Mary Clark's royal court has revolted.
For 14 years, she's been a leading voice for an incorporated James Island. For most of that time, Clark has been the face of islanders opposed to the encroaching reach of the City of Charleston. In her own words, she's fiercely stubborn, refusing to give up a point if she thinks she's right. That determination may very well have been the difference between success and failure for the Town of James Island.
For the past four years, she's continued the legal fight for the town — now awaiting a final decision from the state Supreme Court. After two failed attempts, it appears the town's argument before the bench might finally find success.
But Clark has also been trying to run a town. And that's not going so well. In 2008 elections, Clark and the Town Council faced no opposition. This year, she's got four challengers for her seat, and there are 10 people fighting for a spot on the council.
A slim majority on the Town Council has largely let Clark run things her way. But a string of council decisions has raised the ire of community members and the eyebrows of even her staunchest supporters. Clark and other town leaders have been accused of nepotism, intimidation, and mismanagement, as well as taking on too many responsibilities while shirking others.
"This is not the mayor's town," said one resident during a recent meeting. "The sign says the Town of James Island ... not Mary Clark," another stated. This has been going on for months, and it routinely gets a chorus of applause from residents at town council meetings. One woman stood up earlier this month and noted there were few accomplishments during Mary Clark's "reign."
Clark finds the comparison between the new town she's helped to mold and an old-world monarchy "ridiculous." Her administration has founded a town hall where residents can come with their grievances and concerns and she has put together a staff and a collection of boards to handle the town's business. She says it is a very small number of political opponents rousing the opposition — that they're anti-Mary Clark and anti-James Island.
But Clark is not above making her own allusions to rulers. In the same interview, she referred to Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, a frequent Mary Clark punching bag, as "the pharaoh across the river."
Van Fleming, a self-proclaimed longtime Clark supporter, stood up to rail against her at a recent Town Council meeting.
"Mary did the people's will for a long time," he said, before turning directly to Clark. "You quit listening to the people and what they wanted."
Doug Patterson, a resident of James Island for 27 years, said he and his wife used to support Clark. They still believe in the town and in defending the island from City of Charleston mismanagement, but Patterson said it's time for her to go.
"We're certainly grateful for all the hard work that she's done," he said. "But she's almost become what she used to criticize. It's her way or the highway."
Clark seems loyal to a fault and considerate to a point. She appears to expect the same in return, and as a result, she seems frustrated that her allies are now questioning her leadership while skeptics in the community continue to challenge her priorities. Our discussions with her support these impressions.
Clark seemed flustered as she stood at a Town Council meeting earlier this month to respond to her critics. It was two days after July 4. She opened with, "Happy birthday, America!" Clark smacked her hands together. Few followed her lead; the angry crowd just stared back at her. "Clap! Clap!" she yelled.