Quiet public works election gets runoff and national attention

Race named to "10 to Watch" list by LGBT group

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Although this year's Election Day included 20 different races across Charleston County, with major at-large elections in Charleston and Mt. Pleasant, only one will head to a Nov. 19 runoff. However, that one runoff — for an under-the-radar public works post — could become a milestone victory in South Carolina for LGBT candidates.

Despite predictions, no runoffs will need to be held for any of Mt. Pleasant's over-crowded contests. Current Town Councilwoman Linda Page won the mayoral race, and Elton Carrier, Paul Gawrych, Gary Santos, and Mark Smith will take positions on town council.

In Charleston, the incumbents prevailed with the exception of one. Downtown Councilman Mike Seekings survived a challenge from former First Congressional District candidate Bobbie Rose, and in West Ashley, Rodney Williams knocked off District 2 Councilman Blake Hallman. But the stunner for some came a little farther down the ballot.

CPW candidate Catherine LaFond - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • CPW candidate Catherine LaFond

"I thought I might surprise some people, and I did," says Catherine LaFond, who will take on incumbent Commissioner of Public Works William Koopman in the county's only runoff. LaFond, a Charleston real estate and elder law attorney, is quietly confident that she can jump into the office with the expertise needed, bringing a "new perspective" to effectively help guide the Charleston Water System, particularly as it tackles issues around development in West Ashley, where she lives.

Koopman, who earned the backing of Charleston Mayor Joe Riley in the general election, spent 30 years as a staffer for the county and the Water System office before retiring in 2005. It remains to be seen if Riley's endorsement in the general election will help Koopman in the runoff, who finished second with 37 percent of the vote behind LaFond's 43 percent. In third place was Tim Mallard, a former West Ashley city councilman best remembered as a rabble-rouser, a fact not lost on some observers who believe Mallard's name on the ballot had prompted Riley to wade into the quiet public works race.

The battle lines aren't quite as defined in the runoff. Koopman, who was appointed by Riley in 2006, may have the mayor's support, but some local Democratic leaders are lining up behind LaFond. A host list for a runoff fundraiser on Nov. 11 includes Anne Stavrinakis (wife of state Rep. Leon), County Councilwoman Colleen Condon, Linda Ketner, the current and former local Democratic Party chairs, and Project XX SC, an advocacy group for women candidates headed by longtime Riley campaign manager Ginny Deerin.

If LaFond unseats Koopman, she would not only become the only female commissioner in the county, she would be added to a short list of openly gay candidates elected to public office in South Carolina. Her entry into the race got the attention of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a D.C. advocacy group that named the race one of its 10 to Watch this year. LaFond says she appreciates the support, but downplays its role in her campaign. "I'm not running on it. I don't think it's my qualification," she says, emphasizing her legal experience.

Less than 5,000 cast their votes in Tuesday's election, but LaFond isn't phased by the low figures ahead of the Nov. 19 runoff.

"Most of the things that affect us on a daily basis are local issues," LaFond says when asked how she plans to turn people out for a down ballot runoff.

Polls will be open 7 a.m. - 7 p.m. next Tuesday.

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