Durham County

Ex-Charleston mayor, Durham mayor share leadership challenges

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley speaks during a vigil at Morris Brown AME Church on June 18, 2015 for the nine people who were killed by a gunman in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley speaks during a vigil at Morris Brown AME Church on June 18, 2015 for the nine people who were killed by a gunman in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. TNS

Two years ago, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley was wearing Bermuda shorts and a golf polo when the phone rang. There had been a shooting in a church.

“I was looking at my closet, and I knew that everything I did had to be perfect to show respect to the church and community,” said Riley, who served as mayor for 40 years until retiring in 2016.

So he put on a coat and tie.

“Disasters catch you where you are,” Riley told nearly 100 people at Duke University on Thursday evening.

The only way to prepare is build a community that can better withstand the damage, he continued. “If something happens, you don’t want to start a fire in your own home,” he said.

Riley spoke alongside Durham Mayor Bill Bell at the event sponsored by Duke Policy Bridge, a program of the Sanford School of Public Policy.

The leaders shared their experiences of dealing with crisis.

During Riley’s tenure, Charleston faced not only by the hate-crime murders of nine African Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015 but also a category 4 hurricane, Hugo, in 1989.

“We get to know the hearts of our citizens.” Riley said. “There’s an understood, huge responsibility not to let them down.”

Bell, who is in last term of mayor after 16 years, said it is the mayor’s duty to provide stability in a time of crisis while allowing citizens a chance to “vent.”

The Duke lacrosse case in 2006 has been his closest experience to crisis during his tenure as mayor, he said. Three members of the Duke men’s lacrosse team were falsely accused of rape, provoking local and national debate and leading to the disbarment of the Durham County district attorney.

“If there’s one thing I’ll say about Durham, we are an activist community,” Bell said. “Somehow we let people vent, whether it’s a public meeting or going downtown to take down a statue.”

Towns in transition

Bell and Riley have both witnessed transformations of their cities.

Riley compared Charleston, previously a small port city and now the No. 1 destination city in the country according to Travel + Leisure magazine, to a sick patient.

“Do no harm,” he said. Revitalizing a city requires a detailed plan of treatment because one wrong move with the best intentions may only make the patient sicker.

Like a doctor attending to a patient, a mayor bettering a city must remain steadfast. Riley said, “If you’re confident that it’s correct – that’s earned confidence from hard work – then you just don’t quit.”

Bell said when he first entered local politics in the early 1970s, Durham was close to rock bottom. “I’d like to say there was a strategic plan, but I’d be lying,” he said. “We just knew something had to be done.”

For Charleston, the catalyst of change was Charleston Place, a central business district that opened in Riley’s third term as mayor.

For Durham, Bell said the catalysts have been the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, opened in 1995, and Brightleaf Square, redeveloped in 2004. Both have become centers for downtown life with new restaurants, shops and businesses.

Bell and Riley agreed the key to managing growth is sharing the workload.

“A mayor is completely dependent,” said Riley, citing the help of the Charleston newspaper and Chamber of Commerce in his redevelopment of Charleston Place. “You don’t do anything by yourself.”