Here’s how Joseph Riley Jr.—who has been mayor of Charleston, South Carolina for 40 years—describes his job: “You have a personal relationship with people. You pick up their garbage. You make them feel safe. You try to help them when they are in trouble. It’s a chance to do things directly for people—for the poorest person in town as well as the rich.”
Riley, who plans to retire in 2016, was called perhaps “the most loved politician in America” by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni last year.
His popularity can be explained in part by a governing philosophy that evokes the spirit of the commons. “A sign of a healthy society,” he told NPR in a recent interview, “is when the things we love most are the things we share ownership of.”
No one would cast Joe Riley, dignified man who speaks with a soft voice, in the role of a political power broker. Yet he has reshaped this city of 120,000 to such an extent that few who knew it in the 1970s— as a poor, racially torn backwater that had lost hope in the future—would recognize it today. At that point, Charleston’s only claim to fame was Fort Sumter, where the opening shots of the U.S. Civil War were fired by Confederate rebels in 1861. And local African-American leader Rev. Joseph Darby notes that the outcome of the war—the emancipation of black slaves—wasn’t entirely accepted in Charleston until Riley won city hall in 1975, campaigning as a civil-rights advocate. (And as the tragic shootings show, racism is still alive.)
Charleston (a separate city from North Charleston, where the killing of Walter Scott by a policeman this spring sparked protests) enjoys a bright national reputation for its progressive policies on economic revitalization and affordable housing, a pressing problem because the city is now attracting many new residents and developments. As mayor he has vigorously preserved the city’s historic qualities, and even improved upon things with charming new parks, developments and attractions that blend in with the classic 18th- and 19th-century architecture everyone appreciates.
Riley’s success can be seen in the delighted smiles of tourists who come from all over the U.S. to wander the city’s historical streets. Riley decided to help share what he learned with other cities through the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, which Riley founded in 1986 and is now part of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The secret is simple: Riley’s careful attention to the details that distinguish a great city from a merely okay one. Charleston has flourished not just through the power of the mayor’s office, but through the dedication of the man in the mayor’s office. That’s the case in many places, says Amy Liu of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., who tracks the progress of metropolitan regions across North America and Europe. “Mayors’ best tool is the bully pulpit. Mayors are the face and the voice of the region, even for the suburbs. What they stand up for matters a lot.”
I came to understand the magic of Riley’s leadership a few years ago when interviewing him. He patiently but stiffly answered my questions at his desk in city hall, but when we stepped outside to tour the city Riley suddenly seemed charged with electricity. My long legs struggled to keep up with his short ones as he bounded down the street, calling hello to nearly everyone we passed—black and white, young and old, rich and poor. We turned up an alley and snuck through someone’s backyard gate so I could see what Riley considers one of the finest flower gardens in town. At one point, he almost knocked me over in his excitement to point out a construction worker eating lunch on a park bench—the man using a nearby ledge for a footrest, just the way Riley planned for it to be used. Hurrying over to investigate a couple of police cars he saw stopped behind a house, he seemed visibly relieved to find that the problem was just a malfunctioning burglar alarm. He thanked each of the officers by name and we continued our stroll.
Joe Riley is one of an emerging breed of mayors around the world who see their jobs as nothing less than helping city residents to achieve security, opportunity and happiness.