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Tuesday’s mayoral election offers Charleston a Harbinger of Change

Lee Walton

The only constant in life is change. How often have we either heard variations of this cliché or experienced this most basic of life’s lessons first-hand? We see it in our children from the day of their birth as they mature and begin to lead their own lives. We see it in the faces of our friends, loved ones and even ourselves. Change can be sudden or slow, painful or pleasurable. Change occurs constantly all around us in our personal lives, neighborhood, city, state and nation. Change often dictates that an elected leader, chosen to lead through a uniquely challenging time, subsequently step aside or be replaced with another more capable or suitable to face new and different challenges of an uncertain future.

One of the greatest examples of the necessity for changes in leadership occurred both at the onset and conclusion of World War II. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was morally paralyzed by the thought of England suffering through another world war. His acts of appeasement to Adolph Hitler nearly changed the face of Europe but for his timely replacement by the pugnacious Winston Churchill, a wartime leader of unquestionable courage and stamina, who led the British Empire through its greatest challenge. As Chamberlain was a leader best suited for peace, Churchill was a leader best suited for war; at its end, he floundered as a peacetime leader.

Winston Churchill, not unlike Charleston’s own Mayor Riley of 32 years, was the supreme prevaricator when it came to giving up power. He simply didn’t know when to quit. His slow and painful-to-watch political decline became known to the British as The Long Goodbye. In the end, Churchill’s unique leadership skills, so vital during the recent wartime era, were incompatible with the new peacetime challenges of Europe’s reconstruction and the quickly developing Cold War with the Soviet Union.

The history of our nation and state is rich with similar examples of differing leadership styles. There have been inspirational leaders, totalitarian leaders, caretakers, humanitarians, transitional leaders, and leaders uniquely suited for only short, specific challenges. With few exceptions, most either knew when to step aside or, if not, they were unceremoniously replaced through the electoral process by new, more capable leaders having earned the trust and confidence of the electorate.

During Mayor Riley’s first five terms, he successfully led Charleston to a level of prosperity and resurgence that was the envy of comparably sized cities nationwide. The challenges from the late 1970’s through the early 1990’s were successfully met and overcome with vibrant, dynamic, albeit often ruthless, leadership during Riley’s first two decades as mayor.

Unfortunately, as other cities ushered in the new century with innovative public sector management and leadership styles, Charleston began to languish in its successes of past decades and stagnate under an increasingly totalitarian Riley Administration. New ideas of municipal governance including Performance Management, Zero-based budgeting and integrated IT management protocols were given only public lip service. These modern concepts depended upon open, interactive and contributory personnel management techniques that decentralized and delegated management authority throughout a more fluid, responsive organizational structure. Such concepts were a direct threat to Riley’s increasingly rigid, top-down, need-to-know only, style of government controlled by a select few trusted cronies and hand-picked loyal lackeys.

Sadly, Charleston municipal politics under the Riley Administration has evolved over three decades into the moral equivalent of a Central American Banana Republic dictatorship. Under Riley’s reign, a culture of political corruption has now descended upon City Hall led by an entrenched despot who has cultivated a loyal cadre of lackeys from his own Irish Employment Bureau stacked with close family friends and others sharing his cultural heritage. As testament to Riley’s vicious political tactics, one need only witness his relentless retaliation against anyone who dares to challenge his authority to run His City. His vindictive attacks frequently extend far beyond the target of his wrath and include family members, close friends and business associates of any real or perceived adversary.

The incumbents and challengers running in the current City Council election exemplify the extent of what of Riley’s political mischief can produce. With one lone exception, all incumbents are handpicked, loyal sycophants that dutifully attend the Mayor’s “meetings before the meeting” to get their marching orders and scripts for the charade that Council meetings have become. Each challenger has been handpicked by Riley’s oddest, most loyal crony to be an equal sycophant, if elected, or to play the fool for the benefit of his loyal incumbent, insuring their reelection as the lesser of two evils. Neither honorable decent nor constructive criticism is tolerated in his Council chamber.

Who would be this Harbinger of Change so desperately needed to restore open, honest and independent representative governance in City Hall? Ironically, in the long run, it may not be as important who the next mayor is, as long as there is a different mayor. The citizens of Charleston deserve a change, but like Churchill, Riley has no intention of willingly giving up the political power that he and his cadre of cronies has amassed over the past three decades. Unfortunately for Riley’s legacy, his fingernails will likely leave deep scratches in the marble staircase on Broad Street as the next rightfully elected mayor has him forcefully removed from City Hall.

Ironically, the words of one of Riley’s closest political confidents and lifelong friends will be considerably more appropriate on Tuesday, November 6th, than they were four years ago:

It is through change that we as a modern people can continue to grow and to prosper. It is through change that new ideas may flourish and new concepts may be generated to move all individuals closer to their own definition of success and freedom.