Bolton: Will Columbia’s mayor use State of City to jump-start campaign?

Associate EditorJanuary 23, 2013 

— COLUMBIA Mayor Steve Benjamin’s third State of the City address could prove to be his most meaningful, particularly from a political standpoint.

The question is whether Mr. Benjamin will make the most of the opportunity.

Without a doubt, the mayor will celebrate the strides Columbia has made over the past year, outline challenges it faces in 2013 and roll out solutions to those challenges as well as new initiatives aimed at moving the city forward.

Last week he told me that his focus will be on creating a sense of place and vibrancy in Columbia as well as ensuring the city’s government is responsive.

Additionally, he wants the city to concentrate on initiatives aimed at reducing unemployment and increasing per capita income. He is particularly proud of a public-private partnership aimed at providing jobs for the unemployed and underemployed.

The mayor said a corporate donor has given $200,000 to help companies with vacancies find workers. The plan is to give grants or low-interest loans to those companies and match them with hard-to-employ workers who live in the 29203 and 29204 Zip Codes in an attempt to give people who have been “shut out of the economic mainstream” a chance to make a living, the mayor said.

In the midst of recognizing the city’s progress and challenging himself, City Council and even citizens to help make Columbia great, I wonder to what degree the mayor will use this platform to make for a case for his re-election.

The first-term mayor’s last State of the City address prior to November’s election offers Mr. Benjamin an opportunity to lay out the city’s accomplishments under his leadership during his nearly three years in office and make the case for why he — and his long-term vision for the city — should remain in place for another four years.

Had City Council not changed the timing of council elections to November of this year rather than April of 2014 in order to encourage more people to vote — a wise move, I might add — Mr. Benjamin would have been assured of another State of the City address prior to voters casting ballots. But as it is, this is his last shot with such a captive audience. Mr. Benjamin has worked to increase the audience and importance of the event during his time in office.

Of course, some would argue that the State of the City is no place to be making a campaign pitch.

They’d be right, if in fact it were purely a campaign pitch. But Mayor Benjamin doesn’t have to morph completely into Candidate Benjamin during this evening’s speech in order to make an early impression on voters. He doesn’t have to announce the start of his campaign or ask voters for their support.

All he has to do is highlight the appropriate details about the city’s progress during his tenure; that alone could jump-start his candidacy well before campaign season begins and any serious opposition lines up.

While doing so would certainly be a boost politically, it is hardly unacceptable or unusual. It’s called incumbency. One of the perks of being an incumbent is that you have a stage on which to display your leadership and decision-making ability and continually pitch your vision. Of course, that goes both ways. Your mistakes and faults are also on display.

I haven’t agreed with everything Mr. Benjamin and City Council have done during his tenure. But he has served well and has some solid accomplishments of which he — and the council — can boast. There are a number of things the mayor could highlight, but he would only have to point out two big — and ongoing — changes in particular to make a statement.

First, the city has pulled itself out of the deep financial hole it was in when he took office. It had gone through two straight years of general fund deficits, suffered from shoddy bookkeeping, struggled to get timely and accurate financial statements and mistakenly paid some bills more than one. But it has been operating in the black the past couple of years.

Recently, Bill Ellis, a key member of the city’s finance staff, said the city’s finances are solid. He said that, half way through this fiscal year, Columbia’s major accounts are doing well and that if income and expenses continue on their current course, Columbia will have a good year.

Perhaps more important, Columbia’s downtown is relevant again, something Mayor Benjamin made a cornerstone of his first term. In 2011, the mayor staked his political future on whether downtown succeeds. “If we are not able to have revitalized Main Street, then we will have failed,” he said.

While there is still work to be done, the city has not failed in its efforts to revive its main artery. Main Street has been making a strong move toward a comeback as new office space as well as new stores and restaurants have helped fuel a renaissance. Mast General Store and the new Nickelodeon Theater have been among the new arrivals. Agape Senior will move its corporate headquarters to three buildings in the 1600 block of Main Street; Main Street’s venerable Brennen Building is being renovated; and plans are in the works to turn the 20-story Palmetto Center, vacated in 2009 by SCANA and its 900-employee workforce, into dorms that would house hundreds of students.

Mayor Benjamin predicts there’s more to come. And as more comes, his bold declaration that Main Street must succeed or he would have failed looks better and better. It’s the kind of thing that would be worth reminding people of during an address on the state of the city, particularly one leading up to a campaign for re-election.

But during our conversation, Mr. Benjamin didn’t indicate whether he intends to use this evening’s address to make a statement. Instead, he talked about the need to continue working hard; he was clearly more focused on running the city than running for re-election.

That said, it also was abundantly clear that he wants to be Columbia’s leader for the foreseeable future.

“I have a deep, abiding love for the city,” he said. “The city has been good to me and my family.”

This evening, he has an opportunity to suggest that this be a longer-term relationship.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or

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