The 2015 Charleston mayoral race will be a historical contest for more than the mere fact that it will be the first in 40 years not to feature Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. This year's race will also be remembered for the sheer amount of money that was raised — and spent — by candidates. As of last week, the currently announced slate of candidates have amassed a combined $1 million-plus in campaign funds.
That might not seem like a lot of cash compared to state and federal elections, where that much money alone is used to pay people to make "homemade" signs to wave at rallies. But for a town that barely makes it into the top 200 most populous cities in the U.S., that figure is a bit of a head-scratcher.
For a couple of points of comparison, let's look at one of Charleston's closest neighbors on that list, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Only slightly more populous than the Holy City, Cedar Rapids held its last mayoral election in 2013, so one might think that the amount of money raised for such an election would be comparable to the 2015 Charleston mayoral race. Well, it isn't. Incumbent Mayor Ron Corbett had only raised around $74,000 the October before that election. That's only about a third of what the top four candidates in Charleston have — a full six months before Election Day.
Now, one could argue that the 2013 mayoral race in Cedar Rapids featured an incumbent, so the comparison doesn't hold up very well. Or maybe it's just that Iowa politics isn't the same as South Carolina politics. So perhaps an even better metric for figuring out how much Charleston's chief executive's chair is worth would be to look to our nearest state neighbor on that list. That honor falls to Columbia. And the Capital City's 2009 election, the one where current mayor Steve Benjamin emerged victorious for the first time, should suffice.
In October of that year, Benjamin had raised a "record" $102,475 running for mayor. That sounds like a lot, but it's a third of what Charleston mayoral candidate and state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis raised in two months.
Still, is Columbia even a fair comparison? They don't even have a port to worry about. Our fair Charleston has a port. Savannah has a port. Our ports even compete! Surely the Savannah mayoral races run red with the amount of blood candidates, their handlers, and their supporters spilled raising money. I'm thinking Mayor Edna Branch Jackson alone raised a million dollars back in 2011. Or, perhaps, she raised less than $70,000.
So, if the size of the city is not a determinant of fund-raising levels for a mayoral race, what else could it be? Could it be the fact that Charleston has what is known in local government parlance as a "strong" mayor, or a mayor who is a full-time city manager with powers that extend outside of council meetings? Well, Mayor Keith Summey of North Charleston is a strong mayor, and he has raised only about $130,000, according to his most recent filing to the S.C. Ethics Commission. But even the relatively fat paycheck associated with being a strong mayor only makes sense if the candidates are personally putting up all this lucre for the chance to be mayor.
It seems to me the only variable that I haven't looked at, in my completely unscientific and not terribly accurate manner, is that one variable that everyone loves to hate: our status as one of the nation's premier tourist towns. Who doesn't want to be the mayor of the No. 1 city in America, if not the world?
Even though we may never know the reason for the insane amount of money being raised here, one thing is for certain: it's probably the only thing we'll have to talk about for the next six months. It's not like the candidates actually have something to say.
There will be lots of vapid sound bites, flashy websites, urgent emails, innocuous tweets, and downloadable PDFs describing the candidates' ideas for a better Charleston, but sadly, most of these will revolve around the same buzzwords and nonsense that all of their fellow candidates will be using. Yes, we must continue to grow industry and fix transportation — both of which are wonderful things — but without actual concrete information to support them, these ideas are about as meaningful as a high school presidential candidate's promise of "free ice cream every day" if he or she wins.
Then again, most student body presidents seem to do just fine spending $50 on poster board and permanent markers. Personally, I'd rather see that kind of on-the-cheap campaign instead of this million-dollar mess where candidates spout off vague, nearly meaningless pronouncements.