The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance

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Shrimp 'n Grits

Journalistic Adaptive Reuse – the gift that keeps on giving
Lee Walton

Given a lifetime of knowledge about the political intrigue typifying the Banana Republic of Charleston, sometimes this writer just can’t help being amused by our fair City’s similarities to other larger, internationally prominent cities in our nation that suffer from the same junta governance malady. Such was the case when reading a recent Wall Street Journal article by Douglas Belkin about Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s over reaching bid for the 2016 Olympic Games. Either Mr. Belkin has secretly studied the political lives of both Daley and our own J. Pericles Riley, or the two mayors are twins who were mysteriously separated at birth.

But for a few changes in names and places, carefully noted in italics, the following adaptation of Mr. Belkin’s article could just as easily described our own Pericles and his wana’be “Athens on the Atlantic” complete with a foundering Acropolis at the east end of Calhoun Street.

J. Pericles Riley isn’t use to losing votes. Arguably, South Carolina’s most powerful mayor, he has won nine straight elections, helped put countless others – including a president - into office and lost just a few votes in the City Council over the past thirty-four years.

But on the eve of the Calhoun Street-East/Cooper River Waterfront Plan (CSE/CRW) vote …on whether Charleston will support Riley’s Plan, the city has abandoned its first citizen just when Mr. Riley needs them the most. Mr. Riley, head of the city’s unchallenged Democratic machine, is unfazed. He’s lined up his hotel and office complex deal-estate development cronies and raised cash.

Charlestonians are weary after months of recession and South Carolina scandals, and angry about everything from rising tide in the streets to deepening potholes. They are especially skeptical of Mr. Riley’s push: After pledging Charleston wouldn’t pay a cent should the Aquarium lose money, the mayor later said Charleston would cover any potential shortfalls.

In public meetings, citizens rail that, after the Sofa Super Store tragedy, he has become isolated, thin skinned and autocratic… Mr. Riley, asked about his falling approval ratings and concerns over cost overruns and corruption, shakes his head. ‘You have to have a vision,’ the 67-year old mayor said…’You just can’t start second-guessing yourself.’ Mr. Riley says his CSE/CRW Plan will transform Charleston and update its international image from a tourist destination to the Athens on the Atlantic his planners envisioned.

Mr. Riley grew up in Downtown Charleston in a mostly Irish enclave below Broad. Elected mayor in 1975, Mr. Riley jettisoned much of his father’s social conservatism and racial cynicism. He supported a gay-rights bill, switched his abortion stance to pro-choice and hired the first of three African-Americans to be his police chief, clerk of council, and marina manager.

Mr. Riley rises early and works late. He is a micromanager with a deep knowledge of the city. Charleston’s dozens of boards and committees are packed with his loyalists…When Mr. Riley meets opposition, he bulldozes. A local weekly paper editorial compared the mayor with a banana republic general.

‘I don’t trust this mayor’…’He’s an emperor,’ said a long-time Peninsula resident. ‘People with clout get everything, people without clout get nothing. At this point, to trust him, would make us fools.”

From the sound of it, the only difference between Chicago and Charleston politics respectively, is the sub-zero temperatures in January and the oppressive, high-humidity heat waves in August.

My sincere literary apologies to Mr. Douglas Belkin and special thanks for his assurance that Charleston doesn’t suffer alone.

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