In a lot adjacent to the Sunrise Presbyterian Church, the only polling place on Sullivan's Island, there were two tents. One large tent provided shelter to five candidates. The other – a much smaller space – housed Carl Smith during Tuesday's election.
The divide among political stances, most specifically whether or not to have a school referendum, was in plain sight. In addition to the race for the First Congressional District, Sullivan's Island residents were voting for a mayor and three town council members.
The public voted against two tents, electing Mike Perkis as the new mayor by a 459 to 430 margin. They also re-elected Pat O'Neil, who received 510 votes and brought in Chauncey Clark (486) and Susan Middaugh (478). Bill Matthews, a Sullivan's Island resident of three years, was not elected and received 352 votes.
Despite the tight race for mayor, there will not be a runoff, because Perkis received more than 50 percent of the total 905 ballots cast. He needed 453 to avoid a runoff, and he got six more than that.
Perkis is the town's mayor pro tem. He was elected by the public in 2005 and then re-elected in the following election. He was given the mayor pro tem tag by his peers on council in a unianimous vote. On Tuesday afternoon, Perkis said he was “absolutely” confident he would win the race.
Although he and Smith agree on several issues, the polarizing topic of late is about Sullivan's Island Elementary School. The town went ahead with plans to build a larger school on the island that would have about 500 students after the Charleston County School District refused to build a school that would hold less than 500 students, citing architectural reasons.
The previous elementary school on the island had to be closed down because of safety concerns. Students were moved to a building on Rifle Range Road in Mount Pleasant.
Smith opposed not sending the plans to a public vote. He maintained that while he supports the school returning to the island, he wants one of smaller size. Other opposition on Sullivan's Island created petitions with the necessary total percentage of resident signatures by law to demand a public vote.
But, town council and outside legal counsel deemed the petitions defective and the school's construction plans continued. The foundation has been laid at the new site. Residents representing the petitions filed a lawsuit against town council, but the construction is under a lease agreement with the school district so it continues.
All six current council members voted for the school's current path, and Smith has been the lone vote against. The three new faces to politics on the island – Clark, Middaugh and Matthews – all coincide with the current path.
Perkis declared he would run for mayor shortly after Smith publicly said he would not seek a third term. Smith has been in office since 1987. But, about a month ago, Smith declared he was supporting several residents who urged him to run as a write-in candidate, once the filing date to become an official candidate had passed.
“I had a few people (in mind) I was hoping would run,” he said, Tuesday afternoon. “I thought if I said I wasn't running, they would step forward, but that never happened. I was ready to retire and give it up, but sometimes you wonder: is this your destiny?”
Smith cited Strom Thurmond as a political figure who was elected as a write-in candidate for Senate. Signs – some of the homemade variety and others more traditional – were abundant in support of Smith. He said his favorite was one that reads “You can steal my sign, but you can't steal my vote.”
“There have been a fair number of my signs that have been stolen – knocked down, broken up, taken away,” he said. “That's juvenile.”
He said he didn't pay for any of them and was not among those placing the signs around town. “I haven't spent one penny. I haven't done anything. I haven't made those signs. The nicer ones – somebody else had those made and paid for them. The homemade ones are just that: homemade by several people.
“I have not authorized or placed or done anything with these signs. It's all been grassroots. It's just been amazing.”
Smith added that he's thankful to have the support. “It's pretty impressive. It's gratifying. What it's saying is there are people out there that like what I have been doing for 26 years.”
According to town ordinance, all political signs have to be removed by a week after the election.
Perkis now faces the difficult task of regrouping the island with at least 427 people who would have preferred Smith keep his job. “I would be really disappointed if within six months to a year, I can't redirect the energy of these people who are against the school positively back to the other things we have to do, like (building a new) town hall, the accreded land, the infrastructure and stuff like that,” Perkis said.
While he admitted the school was the primary issue between candidates with this election, he said he hoped people voted for him for other reasons too. He cited his personal management style as more active and considered Smith's to be more laissez faire.
“You can't kick the can down the road, which I think is something that has been done, especially the last eight years he was mayor,” Perkis said.
Prior to the votes being counted, he said if Smith is re-elected, “the only thing that would happen is extend the divisiveness.” But, with the exception of Matthews, all the candidates are at least under the same tent.