Voter apathy is always a factor in elections, and it may determine the outcome of Charleston's municipal elections next week.
An unprecedented 10 African American candidates are vying for office. Two are seeking to unseat incumbent Mayor Joseph Riley, while in three of the city's five majority-black city council districts, African-American incumbents are facing black challengers. District 3's James Lewis and District 5's Jimmy Gallant each face a single African-American opponent, while Louis Waring in District 7 faces two.
For the challengers, voter apathy could spell doom. All the incumbents are repeat officeholders with core support bases. To unseat them, the challengers not only must tap those supporters, but they must also bring previously inactive voter groups to the polls. (They should probably pray it doesn't rain, too.)
So far the councilmembers seem confident their support base will carry them into another term in office.
Jimmy Bailey, who challenged Riley four years ago in a five-way race that saw the mayor emerge with 57 percent of the vote, says the three mayoral challengers in next week's election should be insulted. Riley has barely bothered to campaign.
According to Bailey, Riley's arrogance is almost blasphemous. However, he predicts the mayor will end up with about 60 percent of the vote despite the many criticisms directed at the city following the Sofa Super Store fire that killed nine Charleston firemen. Mayor Riley's unconditional support of department heads, like Fire Chief Rusty Thomas, who many believe should resign, will likely do little to turn voters against the mayor.
Among the three candidates running against Riley, William Dudley Gregorie, a retired U.S. Housing and Urban Development director, has mounted the most viable challenge. As an African American, Gregorie is expected to siphon off Riley's black supporters. That said, the black vote will likely be divided between Gregorie and Charleston Police Department's Omar Brown, who some say was planted in the race for exactly that purpose.
Black challengers in the council district races will also have to bring new voters to the polls. Four years ago, both Lewis and Gallant were unopposed, but this time they won't be so lucky.
Lewis faces two black opponents — Erika Harrison and Luqman Rasheed. Harrison, a Charleston attorney, has mounted the most visible challenge, spending the past couple of months developing voter support in the predominantly white — and increasingly more affluent — Cannonborough-Elliotborough communities. Rasheed has been all but invisible during the campaign season.
Gallant's hopes for reelection likely rest with the 1,031 voters who supported him four years ago. His challenger Leroy Connors Jr. has run a low-key campaign betting that voters who feel underserved in the Neck will throw him their support. However, there are only about 450 registered voters in there. Pulling new voters from Wagner Terrace to the polls will determine if Connors has a chance for success.
District 7 incumbent Louis Waring faced off against fellow black challenger Willard Sheppard four years ago. In that election, he walked away with 715 of the 1,137 ballots cast in the two-way race. Next week, black retired Charleston Recreation Department supervisor Fran Herne will join the pair in a contest over District 7's 4,230 registered voters. Herne, a political novice, thinks that 30 years as a city employee gives her some knowledge of the administrative process, but more importantly the aging Waring, who frequently misses council meetings due to health issues, is vulnerable.
The incumbents haven't motivated voters to the polls. Let's hope these challengers will.