Thursday, February 22, 2024

The city of Charleston this week elected a Republican mayor for the first time since the mid-1870s, signifying a new chapter for the centuries-old southern city.

The new mayor, William Cogswell, a former state representative and real estate developer, won a tight runoff election on Tuesday in South Carolina against Mayor John Tecklenburg, a Democrat who was seeking his third term in office.

Mr. Cogswell’s election indicates a shift for Charleston, a stubbornly left-leaning city that has consistently elected Democratic mayors — including one to 10 terms — even as the state as a whole has not voted for a Democratic president since 1976.

The mayor’s office in Charleston is technically nonpartisan, though mayors are often known to identify with a party. The city’s last Republican mayor served until 1877, according to city records and The Associated Press. Mr. Cogswell, 48, who had previously served as a Republican in the state’s House of Representatives, said in an interview on Thursday that he did not make much of the narrative about his political party and that he did not run on an expressly partisan platform.

“I’m pretty proud to have very conservative people who supported me and very liberal people,” Mr. Cogswell said. He said he believed that attracting a broad range of support was “still possible in local politics, which is all about getting things done for the people.”

During his campaign, Mr. Cogswell emphasized his experience in real estate and preservation, arguing that he would be able to prioritize development that maintains Charleston’s historic character.

He won after an election season in which many residents expressed frustration over the city’s rising cost of living. Mr. Cogswell argued that the city needed more help from regional governments — as well as state and federal help — to manage an influx of residents and tourists.

He also addressed the pace and quality of development going on in the city.

“You know good development when you see it, and you know bad development when you see it,” Mr. Cogswell said in an interview with Fox 24 in Charleston this year. “And as I’ve said time and time again, what we’re seeing too much of is bad development.”

Mr. Cogswell said that Charleston, a city of just over 150,000 that has grown significantly in recent years, is short on housing but that the city government has taken too much of a hands-off approach to guiding new buildings. He vowed to do a better job, under his administration, of ensuring that new developments fit the character of the city.

“We are a very special place, and the people that do business here need to respect that,” he said.

Mr. Cogswell said his other top priorities, once he takes office in January, are making Charleston safer and modernizing the city’s operations to keep up with growth.

Before this week, the last Republican mayor to be elected in Charleston was George I. Cunningham, who first took office in 1873 and served for four years during Reconstruction. His term was fraught, and it was reportedly marred by political melees including the Cainhoy Riot, a deadly fight between Black and white residents at a political meeting outside of Charleston in 1876.

A few years before, there was another mayor with a notable last name: Col. Milton Cogswell, a distant relative of the new mayor who served as a provisional mayor for about four months.

“He was maybe a third cousin or something like that,” Mr. Cogswell said on Thursday, adding that he would have to look back at his family tree to figure out the exact relation.

Up until Mr. Tecklenburg took office in 2015, Charleston since 1976 had been under the supervision of Joseph P. Riley Jr., who served 10 terms over nearly four decades until his retirement.

Mr. Tecklenburg, an oil company executive and businessman, conceded on election night and said he was pulling for Mr. Cogswell’s success in his term.

Mr. Cogswell, for his part, reiterated his belief that it was important that the role of mayor remained nonpartisan. Far more important than political party, he said, is “mutual love and respect for our city.”

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