Dark money mail circulating in highly contested Charleston council race

24-year incumbent says race is as negative as he's seen

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SAM SPENCE
  • Sam Spence
Candidates in the most-contested Charleston City Council race are disavowing negative election literature that has reportedly been landing in mailboxes this week.

At least two pieces of mail from anonymous groups have been reported in the race for District 3, where two candidates are pursuing a challenge to incumbent Councilman James Lewis.

One postcard obtained by Charleston City Paper appears to frame the election in a racial context, showing photos of African-American members of city council and encouraging voters to "be the firewall," in the rapidly gentrifying district. The mailing is attributed to the "Committee to Have Our Voices Heard." No such group appears to be registered with S.C. Secretary of State or IRS.



The other mailing from an unregistered group appears to show a mugshot of one of the candidates, Jason Taylor, and is paid for by the "Committee for Leadership Integrity." Taylor says he was stopped by Mt. Pleasant police over the summer, but disputes Charleston County Sheriff's Office records which show someone by the same name charged by police in June. The Post and Courier reports Taylor pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and paid a fine earlier this month.
Taylor was also the recipient of a suspicious package last month. Charleston Police shut down Broad Street for hours on Sept. 10, as HAZMAT crews responded to a white-powder substance in a package reportedly left at Taylor's law office. SLED has been asked to assist in the case, a spokesman said on Wednesday, and the investigation remains open.

Lewis (L-R), Sakran, and Taylor have all disavowed negative ads in the District 3 race - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Lewis (L-R), Sakran, and Taylor have all disavowed negative ads in the District 3 race
Both pieces of mail fall into the category of dark money, which is broadly defined as "spending from undisclosed sources to influence political outcomes," according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Without disclosure or registration, it's impossible to know how much money was spent on the mudslinging campaigns and by whom.

Lewis, Taylor, and challenger Jason Sakran have all disavowed the literature and say they have no knowledge of specific groups or people who might be behind them. It's unknown how many of the mailers were distributed in District 3, which includes the Westside neighborhood of downtown and parts of West Ashley.

"This type of politics is the last thing we need right now," Sakran said in an op-ed submitted to City Paper. On Wednesday, Lewis said the negative campaigning this year is the worst he's seen in his 24 years in office.

The shadow group mailings in District 3 are not the first non-candidate mail to pop up in this year's local elections.

Mailings by a group tied to a former law partner of Councilman Mike Seekings, who is running for mayor, have been sent to voters across the city. Mayor John Tecklenburg has called on his opponent to "put a stop to this nasty political nonsense," but Seekings has denied involvement with the mailings. That group, Citizens for a Better Charleston LLC, is registered with the state, but is not subject to ethics laws that would require disclosure of its donors and how much it spends. In all, candidates for mayor will likely raise more than $2 million on the race that will draw around 25,000 voters.

The Lowcountry Livability PAC has also endorsed and sent mail targeted in local races, but is subject to disclosure laws. As of its Oct. 10 filing with the state, the PAC had raised around $61,000. On Wednesday, Dana Beach, who sits on the group's steering committee, said they were on track to spend more than $100,000 in local races and denied involvement in other mail campaigns. The group has not endorsed in the mayoral election, but Beach says they may reconsider if the race goes to a runoff.

Two other candidates filed in the race have withdrawn and backed other candidates, but remain on the ballot. Luquman Rasheed is backing Lewis and Robert Cason Gaither is reportedly supporting Taylor.

Voters head to the polls on Nov. 5. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held between the top two vote-getters on Nov. 19.

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