Friday evening Charleston’s mayoral candidates took the stage to express their views and plans for the future in the Mayoral Forum on Race Equity at Burke High School in downtown Charleston.
Although lacking the drama of a presidential debate, Charleston residents of all ages and races gathered in the auditorium to hear candidates’ thoughts on community issues such as education, the legal process, gentrification and the discrimination inherent in each system.
“I came to support John Tecklenburg, but I want to hear what the other candidates have to say,” said Sister Mary Trzasko, who attended the forum.
In the wake of the racially motivated shooting at Emanuel A.M.E in June, race issues are at the forefront of everyone’s mind. The community is eager to know how our next mayor plans to promote and preserve unity.
“We’ve got to keep up the momentum we built after the Days of Grace,” said Trzasko, referring to the march and conference in honor of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who died in the Emanuel shooting, and to call for an end to discrimination and gun violence.
“The turnout today shows we still have a long way to go,” she said, indicating the rows of empty seats behind her.
During the forum, moderated by Tessa Spencer of ABC News 4, candidates had only a minute to lay out their feelings on broad and complex issues.
All six hopefuls emphasized that race equity is an issue that needs to be addressed.
“It was the reason I joined the race,” said Toby Smith, an ordained minister with eight years of experience in the CIA. She said although Mayor Riley did as much as he could, she was still concerned about the direction Charleston is heading.
“The next mayor needs to tackle [inequities] head on,” said state representative Leon Stavrinakis. He spoke about his upbringing in his parents’ restaurant in Charleston and how his parents always fought injustice and fed the hungry of all races.
John Tecklenburg asserted that the issue wouldn’t fix itself over night. “We’ve been instilled in racism for hundreds of years,’ he said.
However, Tecklenburgl acknowledged Mayor Riley’s contributions to the cause as a “giant of change and progress.”
With Burke High’s graduating class photo projected behind them, candidates described how they would repair the “still separate and unequal” education system where black students are disproportionately suspended and college readiness is low among minorities.
Ginny Deerin and Stavrinakis spoke passionately on education, both touting their past records and new plans for education in Charleston. Deerin already promotes education through her charity Wings4Kids and Stavrinakis plans to expand pre-k so that all 4-year-olds can benefit from early learning.
William Dudley Gregorie vowed to create an office of education directly linked with the mayor’s office. He wants to go down in history as “the education mayor.”
The problem doesn’t end with education; the new mayor will also need a plan to keep recent graduates in Charleston by creating training programs and jobs that pay a living wage.
Smith and Tecklenburg both discussed the potential for jobs in Charleston’s growing digital and technology sector, while Stavrinakis said he would invest in hospitality and industry. Deerin laid out her plan for short-term training programs in “software academies” with a guaranteed job upon completion.
Of course, no one will want those jobs unless they pay enough to match Charleston’s high cost of living. Tecklenburg quoted statistics saying a living wage in Charleston would be $11.56 an hour, and that’s just for one person without children, according to MIT.
Gregorie boasted that he already raised the minimum wage to $10.30 an hour as a member of city council, and he supports eventually raising the wage to $15 an hour.
Among other topics discussed were gentrification and the disproportionate arrest and detainment of minorities.
Policing and racial profiling have been a major concern especially since the shooting of Walter Scott by Officer Michael T. Slager. All candidates expressed a commitment to ending profiling and discrimination by the police. Tecklenburg advocated placing cameras on officers to heighten accountability.
On gentrification, candidates pontificated on preserving the diverse population that has been rooted in Charleston for generations.
“Black folks have been pushed off the peninsula for a long time,” said Smith, advocating a change in zoning policy.
Gregorie announced a plan to develop hundreds of affordable housing units and give tax breaks to long-time residents and elderly of the city, those who “made the city.”
The event was staged and organized by Enough Pie, Spaced, and the YWCA of greater Charleston. The next forum is on Sept. 30 at 5:30 at the Charleston Music Hall.