate his son’s readmission in law school after his expulsion for a $40,000 fee) to purchase ads suggesting Cogswell supports Moms for Liberty, while simultaneously running ads criticizing him for receiving the group’s support.

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Attorney Butch Bowers appears at a press conference in the South Carolina State House (Dylan Nolan/FITSNews)

This attempt to shift the public’s perception of Cogswell might have been more effective if a bevy of documents didn’t directly tie this dark money hit-job to Tecklenburg.

Cogswell went on the offensive on this issue in a press release issued after the discovery of this ruse.

“I used to think John was a relatively nice guy who just wasn’t a very effective mayor,” he said. “Now I know without a doubt he lacks character, is willing to flout federal campaign laws, and will lie to his own constituents for political and personal gain.”

The Tecklenburg campaign responded that recent “Prosperity Alliance” (the group at the center of this controversy) posters have been pro-Cogswell and don’t mention Moms for Liberty … the only problem, the firm Bowers registered is “The Prosperity Alliance, LLC.” It seems Bowers took a page out of Murdaugh’s Forge Consulting scam playbook by adding “LLC” to a pre-existing legitimate organization in an attempt to fool onlookers – and that campaign officials decided to double down on the duplicity despite being caught red handed.

Early voting has already begun, but Charlestonians have until Tuesday, November 7 to decide who they will support in the upcoming mayoral election. While this article attempted to address the issues this news outlet believes are most important to voters, and to cut through campaign rhetoric by focusing on how each candidate has governed while in power, we encourage voters to visit the websites of each candidate to get a perspective not filtered through our editorial lens.

Mayor Tecklenburg’s website can be found here, and Mr. Cogswell’s campaign site can be found here.

In addition, voters may want to investigate the campaigns of Mika Gadsden, a community organizer and activist, Debra Gammons – a Charleston Law School professor (who was recently charged with driving under the influence), Clay Middleton, a decorated combat veteran and longtime aide to U.S. congressman Jim Clyburn, and Peter Shahid, a former federal prosecutor who oversaw successful redevelopment projects while serving on Charleston City Council.

Clay Middleton has secured the endorsement of U.S. Congressman Jim Clyburn and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Democrat voters looking for a candidate other than Tecklenburg, or voters looking for a candidate of color, should know that he is their most viable option. Middleton’s fundraising kept up with the leaders in the field prior to Cogswell and Tecklenburg’s contributions to their own campaigns, and though he faces the headwinds that any candidate challenging an incumbent faces, his popularity with voters certainly should be enough to concern Tecklenburg.

FITSNews welcomes letters to the editor or opinion pieces from any idealogical background, and invites those with an interest in this (or any) race to use our outlet to make their voices heard as election day approaches.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

(Via: Travis Bell)

Dylan Nolan is the director of special projects at FITSNews. He graduated from the Darla Moore school of business in 2021 with an accounting degree. Got a tip or story idea for Dylan? Email him here. You can also engage him socially @DNolan2000.

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5 comments

Katelyn November 3, 2023 at 2:50 pm

What polling data are you using to put Tecklenberg and Cogswell as the only two viable candidates?

Reply
The Dude Top fan November 4, 2023 at 9:49 am

Whomever gets elected, will you please fix the damn roads? Driving around MUSC is like what it must be driving around Gaza City now.

Reply
Kimberly Brant Top fan November 4, 2023 at 2:05 pm

Can you reach out to Lindsey Edwards before Tuesday’s election and ask her to share the part of her TikTok (immediately removed) about Alex Murdaugh. She stated there Mayor Tecklenburg was also a client, and gave a very disturbing account of the passing of a family member. If the mayor wants to go low his opponents should slap back w/that little nugget.

Reply
Tecklenberg is a Joke November 5, 2023 at 8:36 pm

The City of Charleston is expected to soon face a looming class action federal and State lawsuit as early as spring of next year for discrimination against handicapped people and ADA violations. The suit is said to seek over 750.000.000 dollars in court awards to the plaintiffs. Aparently their is an abundance of direct evidence in support of the plaintiffs’ claims.

Full dicovery can be expected, I am sure.

Reply
Dan Norfleet November 6, 2023 at 10:39 am

Has it actually been confirmed that Mayor Tecklenburg’s Campaign paid Mr. Bowers?

Reply

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