CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)- Six Charleston mayoral candidates took the stage on Thursday night for the race’s only televised debate ahead of the election.
Incumbent Mayor John Tecklenburg tried to convince voters to give him a third term while five challengers – William Cogswell, Mika Gadsden, Debra Gammons, Clay Middleton, and Peter Shahid – tried to position themselves as the better choice.
The hour-long event saw candidates tackle some of the city’s most pressing problems like overdevelopment, the threat of rising sea levels and flooding, the need for affordable housing, and the ongoing controversy within the Charleston County School District.
As expected, the candidates targeted Tecklenburg several times during the debate, particularly for the city’s response to violence that broke out on King Street in May 2020.
The protests that turned into riots on May 30 and 31 were among many across the nation sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
Many businesses in the downtown area experienced damage to windows and storefronts, like the Apple Store and Hotel Bennet. Tear gas was fired at demonstrators and fires were set at a number of businesses like West Elm, Fuel and Family Dollar. Several people were injured.
Middleton, a decorated combat veteran who served 22 years in the SC Army National Guard, criticized Tecklenburg for not being better prepared for what he called a “known threat” and said it was a mistake to issue a police stand down order.
“People could peacefully protest, no issue with that, but I would have would have cut off access points to better control where they’re coming and where they could peacefully protest,” Middleton said. “I would have acted on the intelligence and I would not have needed a lesson learned.”
Tecklenburg defended his response that night, rebutting that there was no such order given.
“I can tell you here tonight: there was no stand down order issued that night by Chief [Luther] Reynolds or by this mayor and I stood by our police officers and firefighters while they bravely protected our city,” he said. “At the end of the night, God blessed us that no life was lost and no one was even hospitalized.”
Another contentious moment came on the issue of affordable housing.
Asked what he could do as mayor to ensure people who work in Charleston could afford to live here, real estate developer Cogswell said what the city has done under Tecklenburg’s administration to address affordable housing “is not even coming close to working” and suggested a property tax cap on longtime owner occupied homes and called for the formation of a regional housing authority.
“Mr. Cogswell really hasn’t been doing his homework,” Tecklenburg retorted, taking aim at Cogswell’s time at the Statehouse. “The new ideas that Mr. Cogswell has about dealing with the tax credits and property taxes are all state issues. Why didn’t he do that in the state legislature?”
“We tried to do that, but we never heard anything from the mayor coming to solicit for it and to advocate for it,” Cogswell, who represented SC House District 110 from 2017 to 2022, responded.
The candidates also had an opportunity address the city’s plan to construct an eight-foot protective sea wall around the peninsula, a project that is slated to cost an estimated $1.1 billion.
When asked by moderator Riley Benson whether they supported the sea wall, only Middleton and Tecklenburg raised their hands in favor of the project.
Gammons, an attorney and professor, expressed concern with several elements of the project, including its aesthetic appeal, and said it only addresses one part of the problem.
“It’s important when we’re addressing this issue to take a holistic view at our city,” Gammons said. “Money is going in one area for one issue. That does not address flooding, it’s only for storm surges.”
Charleston City Councilman Peter Shahid echoed similar concerns arguing that the sea wall should not be the city’s top priority when it comes to flood mitigation.
“Our own consultants have told us there’s approximately 200 other flooding-related projects that the city needs to be addressing…some of those projects are in West Ashley and some are on James Island,” he said. “The money that we have allocated is going to be limited and we need to be putting our priorities in order which is addressing those issues that affect our neighborhoods on a regular basis.”
In one of the last segments of the night, moderator Carolyn Murray asked the candidates if they would consider moving forward with an independent school district, citing recent controversy with the Charleston County School District Board of Trustees.
Every candidate, expect for Tecklenburg, said no.
Gadsden, an activist and community organizer, said that she believes in supporting the public school system — of which she is a byproduct — but that the mayor also needs to call out partisan extremists that “have influenced our local school board.” Five of the current CCSD board members are backed by Moms For Liberty, a self-described “parental rights” group that was recently labeled as extremist.
“I don’t think that whenever problems arise, we need to just lop off the problematic party,” she said. “We could disavow and distance ourselves from that problematic faction and I think true leadership will call it out and distance themselves from that type of activity.”
The Charleston mayoral election will take place on Tuesday, November 7. Registered voters can cast an early ballot beginning Oct. 23.