Popular South Carolina mayor weathers storm after police shooting

Popular South Carolina mayor weathers storm after police shooting
Keith Summey, mayor of North Charleston, S.C., answers questions during a news conference Wednesday about the shooting death of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, by a white North Charleston police officer, Michael T. Slager. (Richard Ellis / Getty Images)

There's a new sort of racial profile, and Keith Summey probably finds it uncomfortable: He's another white mayor of a mostly black town, where a white police officer has killed an unarmed black man.

Like others, the mayor of North Charleston, S.C. — along with the city's entire power structure — is now coming under national scrutiny.


Unlike some others, Summey appears to be popular and successful. He has held his office more than 20 years — longer than any mayor in North Charleston's history. And his support seems to come from all sides, which might explain why he had not been barraged with criticism after Walter Scott was fatally shot by Michael T. Slager.

It was Summey who announced Tuesday that Slager, who was fired from the police force, would face a murder charge.

"When you're wrong, you're wrong," Summey told reporters. "When you make a bad decision, don't care if you're behind the shield or a citizen on the street, you have to live with that decision."

He also announced that the city would continue to pay health insurance premiums for the former officer's wife, who is eight months pregnant. "Two families have been harmed by what has occurred," the mayor said at a news conference Wednesday. "Our hearts go out to both of them."

When Summey stepped in to absorb heated questions aimed at the police chief, Eddie Driggers, a crowd of protestors didn't want the mayor's political hide — they wanted the police chief. "We want Driggers! We want Driggers!" they chanted.

Earlier that day, Summey had prayed with the Scott family.

"Let me tell you something," City Councilwoman Dot Williams said Thursday. She is known for being vocal on issues of race, to the degree her grandchildren accuse her of being prejudiced against white people. "As a 68-year-old black woman, I have seen it. Segregated laundromats. Separate water fountains. Separate high schools. I've been there. But Keith Summey is one of the kindest, best men I know. He loves black residents and would do anything for them."

Like many mayors in Southern towns, Summey attends the local Baptist church, Cooper River Baptist, in particular. But unlike many, he also regularly shows up at local black churches — at Royal Baptist, Charity, Mt. Moriah — and prefers the music there.

"The music and the preaching," said Antoinette Green, who works at Royal Baptist. "He comes all the time."

Summey's popularity springs from North Charleston's economic reversal during his tenure. The last mayor, Bobby Kinard, resigned in conflict with the City Council, and left office while the city was in a mess. (He later shot and wounded a man, then shot and killed himself as police closed in.)

Summey took over the last few months of Kinard's term, won the next election, and then immediately oversaw North Charleston as it absorbed one of the heaviest economic blows in the history of the city near the Atlantic Coast: the closing of the Charleston Naval Base, which cost thousands of jobs.

The political fallout from the closing would have sunk many mayors, but Summey had built support in North Charleston almost his entire life. He was born inland, in a small town called Cottageville, but as a boy moved with his family to North Charleston, where he attended a local high school and college. He first won a City Council seat in 1986.

After the base closed, Summey worked to replace it with private industry, and over the following decades helped turn North Charleston, a city of about 104,000, into South Carolina's leading retail center. The town's fortunes fully came around with the arrival of a Boeing factory, which brought back the thousands of jobs lost in the closing of the naval base.

Housing prices have shot up, with formerly depressed neighborhoods made over as hip spots. The city-owned North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center, a 13,000-seat venue that opened in 1999,  draws big music acts and conventions.


Around town Summey is probably best recognized for two things. The first is his collection of vintage cars, which once reached a peak of nine, including an old Porsche, muscle cars and a mid-century pickup truck.

The other is his girth. He once hit 340 pounds, then underwent gastric bypass surgery and went on a diet. But Dot Williams, the councilwoman, said his love of soul food has held him back.

"He sneaks over to the black restaurants behind his wife's back," she said, laughing. "But that's just Mayor Summey. Everybody knows it."

Twitter: @MatthewTeague