- Adam Manno
- The City of Charleston says 22-year-old Harry Griffin is the Holy City's youngest councilman "in living memory."
"A lot of people were watching on TV, and I was getting texts that said, "You won!" because 10 to 15 percent of votes had been reported," Griffin says. "It's a little frustrating, 'cause you know you didn't. For me, that was a kick in the butt kind of moment. 'You gotta work a little harder.'"
Griffin finished with 39 percent of the vote on the night of Nov. 7, which he calls his "weakest moment." The incumbent, Dean Riegel, was out of the way after earning only 17 percent of his constituents' support, but that still meant Griffin would have to face challenger Summer Massey on Nov. 21.
Lucky for him, Harry Griffin isn't like a lot of other 22-year-olds.
In the hour and a half we spent together, he looked at his phone only once — already a major feat for someone younger than the typical Millennial. His folksy manner manifested in modest bursts. My single cup of coffee paled in comparison to the large iced tea (topped off with two sugar packets) and full breakfast plate he ordered at 7:30 p.m. He chose the diner we met at, Bear-E-Patch Café on Ashley River Road, partly because of its proximity to his district, but also because his grandparents can be seen at one of its tables almost every day during brunch hours.
"If they're not here, we freak out," our waitress informed me after recognizing Griffin.
The burly 2016 Citadel graduate is cut from the cloth of confidence.
He finished college in three years and joined in the family business full-time, working in project procurement at Neal Brothers: an export packing company in North Charleston managed by his father. (He assured me that when he started there at 16, he was "cleaning the toilets.")
That work ethic, combined with a dash of naiveté and the desire to leave a better world for his four-year-old brother, led him to enter the City Council race in August 2017.
"I thought I knew a lot of people when I first decided to run," Griffin said. "I guess what I didn't realize when I first started out was that a lot of people didn't know me."
Between superlatives and sound bites that can sometimes require reeling in ("Charleston is perfect," "I love, love, love talking to people in my district"), Griffin seems attune to what his constituents actually care about.
Number one on his list? Flooding.
In a 20-minute crash course on the Church Creek Basin, Griffin expounded upon the need for Charleston to continue to limit density in the area. He says he's been exploring a plan, "still in the very early stages," to get a maintenance shelf running near the Church Creek Basin on the CSX railroad tracks that would simultaneously allow the city to clean the basin and let CSX maintain their tracks.
It was a walk along that basin a little over a month into his campaign, with a few engineers, that inspired the "light bulb moment" that Griffin says put him on the map: a video about the conditions at the drainage basin.
In the video, Griffin tugs at his shirt a few times and stumbles through a couple of words when describing the "neglect" responsible for the "debris" in the basin.
"I went out and shot the video, and within a couple days it got over 10,000 views," he said. (Facebook officially lists the views of the video at 8,500.)
In the Nov. 21 runoff election, Griffin beat Massey by 99 votes for the seat representing roughly 9,971 Charlestonians, according to the most recent per-district population breakdown in 2011.
Though he remembers exactly who Mayor Tecklenburg, the Post & Courier, and his colleagues endorsed for his seat, he maintains that everyone has a clean slate with him going into the session.
"I saw two of them today," he added. "I saw Wagner and Moody today about this annexation. We're going to have a public meeting about it on the 23rd and, man, that will be important."
A biannual survey conducted by Harvard's Kennedy School, released in February of 2017, found that 25 percent of respondents aged 18-29 were "more motivated" to get involved in politics, as opposed to 23 percent who said they were "less motivated."
In an October 2017 Time profile about young people in local politics, Charlotte Alter described Millennials — now the largest segment of the U.S. population — as being led by "one of the most geriatric federal governments in history." Alter wrote about how technological savvy and the propensity to work in teams can give Millennials in government a leg up, but that their relative lack of work experience and heightened expectations can create occasional hurdles.
Griffin, who has already used some of those skills to his favor, sees his youth as a positive.
"I've got a lot of energy, I'm bringing new ideas to the table, I'm representing a generation, and I kind of give our city council a different look," Griffin said. "I think that's important because diversity brings positive change."
"Older elected officials have aged during so much gridlock and partisan fighting," said 33-year-old U.S. Rep Elise Stefanik (R-New York) in an interview with Time. "I just think my generation doesn't want to see the extreme partisanship that we're seeing."
Defining himself as "fiscally conservative" and "moderate socially," Griffin echoes a similar mindset.
"I'd say I lean more right and more Republican than anything else, but it's a non-partisan position," he added. "I don't think this is the kind of position where your ideology plays too much into it, because we have to be focused on the day-to-day municipal decisions."
However, some of the topics covered by the Council, and especially the most contentious ones, leave the public with a clear, split-screen view of where their council members' politics lie.
In a spitfire round of questions about a few of Charleston's most controversial issues, Griffin answered most with reserve.
Affordable housing? "I voted against the $20 million bond referendum. It was only going to create like 120 units." (The city says the number of expected rental units will be closer to 800.)
New police audit? "I think that is the best example, in recent times, of people utilizing the citizen participation period and getting results to represent the masses."
Short-term rentals? "I value property rights, but I also value a resident who doesn't want to see someone new standing next to them all the time."
Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon speaking at his alma mater in November 2017? "People paid a price for a ticket to see it happen, and people walked out of there with a smile on their face or whatever. The Citadel Republican Society is important to my heart."
As for how he felt that night at the diner, days before being sworn in to his four-year term on Jan. 9., Griffin is better off handling this one on his own.
"Really, really excited," he said. "I guess you could say nervous, but it's, like, a good nervous. Butterflies in your stomach.
"I'm not ignorant to know that there's gonna be backlash at times. No one's gonna love every decision I make, but as long as I put my district first, I'm making the right choice," he said.