Frank E. Willis

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Frank E. Willis
Mayor of Florence, South Carolina
In office
1994–2008
Preceded by Haigh Porter (1990-1994)
Succeeded by Stephen Wukela (2008- )
Personal details
Born (1941-10-19) October 19, 1941 (age 75)
Bennettsville, South Carolina
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Marguerite Smith Willis

Frank E. Willis (born October 19, 1941) was the mayor of Florence, South Carolina from 1994 to 2008. His administration was widely praised for ushering in an era of economic expansion as the city of Florence rapidly grew into a regional business hub for the eastern Carolinas, especially in the areas of health care and financial services.

Prior to serving as mayor, Willis was a successful local businessman who chaired the Florence County Economic Development Authority. In 1980, he co-founded the South Carolina Transportation Policy and Research Council. As a conservative member of the Democratic Party, he was an ardent supporter of both Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council.

In 1994, Willis defeated former Mayor Rocky Pearce and won the Democratic Party's mayoral nomination. He then went on to defeat the Republican nominee, City Councilman John Chase, in the general election. Due to a slight change in election law, however, Mayor Willis's initial term was extended through 1998, allowing him to win re-election in 2000 and then again in 2004. Florence has a council-manager government, so the mayor works part-time in conjunction with the city council, the city manager and the county council.

Frank Willis was raised just north of Florence in Darlington, South Carolina and graduated from St. John's High School. He later married Marguerite Smith and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Carolina. For over 35 years, Willis served as Chairman and CEO of the Willis Construction Company, a business his father headquartered in Florence. Early in his administration, Willis used his own equipment to clear out vacant lots and wooded areas that had long been associated with gang activity.

The mayor was very successful in attracting new businesses to Florence County, but his initiatives to curb crime, drug use and urban sprawl were met with mixed results. In 2006, Mayor Willis unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic Party's gubernatorial nomination. He outperformed Columbia attorney C. Dennis Aughtry, but ultimately lost the primary to Tommy Moore, a longtime state senator from Aiken. Moore, in turn, was later defeated in the general election by Republican Governor Mark Sanford.

In June 2008, while seeking a fourth term in office, Willis unexpectedly lost the Democratic Party's mayoral nomination to local attorney Stephen Wukela by just one vote. Wukela, a 32-year-old graduate of both Clemson University and the George Washington University Law School, was an outspoken supporter of Barack Obama and adopted many of his campaign themes. In 2004, the progressive Wukela unsuccessfully challenged Florence's senior Republican state senator, Hugh K. Leatherman, Sr.

No Republicans filed to run for the mayor's office in the November 2008 general election, although former Mayor Rocky Pearce announced that he would run as an independent. Mayor Pearce, who served two consecutive terms as a Democrat from 1982–1990, owns an insurance company that was started by his father. Like Mayor Willis, Pearce, 56, was a conservative who attended USC and once chaired the Florence County Economic Development Authority. At the age of 31, Pearce defeated incumbent Mayor Cooper Tedder (D). He ultimately lost his bid for a third consecutive term to attorney Haigh Porter (D).

An automatic municipal recount upheld Wukela's narrow victory over Frank Willis. Citing "voter confusion", Willis then appealed that decision to the South Carolina Democratic Party, who ruled in favor of Wukela, and denied the mayor's request for another primary election. Afterwards, the mayor took the matter before a local circuit court, but the judge dismissed the case, and stated that the results from the Democratic primary were legitimate. The mayor then appealed the circuit court's decision to the South Carolina Supreme Court, but the case was similarly dismissed. In both cases, Wukela was represented by his father, who is the proprietor of the Wukela Law Firm and a prominent personal injury lawyer.

After the Supreme Court decision, Mayor Willis finally conceded the race, telling the Florence Morning News: "It's over." He declined to officially endorse either Wukela or Pearce as his successor, although the Florence City Council and the Florence Morning News endorsed Mayor Pearce. Wukela, however, ultimately defeated Pearce in the general election by a ten point margin.

Willis is the third longest-serving mayor in Florence history after David H. McLeod (16 years) and Herbert Gilbert (20 years).

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