Familiar Face, New Place: Rokey Suleman Takes Richland, SC Job

[Image courtesy of richlandonline]

My friend and colleague Rokey Suleman has literally been around the world with his work in the election field – but he may have just taken on the most challenging post of his career as he takes over as Richland County (Columbia), SC election director. The Free Times has more:

The Richland County Election Commission’s new executive director began work May 1.

On April 20, the commission gave him a chance to meet with media and voters in their board room.

“Do you speak Russian?” a concerned voter inexplicably said to a confused-looking Rokey W. Suleman II, the incoming director. “Know your enemy,” the voter said.

Suleman may not speak Russian — his opposition will be much closer to home.

Suleman inherits an ongoing battle between his agency and County Council as well as rankled detachment from Richland’s state delegation.

Longtime readers of this blog will remember that Richland had a very difficult time on Election Day 2012 and has been playing catch-up ever since. Part of the difficulty has been the election office’s strained relationship both with the county council and the county state legislative delegation, which has an important role:

After the county’s botched 2012 election, the department found itself strapped with legal fees. Council refuses to pay for them. Now those fees may cost the county $100,000.

Suleman is readying to break that stalemate. But whether it’s a surrender flag or a blitz, he’s not saying yet.

“If the board needs legal consultation we will try to budget for that moving forward,” he says. “I’m looking forward to building a relationship with all of the officials in the area. … We might not see eye to eye on things but ultimately they’re going to be looking towards the best interest of the voters and we’re going to be [as well].”

Suleman’s predecessor wishes him well, while seeming more than a little relieved to be passing the mantle:

Outgoing Director Samuel Selph, who served as interim director prior to taking the official title in early 2015, started out feeling good in his position, telling The State, “We have done the things we are supposed to do,” referring to fixes made after 2012. Then 2016 came around. In March of that year, Selph garnered the ire of County Council, having to ask for $1.19 million in emergency funding for his office. Later in the year he was held in contempt of court for not paying a $38,000 legal fee stemming from a lawsuit against the Election Department. Council never offered to budget for that fee and it’s festered since.

“[The election board and director’s] relationship with the county has not been one of the best over the years,” Selph said at an April 20 meeting between the election board and the Richland County State House delegation with Suleman sitting in. “But in recent weeks they’ve been very cordial and nice. I don’t know why,” he said, drawing laughs from the gathering.

Nonetheless, the nine elections in 2016 and 2017 under Selph’s tenure went off without citizens bringing out the torches. Selph touted good audits on those elections and updating the Election Department’s vote totaling system. Now at the end of his contract, it’s time for him to take his retirement. Going on 69 years old, having worked with some of the same people since the tender age of 22, he’s a weary though content man.

“There were times when I wanted to maybe take a walk, but we stayed together,” Selph said. “When it was announced today that we had a new director I felt like a burden was taken off me.”

Everyone concerned seems to be hopeful that Rokey’s experience will help create an atmosphere for success:

Rep. James Smith, chairman of the Richland County Delegation, believes Suleman’s hiring will catalyze better relations between the delegation, county government and the election board. Ultimately that means a better election experience for voters, in his assessment.

“Good leadership is key,” Smith said. “I’m looking forward to building [a relationship]. The way this works, I’m not going to get in his business. I want the commission we appointed to identify priorities and get back to us. Then we’re going to work with County Council to build a better election commission and a better election experience.”

Suleman brings an extensive resume. He’s worked on elections from Washington, D.C., to Mongolia. The previous five years he consulted and helped develop electoral processes in foreign countries.

Even with vast experience, he says he carries no preconceived notions about the challenges facing Richland County’s election department.

“I like to be considered an innovator in elections,” he said, emphasizing that the ultimate goal of his job is provide further access to the ballot. “The elections agency belongs to the voters. The agency needs to be responsive and transparent.”

That focus on transparency could bridge some of the divides between his office and council, with members and the new county administrator working to be more open and upfront decision makers.

First up? New voting machines – and navigating the old relationships between policymakers at the county and state level:

“I’m looking forward to working with the state on updating the voting equipment,” he says. “There’s some money to fix the current equipment we have … to make sure that it functions to the end of its lifespan until we can get new equipment.”

Voting equipment is just one issue facing Suleman. With a special election only a day after he takes his post and jumping in right as budget fights get under way amongst the sometimes angry disconnect between council, state government and his office, Suleman believes his world experience will see him through.

Congratulations to Rokey on the new job; it’s great to see him back in the States putting his lifetime of experience to work for the voters of Richland County. You can bet I and Rokey’s legions of friends in the field will be watching and wishing him well. Stay tuned!

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