Following the Most Beloved Politician in America

Posted on February 25, 2015

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Graham Sheridan received an undergraduate degree from Washington and Lee University and a Master’s in Public Affairs program at Brown. He is currently a campaign and policy professional in Charleston, SC.

Following the Most Beloved Politician in America

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The city I live in, Charleston, SC is about to have a major election: Mayor Joe Riley is retiring.  For those of you who do not know, Mayor Riley is the 40-year mayor of this city.  Elected in 1975, he has served 10 consecutive 4- year terms.  Called “the dean of America’s Mayors” for how long he has served on the board of the US Conference of Mayors, he is one of our nation’s leading experts in local government.  The New York Times recently asked if he is “The Most Beloved Politician in America.”
The timing worked out for Charleston that just as our Mayoral race was heating up, one of the nation’s experts on local election, David Axelrod, came out with a book: Believer: My Forty Years in Politics. Axelrod’s most famous client, President Obama, obviously was not a local candidate.  However, for a long time Axelrod and Associates, his political consulting agency, specialized in mayoral campaigns.  Additionally, Axelrod got his start covering City Hall for the Chicago Tribune.  Covering the campaigns and administrations of Chicago Mayors like Richard J Daley, Michael Bilandic, and Jane Byrne gave him great insight into the process.  He then would manage mayoral campaigns all over the country: candidates such as Harold Washington in Chicago, Dennis Washington in Detroit, Anthony Williams in DC, and Lee Brown in Houston.

Curious what I could glean from the book about what kind of person the next mayor of Charleston would be, I devoured the first half, the pre-national-campaigns part.  I was interested that Axelrod says, again and again, even if a retiring politician is popular (as Mayor Riley is), the voters usually choose someone who balances the incumbent out to succeed him or her.  For example, if the outgoing politician is a hothead, voters swing to someone cool and deliberative.  If the outgoing Mayor is seen as too close to one issue, they like to swing to other issues.
downloadIn Charleston we see some of this.  Mayor Riley is famously downtown-focused, and we see the suburbs getting together to try to influence the election to be more outskirts-focused.  Riley is also the mayor responsible for turning Charleston into one of the nation’s main tourist cities.  Now, many of the candidates running against him are saying the tourism industry has gone too far.   Although I doubt seriously the spigot can really be shut off (tourism is almost 3 billion dollars a year for the Charleston economy) it is interesting to see people attempting to distance themselves from the current Mayor, who won over 70% of the vote in 2011.  Like Axelrod says, despite the popularity of the outgoing Mayor, voters see this election as a change election.
I will share one vignette from Axelrod’s book.  At the very end of the book, Axelrod talks about two members of the US House from Illinois Dan Rostenkowski (D-Chicago) and Bob Michel (R-Peoria).  Those two would carpool from DC to Illinois and back nearly every weekend the House was in session.  The idea seems crazy now – members of the House driving instead of flying, and especially carpooling with a member of the opposing party.
Local government is still somewhat like this.  Members of city council cannot escape each other the way US senators of opposing parties can.  People shop at the same grocery stores and see the same voters. Elected officials live amongst their constituents.  This is part of what makes local government so interesting.

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