Knee Deep in the Big Muddy

Journalist David Farrow makes bid for Charleston chief executive

By Charlie Morrison

Contributing Writer

Stepping into the political arena with Charleston’s incumbent Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. is a decision not to be made lightly. During his 36-year, nine-term reign as Mayor of the Holy City, Riley has dispatched challengers to his seat atop the City’s municipal government by the scores. And though Riley’s record has been his greatest ally in getting elected term after term, some in the Holy City would argue that Riley’s seeming death-grip on City Hall has in itself done much to strike fear into the hearts of any who dare oppose him. Longtime journalist, lifelong City of Charleston resident, and 2011 Mayoral challenger David Farrow, however, is not the type to be easily dissuaded. Armed with his wit, his message, and his unique perspective on Charleston politics, Farrow hopes to be the one to unseat Mayor Riley this November.

“During in the Vietnam war Pete Seeger sang a song on the Smothers Brothers in which he said, ‘we’re knee-deep in the big muddy and the big fool says to push on.’ I would argue that’s where we are right now,” says Farrow. “We are languishing in the doldrums and we are facing some really rough seas. Am I qualified? I’d argue that I’m more qualified than (Riley) was when he was first elected, because I’ve run organizations and I understand the vagaries of the economy.”

Farrow said while the faade is attractive, what lies (literally) beneath is where the reality strikes. “Mayor Riley has spent 36 years beautifying the city, but let me tell you something, I don’t care how good looking your bathtub is, if it doesn’t drain, it doesn’t work… for anybody. It’s hubris,” says Farrow. “We’ve turned Charleston from a community into a commodity, and that’s not a sound byte or a slogan, it’s for real.”

Farrow announced his bid for Mayor in December, when he also laid out the foundations of his campaign. The keystone of Farrow’s promise, if elected, is that he’ll serve a single term only. Farrow promises to push City Council to accept new term limits for the Mayor’s seat, limiting a Mayor’s tenure to two, six-year terms and Council’s to two three-year terms, to be staggered. Farrow also volunteered to, if elected, accept only half the salary of Mayor Riley (currently $162,816), choosing to donate the other half to charity.

“I’m not doing this for power or money, I’m doing this to get them out so that Charleston will have a chance,” says Farrow. The candidate sees his role as the challenger, the rabble-rouser, and hopefully for him, the Mayor as a catalyst to change, the straw that broke Mayor Riley’s back and initiated a new brand of city management.

Other facets of his initial platform include a top-down financial audit of city government, greater financial transparency, and better prioritizing city resources to nuts and bolts items such as fixing the decades-long drainage problem afflicting the Septima P. Clark Expressway, also know as the Crosstown.

According to Farrow, his top priority if elected would be slimming down municipal government while also delivering core services. “This city is taxed as far as it can go, it’s taxed to the max. The first thing I would do is end the city’s support of all non-essential items such as the Maritime Center and Joe Riley stadium,” says Farrow.

When it comes to the proposed expansion of the Gaillard Auditorium, Farrow is especially vehement. “I’m so against it… I can’t even express it, but it’s one of the reasons I’m running. Number one, this is a monument to self-importance, and that’s all it is. You can talk so high-mindedly about the arts and how it’s saving jobs and everything, but it’s simply not true, it’s a canard,” says Farrow. “It’s not that I’m against the arts, I’m a writer for God’s sake how could I be against the arts? To me, you can’t buy dessert until you can afford dinner. If you can’t afford a hot dog you shouldn’t be buying crme brulee, and that’s what’s happening here.”

Raging against the machine, Farrow went on to denounce what he called the “ruling class.”

“One thing that has really enraged me is the whole ruling class, ‘smartest people in the room’ stuff. A perfect example would be this business regarding the Angel Oak developer Robert Demoura,” says Farrow. “I had a City Councilman come to me and explain what a good deal it was and how he had worked so hard and how the marsh would be destroyed otherwise. I looked at what he said and realized, what he’s told me wasn’t true. It wasn’t true. And that’s the kind of stuff that goes on, and on and on.”

Farrow also commented on the City’s outlying areas.

“The majority of your tax money, of West Ashley and Daniel Island’s tax money goes to feed the beast of the peninsula,” he says. “I would argue we should have focused on West Ashley, James Island, and Daniel Island years ago. In 1975 when he ran, (Riley) said ‘West Ashley is the step-child of the peninsula and it’s my job to bring it into the fold.’ Well how’s that working out? I would argue he’s added two other step-children and locked them in the closet.”

His opinion on the City’s fighting James Island’s three successive bids at becoming its own municipality is cut and dry. “I would simply argue that the money spent on all the lawsuits could have been better spent on the Crosstown,” Farrow says.

Farrow’s endurance as a candidate is perhaps best exemplified by the endurance he’s displayed in his personal life. Farrow lost his mother earlier this year and has had treatments for skin cancer throughout this year.

“My thought is that if I can go through that, and I don’t see this campaign as any kind of cakewalk, but if I can go through that, I can go through this,” says Farrow. “And I’ve worked in the media as well. If you can withstand the slings and arrows of being in talk radio and the press, you can withstand anything.”

Belying his personal battles, Farrow’s kept his message firmly focused on Riley and on what in his eyes are Riley’s failed policies. “He’s got feet of clay, and I know them because I followed them for 30 years… which is why I’m in it, I just can’t let him get away with it,” he says.

Whether or not he’ll get the chance to see that through, however, depends on the voters, a body that hasn’t voted above a 34% clip in recent memory. “They are counting on ‘silents’ to remain silent, and I’m counting on them to come out in droves,” says Farrow. “We’ll see who’s right in November.”

This is the first of a series of articles on City of Charleston’s candidates for mayor. Look for articles on other Riley challengers William Gregorie, Craig Jelks, and Joshua Kennedy over the next three weeks.

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