In the nine successful campaigns Charleston mayor Joe Riley, Jr. has waged here in the Holy City, countless challengers to his seat atop City Hall have come, only to be summarily dispatched, proving for what seems like time immemorial that those of little faith need not apply for the position of mayor. It takes a firm resolution to throw ones hat in the ring with Riley, resolution that reveals itself in the eyes. One look in the eyes of mayoral candidate Craig Jelks reveals that resolution and more, that he’s actually in it to win it.
“All a dream really needs is to catch a strong wind,” says Jelks. “I want to lead our city politically, socially and economically. Riley’s best days are behind him, we’ve gone as far as we can with him and it’s time for new leadership.”
The 29-year-old Jelks got the chance to express that message during a pair of debates last week. The free speaking middle-school teacher-turned-politician relished his first opportunity to confront the public and his opponents en masse. “It was a breath of fresh air. It was different, Tuesday being my first time, but there was something about it that was fun to have people come up to me and say, ‘you’ve got it, you’re going somewhere,” says Jelks.
Jelks is a native of Birmingham, Alabama, only moving to the Lowcountry four years ago. Though he’d earned degrees in political science from both Washington, D.C.’s Howard University (magna cum laude), and Columbia University in New York, where he performed his graduate studies, Jelks entered into a career in education soon after arriving here in the Holy City. He was recruited by Teach Charleston, a partner of the Charleston County School District (CCSD) that finds strong teaching candidates for area schools. He has since been recognized as an award-winning social studies and history teacher at first Sanders-Clyde Middle school and currently at Sangaree Middle school, in Summerville.
Jelks is keen to shun the details of his own history for the topic of Charleston’s future, and on top of that he is one to stick to the issues. The predominant issue on the minds of many in Charleston is also one that has turned into a rallying cry for many in opposition of Riley this November, that of City Hall’s handling of the drainage problem that has plagued the Septima P. Clark Crosstown Expressway for decades. City Hall in early September, announced a new plan for fixing the roadway that has drawn the eye of several of the candidates, including Jelks.
“I think it is a tragedy, and a campaign gimmick, and for anyone that thinks it’s a coincidence that this plan came out in an election year, there’s a bridge I want to show you in Mt. Pleasant. It’s not a coincidence, he’s a remarkably cunning man,” says Jelks. “Fixing the Crosstown is going to require creative imagination and critical thinking, both of which I’m skilled at, as a teacher. You have to address old problems with a new angle.”
Jelks, a resident of West Ashley, would also offer a new approach regarding the city’s relationship the islands and West Ashley. “What Riley does is focus so much on of the peninsula that he neglects the surrounding areas, West Ashley feels that way, as does Daniel, James and Johns Island.”
“Riley took a militant stance when it came to James Island. He needs to learn that you can’t force anyone to follow you, and that’s what he did when it came to James Island,” continues Jelks. “I love James Island, and I have a lot of respect for former Mayor Woolsey, and it is my hope that in a fourth incorporation is successful. If they want a town and to keep that integrity, who is the city to stand in their way? As Mayor, I would not stand in the way of a fourth incorporation of James Island.”
Not surprisingly, the teacher’s platform begins with the topic of City Hall’s role in educating Charleston’s youth. “We talk about how great Charleston is, but what about the children? We cannot be the Holy City in name only,” says Jelks, who also is quick to not that recent testing revealed that only 15% of third graders are passing science. “As a teacher I know how important teacher empowerment is to students’ success. When you empower teachers, you empower students, who in turn go on to become productive members of society,” Jelks continues.
“As Mayor I would spearhead an annual conference of teachers where teachers can generate, propose and even implement solution to the problems plague our schools without fear of retaliation, and that’s why its important that its city-led, not district-led,” says Jelks. “We can’t assume that just because it hasn’t been done doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”
The second leg of Jelks’ platform revolves around the city’s relationship with area firefighers. “Compared to other Southern cities, our firefighters are paid crumbs, and I don’t have to remind anyone about the sacrifices they made when the Sofa Super Store fire broke out. The Mayor won’t even meet with them, that’s a fact, and I have,” says Jelks, who vows to utilize current firefighters in the process of hiring a replacement for Fire Chief Thomas Carr, who announced recently that he’d be stepping down in March.
“Where Riley and I differ is that I’m going to work hand-in-hand with our firefighters.”
“Different times call for a different Mayor, and different times call for different measures. I want Charleston to feel the difference. I am running a bold campaign not fueled by money, but rather by the belief that someone who’s in power isn’t entitled to it until they die. I want to challenge our city to believe they can have better.”
Economic matters form the third tenet of Jelks’ campaign platform, specifically creating opportunities for small businesses and entrepreneurs. “There is an abundance of talent in our city, we just need to tap into it,” says Jelks. “Charleston could become an economic powerhouse within ourselves, so we don’t need to go outside it to bolster or local economy.”
Jelks is honest when it comes to his chances. In his mind, the way to defeat mayor Riley this November is for the collection of candidates to capture enough of the votes to warrant a run-off. Should Riley not capture 50 percent of the votes cast plus one, a run-off would be held. That chances of that happening are greatly enhanced by that fact that the 2007 election saw only slightly more than 16,000 Charlestonians cast votes. Should Jelks or another candidate generate enough buzz to get people to the polls, and upset could be in the making. Jelks certainly hopes so. “I’m excited to bring new leadership to Charleston, there’s a lot to be done.”