In the summer of 1997, S.C. Rep. Wendell Gilliard was a scrappy local union president making his first run at public office. Fifteen years later, the 58-year-old cuts a commanding yet relaxed figure at Saffron's on East Bay, where he holds court over coffee from the same table where iron-working legend Philip Simmons used to sit and greet admirers.
But this isn't one of those "local lad rises far above his humble upbringing" stories. After 15 years in public life, the State House District 111 representative remains deliberately close to his roots. A proud native of Charleston's rough East Side, he's a man with a gift for relating arcane policy questions to the values he learned growing up at 69 Harris St.
Which is also the irony of Gilliard the public figure. The young man who emerged on Charleston City Council as a challenger to the city's seersucker establishment may have looked like a black radical to white voters in 1997, but he quickly earned a name for himself by taking on moral issues that made him look almost prudish. Whether picketing a West Ashley porn shop or trying to cover up bikini-clad college girls in Marion Square, Gilliard generated headlines during his decade on City Council in a way that challenged liberal attitudes and youth culture without actually alienating liberals or young people. And his efforts earned him the "Best City Councilman" title in the City Paper's annual Reader's Poll from 2006-'08.
But here's the problem with that picture: It misses the point. "People forget the big things," Gilliard says. "They remember the little things."
The big things on Gilliard's public-service resume, like creating jobs, improving infrastructure, and protecting local workers' place in the hiring line, are more important to him. He rejects the title of politician, preferring to call himself "a certified public servant." But policy issues are more complex than the visceral reaction people had to his campaign to shut down the porn shop at the entrance to the historic Maryville neighborhood on St. Andrews Boulevard back in the late 1990s, or his later push to turn video cameras on drug dealers in black neighborhoods.
His wonkish goals from 1997 remain his biggest priorities today, and if you wonder about that, ask. The man can fill your inbox with an overstuffed digital scrapbook of letters, reports, and certificates documenting his policy successes. He won cost of living increases for city workers, shamed the city into installing central air-conditioning in its public housing, and did much of the heavy lifting required to push drainage projects to the front of Charleston's agenda. Yet he recognizes that his knack for tackling provocative social issues is what kept him on the front page.
What people don't always recognize, Gilliard says, is that he often picks his battles in part because an issue reflects a blind spot in the community's thinking, as with his attempt to ban bikinis in Marion Square.
"I remember the City Paper called me back then and said, 'Are you crazy?' I said no, I'm just trying to be real. I had one or two churches that contacted me and asked me to come out to this event, and wanted me to actually see what the children had to walk by, day in and day out ... and I could see for myself, it was obvious. The kids had to look at nudity, OK? And I thought that was a bad thing.
"So I did a little research," he adds. "And I said to myself, now wait a minute. If this was an African-American college, like a S.C. State, and you had black women out there in bikinis, man, they'd have shut that thing down overnight. I'm a realist. And that was my whole point, besides looking out for the religious institutions."
Today Wendell Gilliard is in his second term as a Democratic state representative in Columbia, where he's still pushing economic development, talking up education, and protecting the rights of veterans. His political ceiling is not yet apparent, but he talks openly about a future in higher office. Maybe Congress. Maybe mayor. Which one?
"That's up to the people I serve," Gilliard says.