Controversial City Councilman Harry Griffin keeps fighting
by Bill Davis | New Editor
It was an unforgettable year that no one wants to remember. Especially if you’re Charleston City Councilman Harry Griffin.
Not all of 2020 was bad for Griffin, as he took his health more seriously and trimmed 100 pounds. But he seems to have gained a metric ton in political baggage in its place.
Last year, the 25-year-old packed a career’s worth of headlines into 12 months. Consider that in that time:
• He initially agreed to appear at an “anti-tax” rally that attracted the virulently racist Proud Boys;
• A recording of Griffin was leaked supporting parts of their platform, and exposing his public excuse not to attend as a purposefully inaccurate ploy, as well as crass language he used to refer to his fellow councilmembers;
• A petition demanding he step down from Council garnered more than 34,000 signatures;
• At least two Councilmembers signed the petition;
• Council removed him from a citywide racial equality commission;
• City Council is now considering a code of conduct due to the brouhaha;
• He delivered a public apology at a Council meeting, owning his faults;
• He announced he would not run for re-election in September, only to announce in December that he was back in;
• He garnered criticism for “reversing” his position on the removal of statue of avowed racist John C. Calhoun from Marion Square, this after earlier in his tenure when he refused to sign a city apology for Charleston’s role in slavery after working on a committee drafting the apology;
• He floated a petition for his part of West Ashley to “secede” from the city and form its own government garnered less than a thousand names.
• And a worker at a downtown restaurant posted on social media that servers and cooks should pour bleach on his food.
All at a time when the city is roiling with the direct and indirect effects of Covid-19, flooding hasn’t gone away, and I-526 completion still looms.
For the past three years, Griffin has made his views very clear. He posts on Facebook like President Trump posts on Twitter, his critics contend.
Many of Griffin’s posts rely on similar populist tropes like the media, like that the Post and Courier isn’t playing it straight with the public.
Going into 2021, the question is can Griffin still be effective in office? His first two years in office were not without tumult, as evidenced by the slavery apology and constant criticism of Mayor John Tecklenburg’s veracity and fiduciary responsibilities, and his flirtation with running for mayor.
“I would characterize it as a year of frustrations,” Griffin says of 2020. “And, honestly, we are trying to do the best we can.”
“I just have to be, number one more careful in how I put myself out there,” he says. “One thing as a young person, I’m still learning … I made a mistake (referencing his dalliance with the protest). I’m human.”
Political scientist Gibbs Knotts, dean of humanities at the College of Charleston as well as its interim dean of the graduate school, sees nothing earthshaking about Griffin’s snafus this last year.
“Politicians are human; they make mistakes and say things that after they reflect back on and realize it wasn’t their finest hour nor their best thought,” says Knotts. “So many examples out there. He just needs now to reach out and build bridges, and show some contrition – which was never the move of Trump, who was also a one term President.”
“To me, there will always be a subset of the population that will be anti-establishment, that responds well to populist themes and harangues,” says Knotts. “That is not the way to win a countywide election nor a way to general election.”
But to get his goals accomplished, Griffin can’t be ostracized on Council and has to find ways to work with his fellow members, says Knotts.
Jason Sakran, a West Ashley councilman who was first to sign the petition, decline to comment further.
The ultimate judge on Griffin’s way forward will be the ballot box, according to Knotts, who says he may see the same kind of backlash Trump saw this year.
City Councilman Peter Shahid was elected the four years before Griffin was. And at 65, the lawyer is Griffin’s senior in more than just age, as he is a father, a former judge, and former public defender.
“Cussing us out, calling us names builds a wall,” Shahid says, referring to how Griffin spoke of his colleagues on Council on the tape that was released. “We don’t want a wall; I want to work with Harry, and doing that kind of stuff only hurts his constituents and the city.”
Labelling Griffin’s language as “tossing hand grenades into gas stations,” Shahid says there is so much they agree on and need to work on, specifically supporting first responders, affordable housing, and flooding.
“Harry’s biggest problem is that he has got to think things through before he reacts,” says. “He needs to work with all of us (on council).”
Back when he was still on Council representing another portion of West Ashley, Bill Moody cautioned Griffin that his stridency may end up isolating him. That seems to have come to pass.
Moody and Griffin and Marvin Wagner and Keith Waring often found themselves on the same side of the political football on Council, specifically opposing Tecklenburg. But with Moody and Wagner out of office after November losses, Griffin is much more vulnerable politically.
“I think Harry is a decent kid, you may disagree with him politically, but he’s a decent kid,” says Moody. But what is one of Griffin’s strongest suits, being forthright, has a second edge, he adds.
“I think he is an aggressive, assertive young man,” says Moody. “I think he did the right thing starting with a public apology.”
And while Moody disagrees with the language Griffin used to describe his colleagues, he thinks he should ignore the petition for him to step down and just focus on voters in his district.
Everyone seems to agree — including Griffin — that he tends to speak out before he thinks it out. But is Griffin racist, too?
“No, he’s not,” says Councilman Waring, a black money manager who represents several African-American neighborhoods on Council. “I can give you a list of things important to the African-American community that he supports.”
Funding for a municipal African-American History Museum. Drainage projects in predominantly black areas. Funding for a memorial for A.M.E. Emanuel Church. And moving Calhoun’s statue, which Waring thinks Griffin changed his mind about only when it became clearer that City Hall hadn’t worked out its final resting place.
“It is hard to believe than an avowed racist or Proud Boy or neo-Nazi would support these items that are so important to the African-American community and to broad-thinking people,” says Waring.
Waring, echoing his former ally Moody, doubts that all the signatures on Griffin’s ouster petition are legitimate, from Charleston, or from his Shadowmoss-heavy constituency.
But Waring points out that the mayor had an ouster petition filed against him online, too, following the racial unrest marches downtown earlier this year that garnered over 10,000 names.
Griffin has heard the ribbing, that his secession petition was a “dud,” while the one championing his removal was a “stud.” But he says they were for different purposes.
And he’s fine with critics calling him “mini-Trump,” reminding people that they can’t complain unless they vote.
“One of my faults is that I’m passionate; I’m one of those people who lead with my heart and not my mind,” says Griffin. “It’s something I’m working on; I’ve got to be calm, cool, and collected.
“I’m not necessarily the most diplomatic, and everyone heard it on the phone call,” he says. “I’m young, I’m learning, I’m human, and I make mistakes. But just because you may not agree with me… it does not make me a white supremacist. But just because we disagree doesn’t mean we have to go for each other’s throats.”