The election is over. All the votes have been counted and John Tecklenburg will be the new mayor of Charleston.
In the end it was not even close. He got 58 percent of the votes in the run-off election over State Representative Leon Stavrinakis. There were four other candidates in the first election two weeks prior.
Before I go any further, a full disclosure. John has been a very good friend of mine for nearly 40 years. We first met when we were both in college in Washington, DC. We lived a couple of blocks apart in Charleston; our children were born about the same time and as they grew up, we were as likely to have each other’s kids at the dinner table as our own. John got me involved in lots of his community projects and I did the same. I was a part of his campaign from the beginning – through all the ups and down.
So, why did he win?
The campaign and indeed the whole city are framed by two factors – Joe Riley’s 40 years in office and the Emanuel tragedy. When Riley took office in 1975, Charleston was a sleepy, closed, self-obsessed, economic back water of a town whose focus was its historic past. Riley took that history and used it as the foundation to build a booming, economically vibrant, diverse, creative, world class city. He is often referred to by his fellow mayors as “America’s Best Mayor” – because he is.
I moved to Charleston just before Riley became mayor and to know the city then and now is to know the difference between night and day. The transformation has been stunning. Where once the city had essentially no real economic growth (and no one cared), it has been transformed so totally that today the rapid development and growth has led to an uneasy angst about this growth and the city’s quality of life.
The other overarching influence in the city today is as new as our history is old; it’s the looming shadow of the Emanuel tragedy. We as a city are moving from dealing with Emanuel as an event to beginning to grapple with what its permanent impact on our city will be. We are only at the beginning of understanding what this tragedy will mean for the city and its future.
John and his family have a long history of working hand in hand with the African American community on countless ‘community uplift’ projects. John and his wife, Sandy, have an easy style and open warm embrace of people (they love to hug everyone) and their style was a hallmark of the campaign. In one of the most moving and eloquent parts of his campaign stump speech, Tecklenburg said, “Emanuel did not just create the opportunity for us to do things differently, it created the obligation on all of us to do things differently.”
Setting aside all the back and forth about campaign tactics, TV ads and such, the underlying reason that Tecklenburg is the new mayor is that he is fundamentally in tune with the zeitgeist of his city.
There were four big reasons for his success. First, he was a successful small businessman who had worked as head of economic development of the city for a stint under Riley and voters sensed that he could handle the job. Second, despite his being a commercial Realtor, he was willing to push back hard against developers as he understood the city’s angst about growth and over-development.
Third, he embodies a new style of open and inclusive governing. As he often said, “Everyone will have a seat at the table and if all the chairs are filled, we’ll pull up some more chairs.” And fourth, John viscerally understands that the issues of reconciliation are always primary in this Old South City and that Emanuel has forever changed the narrative.
Tecklenburg’s election is important for not just Charleston but the state as a whole. John’s longtime friend and now Mayor of Beaufort, Billy Keyserling, coined the phrase that the mayor of Charleston is ‘King of the Coast’ because of his position and influence…and indeed he is.
What kind of mayor will Tecklenburg be? Who knows? Being elected mayor as a first time elected official is a little like being a promising young horse at the beginning of racing season – you don’t know how they will run until they run.
That said, there is a whole lot of reason for optimism. John has all the right pedigrees and bloodlines; he has a good cadre of new (mostly) young trainers and handlers; he has performed well in the preliminaries; and the crowd is all behind him, cheering him on and wanting him to be successful.
And like a great race horse, John has one intangible quality – perhaps the most important quality. He has heart. He cares deeply about ‘our brothers and sisters’ and he has a deep passion for service motivated by all the right reasons.
He is a good man who simply wants to do what is best for the city he loves.
As a friend, I’m very proud of him. As a citizen of Charleston, I’m very optimistic for my city.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring big change and real reform. firstname.lastname@example.org