Charleston voters will choose between incumbent Mayor John Tecklenburg and five opponents in the Nov. 7 election. They are: former GOP state Rep. William Cogswell, local activist Mika Gadsden, attorney and professor Debra Gammons, longtime political aide Clay Middleton and Charleston City Councilman Peter Shahid.
The Post and Courier asked each candidate about a variety of issues facing the city. Below are abbreviated summaries of their responses. Early voting begins Oct. 23.
The sea wall
City Council will soon consider whether to enter the design phase for a proposed $1.3 billion sea wall to protect the Charleston peninsula. If it’s constructed, the Army Corps of Engineers will provide 65 percent of the funding, with the city required to contribute the remaining 35 percent. Officials are negotiating with the Corps for the wall to mimic the look of the Low Battery and address storm surge and high tide flooding. The design agreement is not finalized.
Cogswell: The city does not have a clear enough picture of the sea wall for Cogswell to support it, he said. He is concerned the cost will increase once the design phase is complete and that it will not ultimately address different forms of flooding beyond storm surge.
“I don’t want to completely turn my back on the idea of figuring out long-term solutions for sea-level rise because it is something we have to deal with,” he said. “But I will tell you that putting a wall around the city, if that is what the plan ultimately would be, I would not be for.”
Gadsden: She prefers improving development practices that worsen flooding and adopting nature-based solutions to storm surge, such as oyster reefs and marsh restoration.
“There’s a difference between activity and achievement. You can run around looking busy or we can actually sit down and come up with real common-sense solutions. And that wall is not a serious solution,” she said.
Gammons: She is concerned it will not be sufficient to prevent damaging floods. She prefers focusing on maintenance of existing storm drains and being strategic about where to promote development.
“I’m just not sold on it at this stage,” she said.
Middleton: He supports moving forward with the project but only if certain terms are met regarding the wall’s design, ability to address multiple types of flooding and incorporation of nature-based flood deterrents.
“I will be interested in working with (the Army Corps),” he said, adding what he believes comes into play is “making sure that those on the team that’s working on behalf of the citizens of Charleston know that we’re not just going to go along to get along.”
Shahid: He’s concerned the final design will not mimic the Low Battery and will be unsightly. He’s also worried it will disrupt the natural flow of water off of the peninsula during a storm and is concerned about unanticipated effects in other areas of the city.
“We’ve got a limited amount of money and we need to be addressing those major flooding issues that occur on a regular basis now,” he said.
Tecklenburg: The sea wall has been the major project of Tecklenburg’s tenure as he contends storm surge is a dire threat to the peninsula. He said it is crucial to advance to the design phase to determine if the project is something residents and council can get on board with. His goal is for it to resemble the Low Battery and address multiple forms of flooding.
“As long as it’s designed in a way that is pleasing aesthetically and functional for our citizens similar to what we’ve done with the elevation of the Low Battery sea wall, frankly I think we’d be foolish, long term, not to try to get it done,” he said. “And we’d be irresponsible not to at least try.”
As Charleston’s population grows and rents and home prices rise with it, the next mayor will be pressured to manage development strategically. The city planning department is undergoing a rewrite of the city’s entire zoning code, which dictates what can and cannot be built in different areas of town.
Cogswell: The city needs to encourage density where appropriate but also set standards for the aesthetics of new development so it fits with Charleston’s character, he said. He wants to work with neighboring counties and municipalities to form a regional affordable housing authority. Combining authorities would maximize grant opportunities and spending power, he said.
“(Affordability) is a major, major issue. And it’s one that feeds into my skill sets pretty well,” he said. “I plan on addressing it pretty aggressively.”
Gadsden: The city is over-reliant on property tax revenue to fund its budget, leading to development pressure, she said. She would not only limit development but also try to find new revenue streams for the city, potentially via tourism revenues.
“We know that development is inevitable, we just need to go about this with a more sustainable approach,” she said.
Gammons: She would temporarily ban all new development in Charleston while the city plans how to manage it moving forward. She said affordable housing and improving historic preservation would be her priority.
“We need to first, step back. I am going to place a moratorium on any further development until we have a clearer vision,” she said.
Middleton: He wants the new code to incorporate extensive public input and encourage different types of housing such as townhomes, duplexes and small apartment buildings, among others. He would also enact a right of first refusal for longtime home renters. The policy would give those renters the first opportunity to make an offer on a home should their landlord decide to sell.
“When it comes to housing, everything is about zoning,” he said. “That’s land use 101.”
Shahid: He said it’s important for the new zoning code to allow for more density. He wants it to encourage different types of development around town such as businesses, restaurants and parks. Distributing those uses in every neighborhood will cut down on the public’s travel times.
“You’ve got to convince people that the word ‘density’ is not a bad word. When you look back on the history of the city, it was dense,” he said. “You had your local church, your local place of worship, your local fish market and you had people who had what they needed at a very convenient location.”
Tecklenburg: He’d ensure the zoning code concentrates density on high ground and along the future Lowcountry Rapid Transit line, especially along Upper Meeting Street, the Neck Area, Sam Rittenberg Boulevard and Maybank Highway. He additionally favors working with Charleston County and the state to get the long-planned extension of Interstate 526 on Johns Island approved.
“High ground and public transportation are my top priorities in terms of future development,” he said.
Addressing racial inequalities
During Tecklenburg’s two terms, the city made efforts acknowledging its history as a hub for the transatlantic slave trade. His terms saw new historic markers, an apology for slavery, the removal of the John C. Calhoun statue and a racial conciliation commission.
Cogswell: Cogswell appreciates efforts to recognize the city’s past but wants his policies to address inequalities moving forward.
“I’d like to try and solve the affordability issue to make sure that longtime residents — particularly minority residents, but not exclusively — can afford to stay in their home,” he said.
Gadsden: She says she’s committed to taking steps to identify and address racial inequalities. Efforts to memorialize Charleston’s Black history are appreciated, she said, but also feels they come after many Black residents have already been priced out of the city.
“We’re in a post-Dylann Roof Charleston,” she said, referring to the man convicted of murdering nine Black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church. “The hate is here. We have to figure it out where it exists and eradicate it. If it’s structural, if it’s systemic, we got to find it and root it out.”
Gammons: She would use her experience as director of diversity initiatives at the Charleston School of Law to evaluate the city’s needs. She would pursue studying pay and retention inequities among city employees and work to remedy them.
“I will keep an eye on everything, not just one particular area, so that all people are treated fairly and equally,” she said.
Middleton: The key to improving racial inequalities, Middleton said, is funding efforts to tackle them. As an example, he said the city should fund a team of staff members to help the Human Affairs and Racial Conciliation Commission, rather than rely mostly on unpaid volunteers.
“I am thankful for those incremental improvements, but that’s the price of admission. We have to elevate our thinking and we have to aspire more,” he said.
Shahid: City Council voted down a proposal to make a permanent Racial Conciliation Commission after a temporary version of the commission penned a report that had elements that were controversial to some residents and council members. Shahid said it was important to find compromises with council members to bring the commission back to life. To keep the commission going, he helped strike some of the controversial ideas in the original commission’s report such as discussions of critical race theory and reparations.
“People were angry at me for doing this. And you know what? The easy thing for me to have done would have been to let it die,” he said. “But a leader goes out there and sees an issue, tackles it and finds a way to get it resolved.”
Tecklenburg: Policy efforts can go hand in hand with more ceremonial measures, such as historical markers. He pointed to a minority-owned business accelerator run with the Charleston Chamber of Commerce as an example. The program pairs small-business owners with mentors and courses as well as a discounted membership to the chamber.
“We’re also working on meaningful change to support businesses, homeownership and health outcomes,” he said.
Reach Emma Whalen at 843-708-5837. Follow her on Twitter @_emma_whalen.