Retiring after 40 years, Charleston Mayor reflects on life in public office

Charleston mayor to step down

Charleston, SC (WBTV) - Charleston Mayor Joe Riley says he will work hard until the very last minute he is in office.  He says the people of his city deserve that.

Riley's last day in office is January 11, 2016.  That will wrap up ten terms as mayor, 40 years holding the same elected position.

"I still have so much to do.  My duty to the citizens is that I am working for them every day.  I should be doing that every day that I am here until the very last minute," Riley told us when we spent an October morning with him in Charleston.

Riley likes to say he was "drafted" to be mayor by the people of Charleston in 1975.

"They felt I could be a bridge-builder to unite the community, racially and otherwise," he said.

Riley says he has changed but Charleston has, too.  The city draws tourists from around the world and the downtown has been developed while holding onto it's history.  In many ways Riley, an unexpected champion, has done what people hoped he would.

"Dr. King's speech on August 28, 1963 moved me.  I think many people my age in the south at the time realized the injustices that had gone on when we were growing up and the importance of things to change," he said.

He spoke to us about the difficult days during his tenure, including the Sofa Super Store fire in 2007 that killed nine city firefighters.  He said he was so proud of the city staff and the people of Charleston for their ability to recover following the devastating impact Hurricane Hugo had on the city.  He spoke of the way the community came together following the deaths of 9 church-goers at Mother Emanuel earlier this year.  He also looked back at the day he marched to Columbia to lead the charge to bring down the confederate flag.

"What was needed was a white leader leading the effort, so the country would know that not everyone in South Carolina felt it should stay where it was," Riley said.

He wore a bullet proof vest that day after receiving an anonymous hand-written threat.

"It said 'if you go into this particular county I will have you in my gun sights."

When asked if he truly feared for his life Riley said he thought about it.

"I did think about it when we entered that county.  More than that, though, I thought about all of the people marching for civil rights in the 1960's who didn't have the protection I did that day.  I was with law enforcement and I was wearing a vest.  They didn't have any of that," he said.

Former North Carolina Senator Malcolm Graham lost his sister in the Charleston church shooting earlier this year.  He grew up in Charleston and Mayor Riley is the only mayor he has really ever known in the city.

"I think we still have to change some hearts but he is an inspiration to me and so many others for the way he has handled himself through that long period of time and how he has rebuilt that city and truly tried to bring the races together," Graham told us.

When asked if he would wake up on January 12 wishing he had more time, Riley said perhaps.

"I might have that feeling, I'm sure I won't get it all done," he said.

Next on his agenda is raising $75 million for, and building, an International African American Museum that he has planned along the Cooper River.

As for Riley's advice for the next mayor of Charlotte he says he wakes up early and tries to take quiet time for himself in the office each morning to think and plan before meeting start.

To hear more about that and watch our full interview with the Mayor, watch the video on this page.

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