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Shrimp 'n Grits

The Riley Administration – a cult of cronyism
Lee Walton

While researching materials for a upcoming series of articles on the cult of cronyism that has had a stranglehold on the City Administration of Charleston for nearly four decades, a previous Shrimp ‘n Grits article seemed to have already laid a solid foundation for the series. It is worthy of repeating as a harbinger of the light that will shine on Riley’s cult of cronyism this fall.

Charleston’s Deal-Estate Development Complex – an Elite Ruling Class

The Elitist Doctrine holds that in any society, a minority ruling class makes the principal decisions. In democratic societies this small ruling class most often attains power and sustains itself and its individual members through monopolizing the skills and resources necessary to protect, create, and enhance the individual wealth and status of its members. Once entrenched in a particular sector of the economy, this elite class cannot be controlled by the majority, even through normal democratic means, due to the power, organization, political skill, and individual abilities of its members. Its strength lies in its ability to dictate the terms of admission into its ranks by establishing the rules of conformity through social origin, race, religion, profession, and marriage. Given a favorable economic environment in which to thrive, members of this elite ruling class often amass great wealth, influence, and create wide economic gaps between themselves and other less organized factions of a local society.

Over the past three decades the buying, selling, and development of real estate in the Greater Charleston Area has led to the creation of an autonomous ruling elite that now controls the primary engine of wealth in the Lowcountry – the Deal-Estate Development Complex.

Just who are the members of this elite class? It’s big, both horizontally and vertically integrated, immensely complex, and often ruthless in its ability to protect itself and its most elite members. The Complex draws its select membership from a broad cross-section of the local economy, primarily from the core professions within the Greater Charleston Chamber of Commerce including realtors, bankers, a wide variety of contractors, architects, engineers, appraisers, material suppliers, advertisement, the print and broadcast media, the legal profession and more than a few select politicians.

As a rule, its most prominent current members gained entry by birthright as progeny of past high-ranking members, having themselves often inherited the wealth, status, and influence from previous generations. More often than not, its more well-born members seldom seek political office, instead choosing to select lower status, albeit ambitious, but still subservient members from its diverse ranks to become political standard bearers for the Complex and whose political survival is dependant upon the continued patronage of the most wealthy and elite of the Deal-Estate Development Complex. Charleston’s own Mayor Riley is at the apex of local political members groomed, selected, elected, and continuously supported by the most powerful and influential of this elite ruling class.

How does this elite ruling class protect, create, and enhance the individual wealth of its members? Primarily by controlling those who have control of the public purse, public utilities, and those who create and enforce land use and zoning regulations impacting real estate development throughout the Lowcountry. This control is primarily exercised by controlling the mother’s milk of politics – money. If one doubts this, simply go to the public library and review the S.C. Ethics Commission campaign filings of the most “development friendly” and most often reelected local politicians. Not surprisingly, the names of the same heavy contributors and prominent members of the elite Deal-Estate Development Complex appear over and over again like a list of who’s who in influencing local politics.

Lastly, this elite ruling class of deal-estate developers could not exist without the continued cooperation of its most influential members, the owners and senior editors of the Palter & Chatter.