Perhaps no other American city is as intimately connected to its mayor as Charleston is to Mayor Joseph P. Riley. He has served as the city’s leader since 1975 and during his tenure has helped usher in dynamic changes in the economic, cultural and social landscape of his hometown that have propelled Charleston to the forefront of American cities.
Widely considered an creative and daring visionary, Mayor Riley has long since been a voice of consciousness and diversity in his native state and has been widely recognized for his efforts. He is truly a leader “of the people and for the people” who recognizes the importance of fostering a social climate of acceptance, fairness and equal opportunity for all.
Mayor Riley is truly one of South Carolina’s treasures and his name has become synonymous with prosperity in the Lowcountry. Recently, Mayor Riley gladly sat down with Phil Noble to offer his unique perspective on what South Carolina must do to truly be “World Class.”
Q: Change is hard, yet you’ve managed to make big changes in Charleston. How did you manage to do this?
In a Democracy, you must be doing what the citizens’ hearts would desire if fulfilled. You don’t go off on a tangent because you have some personal idea that you believe would be great. You gotta believe that if this is accomplished, the citizens will rejoice in it. They will be fulfilled. Then you go about selling that. … Never, ever, ever take for granted the citizens that you’re serving and always be asking yourself, ‘Is this the right thing?’
Q: What would you say are the principle assets and the barriers to this state, in terms of looking for that globally connected world in the 21st century?
The assets are huge. The assets are our people. The assets are our good-nature and the genuine and warm hospitality that we have for each other. The naturalness of people; a huge asset. The work ethic of people; a huge asset. The physical environment, my goodness from the mountains to the ocean, to the creeks and the rivers and the streams and the vistas; the quality of the environment … The port, our great medical universities and the medical university system; the assets are huge. What we have to do is, we have to get past the old feelings that we’ll take anything. That medium is okay, it’s the best that we can do. We have to get over that. We have to believe that in South Carolina, we must excel. Everything we do, excellence must be our goal… increase the quality of and the resources allocated to public education. That’s the only thing that will hold us back, if we fail to be committed to seeking excellence in everything that we do as a state and if we don’t devote the resources and the energy and the sustained commitment to public education. If we do those two things, this state will soar.
Q: It seems to me that we’ve lost that expectation that we can even be “world class” or excellent. Am I right about that?
I think that some leaders haven’t’ accepted that belief or responsibility that we can and must excel. … This state is so precious. Its future is so buoyantly wonderful; we just can’t do anything that isn’t aimed at excellence. I think there’s a mindset that we just have to get over. … That’s what I’ve sought to do here. If there’s something that we’re doing and somebody else is doing it better, then why aren’t we doing it better? That’s the attitude we need to have in South Carolina.
Q: Why do you think we’ve done that? Is it an inferiority complex that was bred after the war? Is it some reverse psychology with the excellence we have? What about the South Carolina character makes us accept that? Or is it leadership?
Leadership is key. That’s why you elect people to be leaders. They should lead in the direction where the hearts and ambitions of the citizens will be fulfilled if you get there. Leaders should lead. Leaders should not be worried about the next election. They should be worried about the next generation. They should be worried about the next generation looking back at their time in office and say that they did the very best that they could to make sure that now, 25 to 50 years later, we have what we have. I think that the history is complex and obviously the war destroyed us economically and the terrible burden of Jim Crow; the terrible burden of slavery and then the post-slavery Jim Crow laws; that held us back. That was tragic; tragic for our country and I think tragic for the South and South Carolina. But we’re moving past that and those burdens. …
NOBLE: How do we leverage the economic success of Charleston, Columbia and Greenville throughout the rest of the state?
It’s all about seeking excellence. You can do it in little places in little pieces. Look at what Darla Moore is doing in Lake City in the heart of the Pee Dee right now. It can be done. It’s just that we have to not accept defeat and have to be creative. I believe the I-95 corridor is a place of great opportunity. Don’t accept except just anything. Don’t accept except medium. Have high standards. Have high environmental standards. Have high educational standards. … There’s lots that we can do. If we hold high standards and we persevere, the lessons of achievement in this city and other places in South Carolina can be transferred to remote, rural or those more economically challenged now.
Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr.
Education: The Citadel; J.D., USC Law School
Occupation: Charleston mayor since 1975
Other Notables: Recipient of National Medal of Arts (2009) by President Obama; one of 25 most dynamic mayors in America, Newsweek; The American Architectural Foundation and U. S. Conference of Mayors in 2010 created The Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Award for leadership in city design; S.C. Governor’s Award for the Humanities, 2005; American Society of Landscape Architects’ 2004 Olmsted Medal; served as president of U.S. Conference of Mayors, 1986-87, and currentlyon its executive committee
See a video of the Riley interview and earlier interviews at thestate.com/envisionsc. Or scan this QR code with your smartphone to see the interviews.
About this series
This is the 13th in a series of interviews for Envision S.C., an initiative where some of the state’s brightest thinkers share their perspectives to inspire South Carolina to become world class in technology, education and business. It is sponsored by the College of Charleston with the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, newspapers, TV stations and other groups. Interviews are by Phil Noble.
An interview with former Liberty Corp. CEO Haye Hipp will appear next on Page A2 in The State newspaper and on the state.com/envisionsc.