James Akers is running as an out candidate for Greenville’s Council.
GREENVILLE, S.C. — When James Akers moved into town three years ago, he never imagined that he’d embark on a journey that could lead to him being the first openly gay person ever elected to office in South Carolina. But, that’s we’re he finds himself now. If he wins, he will claim a seat on the Greenville County Council and be the default leader and voice of the county’s LGBT community.
Akers’ decision to throw his hat into the ring wasn’t an easy one. It took some time to commit to the idea, he told Q-Notes. “I had been thinking about it for a year, maybe a year and a half. I finally made my decision around Valentine’s Day.”
Akers said his initial interest was sparked by what he thought was a “lack of response” from current council members and a keen interest in zoning laws. He made his bid official on Feb. 13.
“The reason it took me so long to decide to run, was that I knew my sexual orientation might be an issue and I needed to talk to the people in my county,” he said.
There is little doubt that Akers’ sexual orientation will loom large in the campaign, especially if he wins the primary battle with Democratic challenger Barry Matthews.
Republican challenger Liz Seman has already hinted that gay-baiting will be part of her election strategy, if necessary. While she didn’t mention Akers by name, Seman’s Feb. 19 candidacy announcement included coded phrases like “traditional values.”
Despite being gay in this historically conservative area, Akers believes his leadership style and strong vision for the region’s future growth will enable him to work well with other elected officials, public leaders and residents.
“If you are going to be a Democrat in Greenville County, you have to be able to get along with Republicans and negotiate with them,” he said. “I’m moderate enough to work with the opposing side. I’m also a real estate agent and I’m constantly talking to commmunty members and hearing their concerns and views. I’m all over the county all the time. I get around and speak to other people and communities outside the one I live in.”
Akers said recent studies indicate that in 20 years or less Greenville could be as large as Charlotte is today. He doesn’t see current, local government officials doing enough to prepare for this tremendous growth.
“There is a specific road in Greenville that may end up looking like Independence Boulevard in Charlotte,” he explained. “The current council isn’t looking forward and it isn’t preparing. It only responds to situations. I have a vision of what I think needs to happen for our future development.”
At 27 years old, Akers feels his youthfulness will be a positive for his election bid. “The fact that I’m young is an advantage. I’m energetic and motivated and excited. I’m not running just because I think I deserve this. I’m running because I think I can make a change in the county.”
There are indications that the Palmetto State is ripe for a shake-up, Akers said. “I definitely think South Carolina is moving from being a solid red state to more of a purple one. Living here you might have the impression that this is a diehard Republican county, but once you start talking to people you find out a lot of folks are Democrats. This year is going to a be a good year for Democrats and gay and lesbian candidates in general.”
Kel Henry, a USC-Upstate student who is originally from Greenville, echoed Akers’ thoughts on South Carolina’s changing environment. “I think there is definitely some change going on and it is definitely for the better. Having openly gay people running and not hearing all negatives about them, that is a great sign of change.”
However, Henry admits to fears about Akers’ ability to withstand the negative campaigning that could come his way. “I’d like to think he has a great chance of winning, but honestly it is kind of one of those 50-50 things. A lot of people in Greenville are okay with homosexuality, but at the same time a lot of people aren’t. His success depends on which groups end up being louder.”
Akers has just begun in earnest his fundraising efforts, starting with reaching out to a few political action committees and some gay and lesbian organizations. He told Q-Notes that he’ll probably rely most on direct, small-money contributions from community members.
In order to run a successful primary campaign, Akers will need at least $30,000. The general election could cost him $70,000 or more.
South Carolina holds their state and local primary elections on June 6. The general election will be held on Nov. 4.