Large precincts, Shandon could decide mayor

abeam@thestate.comApril 4, 2010 

The Greenview and Woodlands precincts, along with three large Shandon precincts, could decide Columbia mayor's race on Tuesday.

The Shandon precincts, Wards 12, 13 and 14, are important swing areas that serve as good indicators of who has the support to win.

And to be mayor, you have to do well in the two precincts that traditionally have the highest turnouts: Greenview and Woodlands.

But about the only thing voters in those two precincts have in common is that they show up for city elections.

Ninety-eight percent of Greenview's registered voters are black. The precinct is in District 1, where the average household income is $46,000 and 24 percent of people graduated from college.

Ninety-six percent of Woodlands' voters are white. The precinct is in District 4, where the average household income is $87,000 and 53 percent of people graduated from college.

But in the past two mayoral elections, those two precincts have turned out more voters than any other precincts.

"The diversity of the city is captured in those two precincts," said Carey Crantford, a political consultant who has run election campaigns for outgoing Mayor Bob Coble. "You have to try to craft messages that kind of meld the interest of those two areas."

But that's true only if standard trends in city elections hold up, and so far this race has been anything but standard. Twenty-year incumbent Coble is out of the race, opening the door for three candidates to spend more than half a million dollars to replace him. And the city has its first black candidate for mayor.

The city has seen a surge of new voters after the historic 2008 presidential election, and how/if they will vote in a local election is unknown. And on Monday, a federal judge will decide if an eight-candidate special election in District 2, a majority black district, will proceed on Tuesday.

"I don't know if it is fair to use (past city turnouts) in this situation," said Tige Watts, a political consultant who has worked for candidate Kirkman Finlay's campaign. "I think that traditional precinct returns are going to be totally different this time around."

Still, most campaign watchers say Greenview and Woodlands are precincts to watch.

"Woodlands has a strong turnout," said at-large City Councilman Daniel Rickenmann, who has won two close citywide races. "But you always need to do well in Greenview. The seniors in that community will get out and vote, and they will call their friends and neighbors. They are engaged in the process."

The three fundraising leaders for mayor - Finlay, Steve Benjamin and Steve Morrison - have carefully crafted messages with broad appeal - messages that would resonate in Greenview and Woodlands. Much of that is based on early polling by the campaigns that showed voters were frustrated by the city's financial mismanagement and yearned for someone who could lead the city forward, according to Crantford.

"How city voters see spending is something that may philosophically divide voting groups in the community, but there are a lot of things that actually bridged voter concern based on polling that we had done," Crantford said. "Leadership, transparency - all of those things, from what we know, are concerns that, across the city, voters wanted to hear people talk about."

Thus, the candidates' slogans:

- Benjamin: Bold new leadership.

- Finlay: Truth in leadership.

- Morrison: Ready for change.

The goal is to clean up in one precinct while getting enough votes in the other precinct to not lose ground. That's what Coble did in 2006, losing the Woodlands precinct by 70 votes to opponent Kevin Fisher but winning Greenview by nearly 500 votes.

"Greenview would be the one. It's a historic bellwether precinct," Coble said. "How they vote, I think, would be indicative" of who will win the race.

From the start, Benjamin has been the most visible candidate in Greenview, said Adell Adams, who has voted in every city election since 1967. Benjamin has held fish fries, attended community events and put out yard signs.

But in recent weeks, Adams said, Finlay has made a strong push in the precinct.

"In the last week visibility has improved for Finlay," she said. "Not more than Benjamin, though. You have a long way to go to get more than Benjamin."

Finlay has solid support in Woodlands, a precinct in council District 4, where Finlay was elected as a city councilman in 2006.

With Benjamin enjoying broad support in Greenview, and Finlay in Woodlands, the race could come down to District 3 and a trio of Shandon neighborhood precincts: Wards 12, 13 and 14.

With the Greenview and Woodlands precincts, those five precincts accounted for 20 percent of the total votes cast in the 2006 mayoral election.

Morrison has a foothold in these democratic-leaning, upper-middle-class neighborhoods filled with attorneys and university professors. Morrison's campaign consultant, Bud Ferillo, ran District 3 Councilwoman Belinda Gergel's successful campaign there in 2008.

Despite those advantages, many see District 3 as a toss-up, with good support for all three of the fundraising leaders.

"Some of the District 3 boxes may be the best indicator for what the outcome is going to be," Crantford said. "All of the candidates have to do well in those boxes in order to place."

By "place," Crantford means finishing in the top two. With seven candidates for mayor, and three who are expected to split most of the vote, it is almost certain no candidate will get more than 50 percent of the vote for a clear win - a situation that automatically triggers a runoff.

A runoff election is when some of the lower-tier candidates could have an impact. Candidates such as Aaron Johnson have run smaller campaigns focused on younger voters who have never participated in city politics.

"At some point you are going to have a runoff, and if they are engaged to vote, they're going to vote again," Rickenmann said.

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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