- Associated Press - Saturday, March 4, 2017

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - As a new wave of civic engagement sweeps communities across the country, grassroots efforts are sprouting up in Charleston to channel some of the energy to local government.

One informal group of residents without much experience in politics has been meeting regularly over the past few months to strategize how to get a new, younger crop of candidates to run for Charleston City Council this year. The Center for Women is launching a new workshop series to teach women the skills required to run for local and state offices.

Others have simply held community meetings to educate residents about social issues and what they can do to influence policy decisions.

And while other left-leaning coalitions have formed to resist President Donald Trump’s agenda, many of these new groups are determined to remain nonpartisan as they aim to inject local government with as many new voices as possible.

Elliott Smith, known locally as a founder of the BACE League, said he was approached late last year by a few people primarily involved in the nonprofit sector who wanted his help putting together an initiative to get new candidates to run for City Council, a nonpartisan body. Even-numbered district seats are up for re-election in November.

BACE, an acronym for “business, art, culture and entertainment,” is a civic group that evolved out of a 2014 effort to support local businesses’ concerns about the city’s moratorium on late-night bars. After that issue was put to bed, Smith and others involved in BACE focused their efforts on getting young residents registered to vote in the 2015 Charleston mayoral election.

That organization is still active, but Smith said he and co-founder McKenzie Eddy are mostly working on the new concept, which currently is going by the name Take a Seat Charleston.

The first step will be identifying potential candidates - ideally talented young people interested in representing their districts on City Council, but who might not have the political know-how to mount a campaign on their own. Smith said recruitment could begin in the next few weeks.

The group then would help those candidates hone their messages and connect with voters through social media and events. The details are still being worked out, and Smith realizes it’s not going to be easy.

In general, city elections - which are held in even-numbered years - are low-turnout affairs dominated by older voters.

“Not only getting candidates interested in running, but getting the public more engaged, getting voter turnout rates where they need to be, getting young people more engaged and interested,” he said. “It’s making the connection between local politics and their daily lives. That is going to be ultimate struggle.”

Maragert Pilarski, another architect of the concept, said she thinks it’s important to get new, diverse voices on council because of everything that’s at stake, such as housing affordability, transportation infrastructure and support for local businesses.

“This group believes there’s a lot more we can and should take into consideration as the city grows,” she said. “I think we’re all guilty of feeling overwhelmed by national or state-level decisions, but there’s a real opportunity to be engaged and effective at a local level.”

The Center for Women, meanwhile, hopes to help more female candidates enter the upcoming race for City Council or for other local and state bodies with its Pathway to Politics series.

Organizer Ali Titus said the goal is to “demystify running for office, because it seems like such an intangible thing to so many of us.”

She said women don’t run for office nearly as often as men do, and women also raise less campaign money. That at least helps explain why the state Legislature has so few female representatives, she said. Only one of Charleston City Council’s 12 members is female.

“But we know from national research that when women run, they win as often as men,” she said. “What we decided to do is build programming to help women gain the knowledge, the network and the tactical skills they need to run a successful campaign.”

Meanwhile, Jessica Boylston-Fagonde of Charleston has helped create a platform for those types of grassroots efforts to reach residents interested in getting more involved. She started holding monthly meetings in November, which drew 40-50 people who wanted to share ideas and initiatives they were working on to spur more civic activities.

Now going by the name Ideas Into Action, the meeting has recently been drawing more than 100 people, Boylston-Fagonde said. They listen to two nonprofit or civic groups at each meeting, which give presentations about the issues they focus on and ways residents can support them.

“It’s this educational piece and really just wanting nonprofits or leaders in the community who understand where the issues are to help uplift and raise the consciousness of our community,” she said. “It’s still in its birthing stages, and we’re still seeing where it’s going and how it will evolve.”


Information from: The Post and Courier, https://www.postandcourier.com

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