CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - In a debate Monday night, the two men fighting for votes in the Charleston mayor’s race laid out their vision for the city and leveled criticism on their opponent.
Incumbent John Tecklenburg is hoping to secure his third term in office, but he’s facing a challenge from former State Rep. William Cogswell. In the general election on Nov. 7, Cogswell finished three percentage points ahead of Tecklenburg, but in that race, victory requires 50% of the vote plus one vote, which neither man received, placing them in a runoff on Nov. 21, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
Both candidates released statements Tuesday on claims the other candidate made during the live broadcast.
Cogswell began his response saying, the truth matters, accusing Tecklenburg of “doing a lot of lying” in the campaign, something he said is “really getting frustrating.”
“I know you’re supposed to have thick skin and politics. But look, the truth is important. When we’re talking about how we’re going to run our city and when he talks about me being a developer or building high rises, that’s absolutely not true. And he knows that I’ve been involved in preservation projects that have helped our city and our region, and I’m proud of that,” Cogswell said. “When he talks about my attendance record in the State House, he knows he’s lying, but I have a record of being there, I believe, it’s 85 or 86% of the time, and I’m proud of my time up there.”
Cogswell said what he considers most frustrating and most dangerous is when Tecklenburg refers to him as “an extremist” on television, digital and in mailings.
“And he knows this is not true. I have a six-year voting record that demonstrates that I’m not an extremist and the lies that he’s been caught in and trying to perpetrate through various forms need to be called out because that’s what leadership is,” Cogswell says. “Leadership is showing people a positive path forward and making sure that when people say untruthful things, that they’re called out on it, and that’s what I’m doing. I want to do that and make sure that the citizens of Charleston know the type of person that they’re talking about bringing in for another four more years. I used to think John was just an ineffective and frankly incompetent mayor, but a decent person. But how this campaign has gone has taught me that he does not have integrity, he doesn’t have ethics and he’s willing to do anything and say anything, however dangerous, just so that he can have four more years in office.”
Tecklenburg, meanwhile, thanked voters for the opportunity to serve, saying he is grateful for God’s blessings on him and the city of Charleston, but said we have “more work to do.”
“The mission never changed: For Charleston to be the very best place to raise a family, to live, to work, to play, to thrive with opportunities for all of our citizens and for generations to come,” he said. “So the things we have to continue to work on: number one is keep this city safe. And that’s why I’ve supported our police and fire departments to the Nth degree, offering more funding every year, the best training, built new fire stations, renovated others, built the new forensics facility. Don’t commit a crime in the city of Charleston. We’re going to catch you.”
He said working on flooding and sea level rise, which he called a long-term, existential threat to the city.
“And you can go to our website and see our flooding and sea level rise strategies. Boy, there’s a lot we’re working on. I will say about the perimeter protection. The study is over. It’s time to do the design and engineering and why give up the possibility of $850 million of federal funding for that project? Why throw that out the window? It’s irresponsible, would make no sense,” he said. “We’ve got to continue on with that building more affordable housing and quality of life. Everyone loves parks. Thanks for voting for the parks bond. We’re going to build more parks. We’ve added more already. We’re going to do more and work with our partners at the county and DOT to improve our roadway infrastructure.”
Both candidates made statements that are being called into question by the other. Some of those statements include claims of “dark money,” an endorsement from Moms for Liberty, Cogswell’s attendance record in the State House and Tecklenburg’s accomplishments over the past eight years.
During the debate, Tecklenburg claimed Cogswell missed one-third of the votes while he served in the state legislature.
“He served for six years and it’s like he was only there for four,” Tecklenburg said.
In fact-checking the mayor’s claims through State House voting records, the answer is “It’s complicated.”
During his time in the general assembly, Cogswell did not vote in 1,268 out of 3,938 votes. That breaks down to 32% of the total votes during his time serving District 110 from 2017 to 2022.
This includes 26 votes during excused absences and non-votes. But there’s an important note about attendance: Cogswell missed 44 out of 305 possible days, or just over 14% of working days in the House. That means he was present 86% of the time.
Voting records are different than attendance records, since one can be present but not cast a vote on a particular issue or for a particular appointment.
Cogswell said Tecklenburg’s “signature project” and platform is a study on flooding for another four years at a cost to taxpayers of $40 million.
“And his model on the peninsula shows that the rest of the city is completely underwater,” Cogswell said.
Cogswell claimed Tecklenburg’s project to address flooding is a study that will cost taxpayers $40 million over the next four years ,which is not true. The current plan is a project that is in the engineering and design phase at an estimated cost of just over $60 million or over $20 million for the city.
The corps’ feasibility study shows the overall cost of the project is estimated to cost $1.1 billion with the city paying 35% of the cost, or $385 million.
Cogswell’s campaign said the $40-million figure referenced the taxpayer share of the design phase of the project but, including construction management cost, that figure would be for the estimated lifetime of the project.
Right now, the city is only in the engineering and design of Phase 1, which has a total cost of $20.5 million and will cost the city a little over $7 million.
FACT CHECK: A ‘Moms for Liberty’ connection?
Tecklenburg has said both in campaign ads and in Monday night’s debate that Cogswell is endorsed by Moms for Liberty, something that Cogswell’s camp has repeatedly denied.
That claim by the mayor’s campaign is false, but Tecklenburg’s camp says they are justified in their claims.
Moms for Liberty, a conservative political organization, explains on its website they only endorse school board and superintendent candidates.
The mayor’s campaign provided two different reasons when asked to explain their claims that the group endorsed Cogswell.
The first is a Facebook post in a local Moms for Liberty group. Tecklenburg’s campaign says the post shows the administrator of that group recommended conservative candidates in several races including Cogswell in the Charleston mayor’s race. The comment in question states the group can only endorse school board candidates and that these were recommendations for conservative candidates.
Tecklenburg said the second item was a donation from Charleston County School Board Chair Pam McKinney. McKinney is not a member of Moms for Liberty but she is backed by the group. Campaign records show Cogswell received a $1,000 donation from McKinney on Oct. 6.
But ethics filings also show Tecklenburg received a $500 donation from McKinney in November of 2015.
It’s important to note that Moms for Liberty has explicitly said they can only endorse school board members and have not endorsed Cogswell. Cogswell has repeatedly said he is not endorsed or affiliated with the group.
FACT CHECK: ‘Dark money’ accusations
Both candidates have accused each other of using what’s called “dark money” in their campaign. Fact-checking those claims results in a ruling of “It’s complicated.”
Dark money is money in the political system and campaigns that cannot be traced to where it originated. Usually, it involves nonprofits or limited liability companies that do not have to disclose how they are funded.
In this race, a week before Election Day, Cogswell accused Tecklenburg of hiring a lawyer who helped create two LLCs: one that bought ads for his campaign and another one that distributed “misinformation” campaign materials about Cogswell.
On the other hand, Tecklenburg’s team says they were made aware months earlier that Cogswell had been working with a dark money LLC in his campaign.
Both sides stated they believe these tactics are unethical. While some may believe it’s unethical, University of South Carolina Political Scientist Chase Meyer says it’s not wrong per se.
“It’s completely legal for them to never reveal who their donors are,” he says. “The only few limitations on them is, you cannot directly coordinate with the candidate that you are supporting or the policy that you’re supporting.”
Even then, Meyer says it’s still a gray area.
College of Charleston Political Scientist Gibbs Knotts says while he recognizes it’s legal, he questions how it benefits society.
“Dark money is not good for American politics. Dark money is not good for Democracy,” he says. “It’s not illegal but it gives me pause because I want our citizens in this country to know who’s backing, financially, these politicians and that’s the big rub for dark money is that we don’t know that.”
Stricter laws could be put in place to regulate the efforts of these third-party groups and their influence, like other traditional campaign financing tools. Of course, the people who may benefit from the use of dark money are the ones who would be in charge of approving the proposed restrictions.
Polls will open in the runoff election for the mayor’s race at 7 a.m. on Nov. 21, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Polls will close at 7 p.m.
Early voting in the race is set to take place from Wednesday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Board of Voter Registration and Elections, located at 4340 Corporate Road, the organization’s new headquarters. Voters who have cast early ballots at the former election building on Headquarters Road in North Charleton should not the change: early voting will only be held at the Corporate Road location.
Eligible residents do not need to have participated in the Nov. 7 elections to participate in the runoff elections, Charleston County Board of Voter Registration and Elections spokesman Matt Dillane said.
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