The city of Charleston this week elected a Republican mayor for the first time since the mid-1870s, marking a new chapter for the century-old Southern city.
The new mayor, William Cogswell, a former state representative and real estate developer, won a tight runoff Tuesday against Mayor John Tecklenburg, a Democrat seeking his third term.
Cogswell’s election signals a shift for Charleston, a stubbornly left-wing city that has consistently elected Democratic mayors (including one to ten terms), even though the state as a whole has not voted for a Democratic president since 1976.
The Charleston mayor’s office is technically nonpartisan, although mayors are often known to identify with a party. The city’s last Republican mayor served until 1877, according to city records and News21USA. Cogswell, 48, who had previously been a Republican in the state House of Representatives, said in an interview Thursday that he didn’t put much stock in the narrative about his political party and that he didn’t run on an expressly partisan platform.
“I’m very proud to have very conservative people who supported me and very liberal people,” Cogswell said. He said he believed attracting a wide range of support “is still possible in local politics, which is about doing things for people.”
During his campaign, Mr. Cogswell emphasized his experience in real estate and preservation, arguing that he could 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. Cogswell argued that the city needed more help from regional governments, as well as state and federal aid, to manage the influx of residents and tourists.
He also addressed the pace and quality of development taking place in the city.
“You know good development when you see it and you know bad development when you see it,” Cogswell said in an interview with News21USA 24 in Charleston this year. “And as I’ve said time and time again, what we’re seeing too much of is bad development.”
Cogswell said Charleston, a city of just over 150,000 that has grown significantly in recent years, has a housing shortage, but the city government has taken too passive an approach in guiding new construction. He promised to do a better job, under his administration, of ensuring new developments fit the city’s character.
“We are a very special place and the people who do business here need to respect that,” he said.
Cogswell said his other top priorities, once he takes office in January, are to make Charleston safer and modernize the city’s operations to keep up with growth.
Before this week, the last Republican mayor elected in Charleston was George I. Cunningham, who first took office in 1873 and served for four years during Reconstruction. His tenure was tense and he was reportedly marred by political clashes, including the Cainhoy Riot, a deadly fight between white and black residents at a political meeting outside Charleston in 1876.
A few years earlier, there had been another mayor with a notable last name: Colonel Milton Cogswell, a distant relative of the new mayor who served as mayor pro tem for about four months.
“Maybe he was a third cousin or something,” Cogswell said Thursday, adding that he would have to check his family tree to determine the exact relationship.
Until Tecklenburg took office in 2015, Charleston had since 1976 been under the supervision of Joseph P. Riley Jr., who served 10 terms over nearly four decades until his retirement.
Tecklenburg, an oil company executive and businessman, relented on election night and said he was boosting Cogswell’s success in office.
Mr. Cogswell, for his part, reiterated his belief that it was important for the mayor’s role to remain nonpartisan. Far more important than political party, he said, is “mutual love and respect for our city.”