Bernard Slater has a family portrait inside the front cover of his 12-step book.
Slater, 33, a former Charleston city councilman who resigned in April, has been a patient at Recovery Point, a substance and alcohol abuse treatment center, in Huntington. Every time he opens the book, he stares at the image taken in a photobooth with his children. He said it reminds him of what he’s working for — freedom from a longtime addiction to opiates and alcohol.
Slater had his first sips of beer by the time he was in kindergarten, he said. He tried cocaine for the first time when he was 14. A few months later he started taking pain pills after a football injury. He’d steal prescription medications from family members during his sophomore year of high school, and would buy beer for parties using a fake ID. He continued to use drugs and alcohol for years.
Right before he ran for city council in 2015, he went to Texas for a faith-based drug treatment program, where he was encouraged to pray away his problems. He began his campaign for city council shortly after, which didn’t come without controversy.
People talked about a series of DUI arrests, a felony burglary charge, and several domestic violence charges related to his ex-wife. Slater brushed off the criticisms, telling the Charleston Gazette in March of that year his past would help him handle situations with constituents through experience.
“I can relate to almost everyone who lives here because of the situations that have happened in my life,” Slater wrote. “I am not ashamed of my past. Everyone has one and mine was not pretty, but my future will be bright.”
He was elected a few months later, beating out now-councilman Pat Jones by only two votes in the Democratic primary. But now Slater regrets running. He said his addictions to drugs and alcohol pushed him to pursue the office.
“We’ve [addicts] got a thinking problem. We’re self-centered, and we’re selfish,” Slater said. “We’ve got an issue with ego.”
He planned to start fighting for his North Charleston ward, encouraged to solve issues with dilapidated properties and improve infrastructure. Slater said he felt like he didn’t belong on council, but he said his ego prevented him for resigning. It didn’t matter if Jones or fellow council members criticized him — his narcissism kept him in office, he said.
“I thought, ‘What the heck am I doing?’” Slater said. “This is not me.”
Two months after he was sworn in, city police confiscated his cellphone as part of an investigation into a fatal overdose. Officers said they found text messages from Slater to a man charged with felony murder after a woman had a fatal heroin overdose on Charleston’s West Side. In those messages, Slater allegedly asked the man, Steven Coleman, who is his cousin, to provide him with prescription pills and offered to falsely testify he witnessed the overdose.
Coleman, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and a drug charge. At the time, city officials said they had no plans to try to remove Slater from office. Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said then the councilman already had “marginalized” himself enough.
A Recovery Point staffer reached out to him during the investigation, encouraging him to enter the program. He brushed it off, blocking her on Facebook.
Slater said his life fully spiraled out of control earlier this year when he started using methamphetamines. His friends and family stopped speaking with him. He was arrested for digging through residents’ garbage in February. His ex-wife filed another domestic violence protection order in the same month.
The mayor called for resignation in a council meeting after receiving dozens of complaints about Slater’s behavior.
“It’s just time to go. It’s time to get the hell out,” Danny Jones said during the March meeting about Slater. “He’s not here, but I wish he was, because I’d say it to his face.”
At the time, Slater said, he was hiding, trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.
He entered Recovery Point on March 21. Only his family knew that he had entered the facility. He said he was ashamed, unsure if he would complete the program.
“My life is so unmanageable that at 33 years old I have to come here to learn how to live again,” Slater said.
He’s now taking classes to teach him how to problem-solve and going through a 12-step program. Instead of sitting in city council he’s helping plan Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He’s grown close to the group of men who live with him in the Huntington facility.
Slater hid his politician past for weeks, but now they jokingly refer to him as “The Governor.” He’s blending in now instead of standing out.
He’s trying to eliminate the resentments he developed against city leaders, because he knows they were “troubles of his own making.” He plans to make public apologies to city council and the city’s residents in a public statement within the next few weeks.
He doesn’t know what’s next — he tries not to plan too far in advance. But unlike his last stint in a rehabilitation program, he feels like this time his future is actually bright.
There’s still a nagging voice in the back of his head.
“I can’t stay in this bubble forever; this is a safe place for me,” Slater said. “What if I get out and people are using drugs around me again? I can’t tell if I’ll ever get high again.”
There is one thing he’s sure of — when he does graduate from the program he won’t head back to North Charleston, a place he refers to as the slums of the city.
“There’s no way I can go back to the environment I lived in before,” Slater said. “I think I’m going to stay in Huntington.”