Beaufort News

A new face on Port Royal Town Council, a newcomer in mayor’s chair after tight race

A longtime civic leader will head the council governing the town of Port Royal, and a newcomer will also grab a seat, according to unofficial Beaufort County election results released about midnight Tuesday.

.Joe DeVito, a retired utility operator and longtime planning board member, was 22 votes ahead in the town’s at-large election Tuesday to replace Mayor Sam Murray and become the first new mayor in 25 years. Unofficial results showed DeVito with 521 votes, or 51 percent, over Town Council member Mary Beth Gray-Heyward, who had 499 votes, or 49 percent.

Port Royal precincts had reported and absentee ballots had been counted as late Tuesday. The results will be certified by the town’s Municipal Election Commission on Thursday.

DeVito said he was confident in the results after waiting for the absentee votes to be posted.

“We can start looking at the business of Port Royal and moving things along,” he said. “There are some things council needs to address, and in a fashion the town knows they’re moving along and not stumbling along.

“The election slows down the process of normal business.”

The election for two open Town Council seats was more definitive.

Incumbent Jerry Ashmore has locked in a second term, and voters chose attorney Kevin Phillips over incumbent Robert Landrum for the other seat, unofficial results show.

Ashmore was the leading vote-getter in the posted results, with 646 votes, or 36 percent, of votes cast. Phillips picked up 618 votes, or 34.5 percent, to Landrum’s 508, or 28.4 percent.

DeVito, 58, would represent a new direction for a town ushering in a major waterfront development project, a seemingly shifting population of transplants seeking out the town’s charming downtown village and new residents filling communities under construction in Shell Point and Burton.

Gray-Heyward, 64, has been on council since 1992 and lived in Port Royal more than 50 years. She said she felt her record of service and knowledge of Port Royal’s issues gave her the edge over DeVito, who has served various civic volunteer roles but was seeking his first public office.

Phillips, who moved to Port Royal only in 2018, ran an aggressive campaign by blanketing Beaufort and Port Royal with campaign signs bearing the newcomer’s face, with regular updates on social media, in print advertising and in public appearances. He touted notable endorsements from state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, and Beaufort County Treasurer Maria Walls.

His campaign focused on quality-of-life issues, and he has promised to be an expert voice at the table on contracts and development issues and to promote the town at the regional level.

“Right now I’m just very humbled by the support of Port Royal residents,” said Phillips, a 37-year-old attorney at S.C. Victim Assistance Network. “I’m really just looking forward to getting to work and finding solutions for the problems we face — but also to start to talk about the issues that are coming, the things that are five to 10 years away. I’m excited to get to work for the people.”

Ashmore, 54, ran a campaign confident in his record of his first four years. He touted his involvement with the developers of the former Port of Port Royal and his involvement with the town shrimp docks, whose future is up for debate.

He also proposed that the town encourage commercial development opportunities along S.C. 170 to help grow Port Royal’s $7 million budget.

Ashmore said a grassroots campaign of knocking on doors, hosting meet-and-greet events and attending town festivals paid off.

“I think the work I’ve done in my first term says a lot about me and the councilman that I am,” Ashmore said. “I’m very active, and I’m very engaged, and I listen to the residents of the town of Port Royal. And I will continue to listen and work for the residents of the town of Port Royal.”

Landrum had served on council since 2017, when he ran unopposed to fill the remaining two years of a term. The USC Beaufort history professor touted his environmental record and town policies enacted during his term to expand development setbacks and waterfront buffers — and his ability to help neighbors address everyday problems like neighborhood traffic and trash pickup.

DeVito is a longtime volunteer on a northern Beaufort County planning board who stepped down in preparation for a campaign for his first public office. He most recently chaired a town task force that spent months considering new regulations for short-term vacation rentals in the town.

The role put him in the center of the controversial process and a target for the most vocal opponent of more regulations for the rentals, Realtor Carl Joye, who threw his support behind Gray-Heyward.

The panel’s recommendations have been submitted to town staff but not yet presented publicly to council members.

In Port Royal, four council members and the mayor make up the Town Council, and each gets a vote during monthly meetings. The body works at the guidance of a town administrator, Town Manager Van Willis who, with town staff, carries out policies.

During outgoing mayor Murray’s term, the town’s population grew as it annexed properties in the Shell Point and Burton areas. When Murray was elected to a sixth term in 2015, he said he wanted to see through the sale of the former state port terminal along Battery Creek to private developers.

The deal went through in 2017.

Murray said Tuesday he supported the candidates he had worked with on council — Gray-Heyward, Ashmore and Landrum.

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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