Bolton: Not a mandate but a challenge

Associate EditorApril 13, 2012 

“It’s a mandate for the issues we ran on.”

Cameron Runyan,

on his landslide victory

in the April 3 Columbia

City Council election


WHILE Cameron Runyan has reason to be buoyed by his easy win in the at-large race for Columbia City Council, he should chill out on claims that it represents a “mandate” for the issues he ran on.

Mr. Runyan cited his support for issues such as an increase in the sales tax to pay for the Midlands bus system and the use of tax-increment-financing districts to help make improvements in Innovista, Bull Street and North Main Street. Those are among some of the most debated and potentially controversial matters before local governments in Richland County at the moment. It would be a mistake for Mr. Runyan to misread voters’ obvious approval of him as a definitive referendum on those matters.

I’m not convinced that a solid majority of voters wants to see the already-too-high sales tax increased or favors the use of tax-increment-financing districts, which siphon new tax dollars away from basic services. Frankly, city and county officials (and Richland 1 officials when it comes to TIFs) haven’t quite figured out what direction to take on those issues. That’s particularly true as it relates to TIFs, which is part of the reason City Council is moving so tentatively on the matter despite strong support from some of its members.

But the fact that these are controversial issues that I’m not totally sold on isn’t the reason I suggest Mr. Runyan reconsider his assertion that some sort of mandate comes with his showing at the ballot box. The main reason to be careful is that turnout was so utterly poor.

I wouldn’t doubt that a good number of voters agree with many of Mr. Runyan’s positions, including on the TIFs and the sales tax. But it would be naive to overestimate what the results of an election with such a pitiful turnout means. A mandate? When only 12 percent of registered voters even bothered to cast ballots? Just 7 percent of registered voters voted for him.

The so-called “mandate” Mr. Runyan has is the same that any election winner would have, regardless the margin of victory: a mandate to lead and even to attempt to persuade people to join him in pushing for his positions.

I believe Mr. Runyan can and will be a solid council member. He means well and is smart, driven and forward-looking.

“We’re an incredible city now,” he said after his victory. “But we’re going to be an amazing city in 20 years.”

You’ve got to like his enthusiasm and confidence. We need that in our capital city that tends to stumble over itself and is always searching for identity.

I even like the fact that he’s willing to take strident, uncompromising positions — to a point. He can’t allow that to prevent him from listening to sound reasoning and legitimate concerns. He must be willing to compromise and be open to changing his mind when it’s best for the city.

Sometimes Mr. Runyan can come across as a bit too keyed up, too over confident, which, if not tempered, can lead to overstatements such as his declaration that a mandate had been handed to him by voters.

Of course, he isn’t the first, nor will he be the last, politician to wrongly suggest he had received an imperative from voters. For a while there, it seemed everyone who won an election, no matter the margin, made the claim. I think many of them got caught up in the moment or thought a little more of themselves than they should. Some simply said it because so many others were saying it. Whatever their reason, the fact is that most were terribly misreading election outcomes.

To the extent that some votes do equate to a true mandate, it certainly must come in a pretty lopsided victory. But it seems that it ought to also require that margin to come in an election when there is an engaged, attentive, excited electorate that votes in significant numbers.

Yes, it was surprising to see Mr. Runyan win 59 percent of the vote, defeating his closest opponent, Robert Bolchoz, by more than 2,000 votes; Joe Azar finished well back in third. But fewer than 8,500 of the more than 69,000 voters in Columbia cast ballots.

Why such a poor showing? The multiplicity of reasons includes the fact that city elections are held at a time of year when people aren’t used to voting and, worse, in the spring, when folks are otherwise distracted. And, to some degree, candidates must take the blame for not being able to connect with and motivate people to get interested in their government and cast ballots.

For sure, Mr. Runyan should be proud of his victory; but it’s no mandate.

Perhaps Mr. Azar’s response to the shameful voter turnout was more appropriate: “There seemed to be more apathy,” he said. “People don’t care anymore in this city. It’s sad.”

What seems pretty apparent to me is that instead of a mandate coming from the 12 percent who voted, Mr. Runyan — along with other winners and sitting council members — has been issued a challenge by the 88 percent who did not vote.

What might that challenge be? “Make us care.”

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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