Water Cooler Wednesday: In Praise of Joe Riley

Mayor Joe Riley has led Charleston for 40 years.

Mayor Joe Riley has led Charleston for 40 years.

The New York Times ran a great story Sunday on Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston, S.C.

The Times called Riley possibly the most loved politician in America.

Cynics may think that’s like naming your favorite disease, but Joe Riley is proof that politics can be noble and that good politicians can get things done and leave a remarkable legacy.

I was fortunate to meet Mayor Riley some years back at a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting. He spoke about place making and believed strongly that mayors should be the chief architects of their cities.

After his speech, I had a chance to speak with the mayor and invited him to Delray. We traded dates, but sadly it never quite worked out and that’s unfortunate because Mayor Riley has some great lessons to teach about cities, places, preservation, new development and leadership.

The Times article notes that Riley made a big bet on culture back in 1977 when he brought the “Spoleto Festival” to Charleston. The festival raised Charleston’s national profile and positioned the city as an arts haven.

Here’s how the Times’ Frank Bruni described his thinking: “Almost as soon as we sat down together, he talked up the annual Spoleto performing-arts festival, a renowned Charleston event that has bolstered the city’s profile. I wasn’t sure why he was choosing to focus on it or how it factored into any political philosophy.

Then he explained his reasons for pushing for it back before it was first held in 1977. “It forced the city to accept the responsibility of putting on something world-class,” he said.

Yes, he wanted the tourists who would flow into the city and the money they’d spend. Sure, he wanted the luster.

But he was also staging a kind of experiment in civic psychology and doing something that he considered crucial in government. He was raising the bar, and Spoleto was the instrument. It simultaneously brought great talent to Charleston and required great talent of Charleston.

“You need to commit a city to excellence,” he said, “and the arts expose you to that.”


Riley, 71, has been mayor since December 1975. He will step down in 2015 after 40 years of leadership. During his tenure, he has been embraced and sued by preservationists and environmentalists, evidence of how hard it is to make and keep friends when you make decisions on the local level.

Unlike state and federal politics, local elected officials vote around the block from where they live. There’s no hiding and the decisions are often personal affecting neighbors and friends. Once those decisions are made there’s no place to hide. And that’s the beauty of local government. It’s the government  closest to the people and increasingly the only level government that seems capable of getting things done.

Says the Times:  “What people want from government, Riley stressed to me, isn’t lofty words but concrete results. They want problems solved and opportunities created. Mayors — ever accountable, ever answerable — tend to remember that and to wed themselves to a practicality that’s forgotten in Washington, where endless ideological tussles accommodate the preening that too many lawmakers really love best.”

It’s important to share Mayor Riley’s philosophy because of the wonderful opportunities available in Boca Raton and Delray Beach especially if local leaders engage the communities they serve and embrace the real power they have. The great thing about cities is the work is never done, even when you experience success; especially when you experience success. The challenge is to stave off complacency and to leverage the opportunities you were given by the hard work of those who came before.

I find Mayor Riley an inspiration. Here’s a sample of his thoughts. We hope you enjoy:

  • “A great city is one that has a dynamic economy and jobs for its citizens. With the work of generations, we have made Charleston a most desirable place to live. We must create and attract more and better jobs here so our people and their children and their grandchildren can stay or come back home and work and live in the community they love.”


  • “A great city works to make sure we remember those who might be forgotten.”


  • “What does it mean to live in a city?  A great city is not only lived in but it is carefully and diversely used. A long time ago it was said that “Charleston was too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash.” That has long since passed. A new affluence has graced our city. And with that, there may be on the part of a few the misunderstanding that they live in or have moved to a place that is like a gated community – affluent and exclusive. But that is not a great city. Great cities are a part of a larger public realm.  There will always be sights and sounds in our city – the announcement from the Coast Guard Station; or on another part of the peninsula ships arriving or embarking; fire engines; and sometime long ago, vendors with their wonderful songs and calls announcing their fresh crabs or vegetables; children romping, healthfully engaged in athletic activities on our playgrounds; students going to college; workers coming to the hospitals; cranes lifting huge containers; scientists and software engineers coming to work; streets and sidewalks bustling with people engaged in commerce, parks and public spaces busily and diversely used and shared; quiet zones for repose, reflection, solitude.  The answer to that question is that a great city, as Charleston is, is a real city – a public place, diverse people and activities working, living, energizing each other and happily sharing their city.”


  • “Never, ever, ever take for granted the citizens that you’re serving and always be asking yourself, ‘Is this the right thing?”


  • “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. “


  • “The need for beauty is embedded in the human instinct. There is never an excuse for anyone, but particularly a government, to ever build anything in a city that doesn’t add to the beauty of the community.”


  • “The restored public realm is something. There is a yearning in the heart of every resident of a metropolitan area. They may not articulate it, but they want it. They need it. And if you give it to them, they will rejoice in it.”


  • “Do Americans want beauty in the city? They desperately want it! They crave it! Life is harsh and cruel and plastic enough. Will our people support this? They will support it. They will rejoice in it. They need it. It is our responsibility to give it to them.”



  1. Nice article, Thank you.

    In 2008 I had the pleasure of hearing Joe speak at the Florida Redevelopment Conference in Tampa.

    Wow hard to forget his passion and common sense approach to economic revitalization.

    I spoke to him after and we talked about actually having to run for election each term. Most of the time he didn’t have an opponent.

    He also said some races were close and it was a good gut check for him.

  2. Jeff Perlman says

    Peter…I only had to run once and it was a great and humbling experience. It also cured me.

  3. I wonder if he has any regrets about defending a fire chief that was responsible for the deaths of 9 firefighters in the Sofa Super Store on June 18, 2007.


    • Jeff Perlman says

      I believe he does, based on what I was able to find online. Clearly, a big mistake.

      • Just goes to show you always have to be on top of your game and ask the right questions. Jeff, you were always asking the right questions and even more importantly you really listened to the answers.

        • Jeff Perlman says

          Thanks my friend. We had a great team back in those days. I was a lucky guy to be surrounded with a ton of talent.

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