Traditionally controlled by a conservative, white male-dominated political infrastructure, North Charleston's municipal elections on June 14 present a unique opportunity for the city's black majority population to assert their influence. Indeed, the election could change North Charleston's political, and, ultimately, its social outlook for decades to come with an unprecedented 13 black candidates vying for office.
Hillery Douglas, one of three blacks on the Charleston County School Board, is contending for the mayor's seat, while 12 others are seeking election in six council districts.
Since single-member districts were formed in 1990, only four blacks have been elected to council in the city of some 80,000, where about 53 percent of residents are black. A new generation of leadership, spearheaded by the presidents of black neighborhood groups and other community activists, is redefining North Charleston politics.
"I think more blacks are beginning to look at City Council as a way to improve their communities," says Derosher Price, a first-time candidate seeking election in Dist. 7. "Ten years ago, when blacks were still in the minority, I think a lot of people felt they wouldn't have an impact. But now I think more blacks see they can have a say about the development going on around them through a role on council."
The three blacks seated on the North Charleston City Council who are running for re-election — Jesse Dove, Dorothy Williams, and Sam Hart — will be seeing challenges from candidates who are looking to bring a new perspective to the city government.
Williams and Hart have each served four consecutive four-year terms, each running unopposed in their last election, and Dove was elected in 2003. They were preceded on council by the late Richard Ganaway, who served one term on council before unsuccessfully seeking election as mayor in 1991. Ganaway was considered North Charleston's foremost proponent for single-member district elections. Since his tenure, black representation on North Charleston's council has remained conspicuously conservative in reflection of the city's administration.
City Council challengers include Michael Brown and Coakley Hilton. Running in Dist. 10 and Dist. 4, respectively, they're neighborhood association presidents and founding members of the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities. The two have been among the central figures in mitigation between historically black communities on the city's southern tip and the developing State Ports Authority (SPA) facility at the former Charleston Naval Base. The group of some seven predominantly-black communities affected by the development last year won an unprecedented $4 million from the SPA to mitigate impact on their communities.
Liberty Hill natives Hilton and Price are pushing for a redevelopment of the community of approximately 300 families adjacent to the affluent, predominantly-white Park Circle community. They hope to minimize the impact of the Noisette project on perhaps the oldest black community in North Charleston, which was bisected by Montague Avenue about 25 years ago.
Brown and community activist James Johnson, running against each other for the open Dist. 10 seat, contend the same scenario has been woven over the past 12 years of Dist. 10's incorporation into the city. While Brown distinguished himself in negotiations for community mitigations, Johnson has been a prominent figure in contesting controversial police actions.
William Wylder, running against Williams in Dist. 6, is the brother of Asberry Wylder, who was slain two years ago in a controversial shooting by North Charleston police after the mentally-ill man was accused of stealing a package of lunch meat. William Wylder says that current black representatives have all but facilitated the city's designation as the 12th most dangerous city in the country.
Former North Charleston police officer Chris Collins, running for the Dist. 10 seat, also cites North Charleston's violent reputation (with 29 murders in 2006) as a reason for wanting to come in and clean things up.
"A lot is happening in the city with all the crime and killings," Collins says.
Under redistricting four years ago, five majority black districts were formed among North Charleston's 10 council districts. They are districts 5, 6, 7, 9, and 10. However, no blacks have been elected to districts 5 and 9 and none are seeking election this year.
By contrast, Dove is seeking his second term in majority white Dist. 1, where he faces challenges from Bill Brown, as well as Edward Astle and Deon Knecht, who are both white. Hilton and Ted Cozart are also running in majority white districts. If successful, Hilton says his election would mean greater representation on City Council overall.
"The interests of the constituents in my district are somewhat different from those of most African-American constituents," Hiton says. "For example, most predominantly black communities face extreme issues of crime and infrastructure, such as drainage. But we all pay taxes and while those issues may not be a priority in Northwoods Estates, my constituents are paying taxes for infrastructure that isn't being provided in other districts."
Blacks have shown significant interest in council elections only in the city's southern Dist. 10, represented by Gussie Greene, the lone black council member not seeking re-election. Four years ago, Greene fought off four challengers — including three blacks — to retain her seat.
North Charleston's June 14 elections pit the old against the new. An emerging metropolis that many once considered downtown's castaway stepchild is coming into its own as a burgeoning mecca for perhaps the state's largest concentration of black residents who want new and more responsive leadership.
The black candidates for North Charleston City Council are:
Dist. 1: Incumbent Jesse Dove, Bill Brown
Dist. 2: Ted Cozart
Dist. 4: Coakley Hilton
Dist. 6: Incumbent Dorothy Williams, William Wylder
Dist. 7: Incumbent Sam Hart, Edward Greene Jr., Derosher Price
Dist. 10: Michael Brown, Chris Collins, James Johnson