Warthen: The blessing of a potential candidate

Editorial Page EditorMarch 1, 2009 

On a brilliant, warm February afternoon, I was holed up in a darkened booth in an Irish-themed pub talking local politics. Not exactly James Joyce’s “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” but a reasonable Columbia facsimile.

Jack Van Loan was holding court at his “office” in a booth at Delaney’s in Five Points — files and organizer on the table before him next to his coffee, his briefcase opened on a nearby bench. From such locations Jack makes and takes his multiple calls getting ready for the big St. Patrick’s Day event March 14, and talks Five Points politics.

Last year, he was blessing Belinda Gergel for the 3rd district City Council contest that she eventually won. This time, he was pushing someone for mayor.

It was Steve Benjamin, whom I’ve known for years; we endorsed him for state attorney general in 2002. But Jack wanted to “introduce” him as his candidate for mayor, and I wanted to hear what Jack — a force in the Five Points Association since 1991 — had to say about him.

Jack says the necessary ingredient in leadership is courage — something he knows about, having been imprisoned at the “Hanoi Hilton” with John McCain. He says Steve Benjamin’s got it. “He’s not a Goldwater conservative,” which would be more to Jack’s liking. But “This is my guy.” If he runs.

Mr. Benjamin says he’ll decide whether to take on Mayor Bob Coble “in the next couple of months.” No later, because he will need the full year running up to the April 2010 election. Jack agrees: “A year’s nothing.”

What this would mean is that Bob Coble would face something other than the “usual suspects” opposition that has tended to characterize his re-elections. Last election, Kevin Fisher mounted the most serious race in a while, but that was weak compared to what Steve Benjamin would do. He wouldn’t just be a focal point for the discontented. He has the name, connections and credibility to challenge the mayor in the very heart of his political support.

And now, confidence in Columbia’s leadership is at a low ebb. City finances are an inexcusable mess; the police department is reeling from a string of problems. The city manager has quit, after the council couldn’t get its act together to evaluate him. The seven elected political leaders seem incapable of summoning the will to cope with anything, from homelessness to closing a deal to provide more parking spaces in Five Points (a very sore point for Jack).

“I have a great relationship with Bob Coble,” says Mr. Benjamin. “On my worst day, he’s been a great acquaintance.” Further, he says he doesn’t doubt the mayor’s dedication to the city.

So, as he says the mayor himself asked him, why consider running against his friend Bob? While he still hasn’t made up his mind, “reasons become clearer every day — every morning after I read your paper.”

If he runs, the campaign will be positive, and “aspirational.” He wants to grow old here. He wants his children to raise their children here.

To hear his wife or law partners tell it, he’s already involved in “too many things:” Among them, he’s chairman-elect of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, and vice chairman of the Columbia City Center Partnership. I don’t find it unusual to run into him twice in the same day, at unrelated community events.

“I think we lack a clear and cohesive vision about where this city needs to go,” he says. More than that, he understands that the city lacks the means for translating any such vision into effective action.

In other words, he advocates replacing Columbia’s unaccountable, failed council-manager government with a strong-mayor system. A full-time mayor with responsibility for, rather than politically diffused detachment from, the day-to-day executive functions of the government is necessary “for a city trying to make the next leap — from good to great,” he says. “Some say it’s a third rail,” but “it’s hard to look somebody in the eye and say I want to run the city, and then say you don’t really want to run the city.” Under the current setup, not a lot of people would want the job — at least, not a lot of people a reasonable person would want to want the job.

He mentions several important issues the city has yet to cope with — transportation, clean air and water. But it is on homelessness that he draws a sharp contrast. He says the proposal of the Midlands Housing Alliance to establish a multi-purpose center to fight homelessness at the Salvation Army site “is sound, is 95 percent of the way towards being funded, looks like a certainty and certainly fills a void.” As a former resident of the Elmwood neighborhood, he understands concerns, but believes “some strong, good neighborhood agreements” could reassure folks such a center would not be a detriment.

Mr. Benjamin is a veteran of the last failed effort to establish such a center, which was undermined by the City Council. That experience “put us on notice that if something’s going to happen, it may have to happen in spite of elected city leadership.” Various stakeholders, from business leaders to service providers, came together in the Housing Alliance to provide that missing direction, and now Mr. Benjamin says the city should step up and do its part, which would include providing operating funds.

“I don’t get the impression that the city leadership thinks it’s a problem,” says Jack Van Loan. Referring to Cathy Novinger of the Housing Alliance, he adds, “That gal would have made a damned fine general officer in the Air Force. She can make a decision without stuttering.”

It’s a quality that the former fighter pilot values, and one he suggests that he sees in Steve Benjamin.

And while it’s far too soon to say who should win, if Mr. Benjamin gets into the race, Columbia will have its clearest chance in a long while to pick a new direction.

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