Beaufort News

Growing Port Royal gets a new public face for the first time in decades. Who will it be?

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include Town Council incumbent Jerry Ashmore’s platform issues.

As Port Royal prepares to elect its first new mayor in more than 20 years, a town native is betting on her extensive elected service and deep community roots in a race against a longtime resident and civic leader seeking his first elective office.

Councilwoman Mary Beth Gray Heyward, who is also mayor pro tempore, and Joe DeVito, a former utility administrator who has served in numerous roles on local planning boards, are competing for outgoing Mayor Sam Murray’s open seat in the town’s election Tuesday.

In addition to Tuesday’s Beaufort County school bond referendum, which will ask voters’ permission to borrow up to $344.6 million for school construction, renovations and updates, Port Royal voters will also choose two council members from three candidates — incumbents Jerry Ashmore and Robert Landrum are challenged by attorney Kevin Phillips.

The town that neighbors Beaufort to the south boasts a rich history, a working waterfront and is amid a waterfront redevelopment project that could transform a sleepy terminal into a bustling village district of restaurants, shops and new homes. More than 12,000 residents now call Port Royal home, a population that is a mix of natives, military personnel and increasingly retirees and other transplants.

Port Royal’s adopted slogan is “Cool, coastal and far from ordinary,” and campaigns have promised to raise the town’s standing on a regional stage.

That’s the backdrop of a mayoral election in which both candidates have touted extensive service records as groundwork to successfully help lead the town.

Gray Heyward, the mayor pro tem, has served on the council since 1992. DeVito recently stepped down from the Metropolitan Planning Commission, a panel that reviews projects and annexation and zoning requests in northern Beaufort County, after 20 years.

“I think the difference between Joe and I is that I have been in municipal politics,” Gray Heyward said. “I’ve been on the council, so I know the issues and have been a part of the issues.”

DeVito said his governmental experience has come in a more behind-the-scenes manner by working with officials with the town, city and county — and that he’s received valuable leadership training as part of his former job as operations director for Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority.

“It requires a group effort to get things done, and I believe I offer that leadership skill to bring everybody together and get the right answer,” he said.

Gray Heyward’s grandmother served on town council, and her mother was the longtime Beaufort County auditor. She said their service inspired her own involvement, and that the town needs someone with institutional knowledge to help lead smart growth.

DeVito, who was president of the Spanish Moss Trail, has pushed for the trail’s completion and for a network of roads and sidewalks safer and more accessible for pedestrians and bicyclists. He recently chaired a short-term rental task force that spend months considering the issue and drafting recommendations for new rules regulating the rentals that will be presented next month.

The mayor and four Town Council members are elected at large. The body sets town policies and long-range plans, approves the annual budget and serves at the direction of a professional administrator, Town Manager Van Willis.

The administrator carries out council’s decisions, and the elected officials hold hiring and firing power over the position. While the mayor’s vote counts the same as other council members, the mayor facilitates council meetings, is the most public face in the community and represents the town in dealings with other governments.

In the council race, Ashmore has said his first term makes him better equipped to navigate the issues of the next four years.

Landrum was unopposed for his seat in 2017 to fill the remaining term vacated by the resignation of Tom Klein. He said he decided to seek office after becoming frustrated with concessions he felt developers were receiving from town officials and that he has since come to appreciate the position’s ability to help neighbors with basic needs.

With the exception of Phillips, who moved to Port Royal in 2018, all of the candidates for mayor and council have lived in Port Royal at least 20 years. Phillips has run an aggressive campaign that has included regular social media posts, print and online advertisements and a recent endorsement from state Sen. Tom Davis.

Phillips has promised to be a voice for the town regionally and says his knowledge of contracts and negotiating will allow him to communicate complex development documents.

For more on the candidates’ positions, the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce has posted questionnaires with each at its election center on And you can also find out where candidates’ stand on key issues in The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet’s coverage of a League of Women Voters forum this month.

Voters can read the newspapers’ editorial board endorsements at

Port Royal candidates

Note: Mayor and two council seats up for election.


Joe DeVito

Age: 58

Occupation: Software company account executive; retired Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority operations director.

Public service experience: Metropolitan Planning Commission, Northern Regional Plan Implementation Committee, Spanish Moss Trail board president, short-term rental task force chairman.

Achievable goals within two years: Bring Spanish Moss Trail into Old Village, downtown Port Royal. Build new road along port property or have funding in place. Long-range planning for town assets — roads, sidewalks, Cypress Wetlands, dock.

Mary Beth Gray Heyward

Age: 64

Occupation: Pre-arrival customer service manager, Beaufort Memorial Hospital.

Public service experience: 27 years on Town Council, 26 years Lowcountry Council of Governments, council representative on numerous town boards.

Achievable goals within two years: Complete the Spanish Moss Trail in Port Royal. Implement long-term plan for town park improvements. Fund and repair town-owned roads.

Town Council

Jerry Ashmore (Incumbent)

Age: 54

Occupation: Director of safety and workforce development, The Greenery.

Public service experience: Town Council since 2015, Northern Regional Plan Implementation Committee, Local Emergency Planning Committee vice chairman, former Port Royal Redevelopment Commission, Beaufort Regional Chamber board.

Key platform issues: Growing the town budget; smart, slow development; knowledge of and involvement at shrimp docks.

Robert Landrum

Age: 54

Occupation: History professor, University of South Carolina Beaufort; Owner of Lowcountry Gold beekeeping and related products.

Public service experience: Town Council since 2017.

Key platform issues: Environmental sensibility, careful stewardship of tax dollars, responsiveness to citizens.

Kevin Phillips

Age: 37

Occupation: Staff attorney, S.C. Victim Assistance Network.

Public service experience: Beaufort-Jasper YMCA board member, Lowcountry Jaycees, Leadership Beaufort.

Key platform issues: Responsible growth, quality of life, advocate for Port Royal at local and regional level.

Stephen Fastenau covers northern Beaufort County as a reporter for The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet, where he has worked since 2010 and been recognized with state and national awards. He studied journalism and political science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and lives in Beaufort.
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