- The men of the Magnificent Seven (L to R): Marvin Stewart, Thurston Smith, Robert Mitchell, Joe Watson, and George Powell (Not pictured: Sheila Powell, Willie Key)
Centrally located and yet economically isolated, the peninsula's East Side neighborhood will finally get a chance to fill its leadership void come Tuesday.
Over the summer, after years spent making more headlines (and enemies in City Hall) than ordinances, Larry "Kwadjo" Campbell was removed from Council by Gov. Mark Sanford after being indicted for violating state campaign finance laws.
With a leader apparently more interested in representin' than representing District 4, the pressures on the embattled neighborhood only increased each time Campbell was arrested. With every passing year, the "line" where white families deign to live has seemingly moved, block by block, into the heart of the East Side. To the south, Mazyck-Wraggborough types have started to creep past Mary Street. To the east, plans to remove the State Port Authority from its waterfront acreage were scuttled. To the west, the Meeting Street corridor ebbed when the College of Charleston decided not to build a new basketball arena, then it flowed as developer Robert Clement III plunked millions into four acres bordered by King, Meeting, Spring, and Cannon streets and bought up homes inside the neighborhood.
Now the East Side's last frontier, its northern border where the old Cooper River bridges used to tower, is in the process of being razed and raised from its ashes as City Hall implements a plan to construct parks, ponds, and mixed-use commercial zones and mixed-price point housing in its place.
Additionally, the City's intention to bulldoze a path from the Crosstown through to East Bay may only further gentrify the area and reinforce the ongoing exodus of blacks off the peninsula.
Into that charged and challenging environment, seven different -- and at times very disparate -- candidates are vying to fill the seat left vacant by Campbell.
Sheila Powell ran in the last election four years ago and won the seat in a run-off against Campbell, but then the results were thrown out and she lost in a third vote. Former Councilman Robert Mitchell, whose district was folded into District 4 that same year, will try to reenter city politics. District 20 Constituent Board chair Marvin Stewart sees a chance to further help his neighbors, as does neighborhood activist Joe Watson. Drug counselor Thurston Smith wants to clean up the streets. Store owner George Powell wants to make sure everyone in the district has the right to a job, a house he can afford, and a dream. And substitute teacher Willie Key, whose lawsuit persuaded Council to drop a $150 campaign registration fee for indigent candidates like himself, is keeping his positions to himself, as he refuses to do interviews.
So far, Mrs. Powell, the sister-in-law of Mr. Powell and a former East Side neighborhood association president, is running a front-runner's race: say little to inflame, keep your head down, and win on name recognition. According to several of the other candidates, she also has the blessing of Mayor Joe Riley, who was accused by Campbell of being the political force behind her last run for office.
But if that's true, and Riley is behind Powell, it would probably benefit the East Side for the mayor to have a go-to person in the district on Council.
Robert Mitchell, who ran for this seat in 2001 and lost a County Council race to Henry Darby last year, served on Council before federal election regulators folded his former district into others in 2001. As such, he may be the best pick for his ability to get things done on Council
The knock against Mitchell is that he largely disappeared from public view after his term ended. Mitchell says he's been working "behind the scenes" with members of Council and still has good relationships with Councilmembers like Wendell Gilliard and James Lewis.
There probably isn't another candidate who knows better how hard it is to improve the neighborhood than the 65-year-old Joe Watson, long a thorn in Campbell's side, who has flitted from one uplifting project to another.
Watson, after presenting the idea of fully redeveloping The Neck to deep-pocketed developer Clement, may have the best angle on working on affordable housing in the district over the short run.
The biggest criticism against Watson within the community is that he doesn't actually live there. Instead, critics say, he lives in West Ashley and simply owns property in the East Side. Watson confirms that he owns property across the Ashley River, but says he lives at 62 America St. Additionally, he claims that election rules don't have a residency requirement.
"I've never voted or paid taxes any other place than downtown," he says, his voice rising.
As loud as Watson's voice may become, none of the other candidates can speak to the district's need for a strengthened public school district like Marvin Stewart can, who sits on the District 20 Constituent Board. And that is a much-needed attribute in a neighborhood that's seen several of its schools closed -- some for remodeling and some, perhaps, for good.
While all of the candidates want drug dealers off the corners, none are as experienced at dealing face-to-face with addiction than Thurston Smith, who works as a drug counselor at the VA hospital and claims that a large percentage of his patients and clients have been from the neighborhood.
A former Crisis Ministries boardmember, Smith has yet to be fully welcomed home in the East Side, having moved there only five months ago. "The first week I lived here, my apartment got broken into three times," he says, adding that crooks even stole his pistol.
George Powell, on the other hand, has ties to the neighborhood that are nearly as long as the dreadlocks that cascade down his back. Born in a Cooper Street home across the road from the store he now runs and on the site of his current, rebuilt house, Powell has seen practically everything that's happened in the district dating back to the mid-20th century. From his spot on Cooper Street, he'll also have a front row seat to the future as the City goes ahead with plans to rebuild a stretch of exposed dirt that once split the neighborhood and district in half.
Powell says he'll fight hard for preserving the fabric of the community, but he already worries City Hall will come up with another "convenient" excuse to relocate the various public housing projects in the district in much the same way it made Ansonborough Homes disappear, or use community development block grants to build another Saks Fifth Avenue, like he accuses the current administration of having done.
Regardless of who gets elected, District 4 needs a leader on City Council in the worst possible way to make sure it doesn't get wiped off the map and turned into another all-white outcropping of the city. And if that's what the fight is all about, then it's less a seven-way mano-a-mano fight, and more like The Magnificent Seven vs. market forces.