[This column appeared first in the Charleston Post and Courier and is reprinted here with the author’s kind permission.]
It is often the little things that tell you the most about how — and particularly why — business gets done in this town.
Our Civics 101 lesson starts with the most mundane of chores of local government meetings, the filling of a seat on a local board. Today’s case study, though, is instructive: Why did Charleston County Council choose Jerome Heyward over David Kilborn to help oversee the fast-growing business at Charleston International Airport?
The airport is a critical engine of the region’s economy, handling about 4 million passengers last year and reporting $58.3 million in revenue. In June, County Council had six candidates to replace downtown power lawyer Andy Savage on the Charleston County Aviation Authority.
Only two of the six showed up that night, and on paper this should have been a no-brainer:
• Kilborn, 50, is chief executive and chief investment officer of Performa Ltd., a Charleston-based asset management company. With $4.5 billion under management, Performa is among the state’s largest investment firms. It specializes in fixed-income securities, something that would come in handy for an airport authority with $175 million in debt outstanding and more borrowing ahead to fund expansion. Kilborn, who started on Wall Street, also has experience in aviation finance.
• Heyward, 55, is a local lobbyist, small businessman and former state Human Affairs commissioner. Court records show he has struggled at times financially: In 2016, Heyward filed for bankruptcy protection after shuttering a limo bus service and a restaurant. At the time of the filing, the Internal Revenue Service reported he owed $334,367 in federal taxes, some of which he disputed, according to his disclosure statement. Other court filings in recent years show his West Ashley home was threatened with foreclosure.
But County Council, without discussion, chose Heyward over Kilborn, 4-3. (The other votes were scattered among the other candidates.) Heyward won thanks to the council’s North Charleston bloc of Teddie Pryor, who nominated him, Elliott Summey and Henry Darby. Councilwoman Anna Johnson voted with Pryor and Darby as she often does.
If the differences in qualifications seem notable, Heyward had something else going for himself: He was a plaintiff in North Charleston’s high-stakes battle with Charleston over which municipality may annex thousands of acres in West Ashley along S.C. Highway 61.
In May, North Charleston filed a lawsuit challenging Charleston’s own suit over the annexation. In June, six weeks after Heyward lent his name to that suit, County Council voted to give him a plum spot on the aviation board. While unpaid, it can provide useful cachet for any business people looking to build (or rebuild) their business.
The machinations around the board seat offer a window into how County Council is increasingly a captive of Keith Summey’s North Charleston City Hall. Summey’s son, Elliott, sits on County Council along with Pryor, who is an adviser for the mayor. Darby is the principal at North Charleston High School. Heyward himself is a consultant for the city and has a work space near the mayor’s office.
His appointment would strengthen Mayor Summey’s hand at the airport, which is in North Charleston adjacent Boeing, a jobs machine. Summey is on the aviation board, along with the mayors of Charleston and Mount Pleasant and the chairman of County Council, Vic Rawl. Teddie Pryor’s brother Spencer, the media/community relations officer for the North Charleston police, is on the board.
Heyward is African American, and his choice would increase the board’s diversity, a goal Savage championed in his resignation letter. Spencer Pryor is the only African American on the 11-member board. It is a worthy goal, but is that alone enough to bridge the chasm between the resumes of the two men?
If any of the council members read what the two men wrote in their board applications, they would have seen a marked difference. Kilborn gave robust answers about how his experience could benefit the airport. Heyward gave vague, one-sentence replies.
None of it mattered. This cake was baked.
In a telephone interview, Heyward called me a racist for raising his past financial problems. He had plenty to say about race, but wouldn’t discuss his bankruptcy filing or the annexation lawsuit.
“You have one mission: to destroy the black guy,” Heyward said. “My personal life has no bearing on this. The president of the United States filed bankruptcy, but you won’t write about that.” (Actually, I did, in 2016, about Donald Trump Jr.’s investment in a North Charleston manufacturer.)
The appointment isn’t done. Charleston, which shares control of the seat with North Charleston, must sign off, and that’s unlikely while Heyward is suing it. In September, two weeks before his appointment came before City Council, he filed a request to withdraw from the annexation lawsuit. The governor must also approve the choice.
Steve Bailey writes for the Commentary page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.