WHILE Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin’s Monday announcement that he’ll seek reelection came weeks after two challengers made their intentions known, that’s likely the only time he’ll trail in the race.
It would be far beyond surprising if either first-term Councilman Moe Baddourah or former FBI analyst Larry Sypolt can muster a serious enough challenge to defeat Mr. Benjamin. It’s hard to imagine either being able to raise enough money or build a sophisticated enough campaign to defeat the apparatus Mayor Benjamin put into place and has maintained since the 2010 election.
Mr. Sypolt, a newcomer to city politics, says he wants to improve public safety, while Mr. Baddourah, a restaurateur, is touting his business background.
Mr. Baddourah is easily the bigger threat. But the councilman has done little to distinguish himself during his short tenure. Perhaps most notable has been his involvement in the effort to make sure contamination found in the Edisto Court neighborhood was addressed. Most recently, he raised his profile by pushing for landmark status for buildings at the old State Hospital site on Bull Street, where a mega-development is proposed — an aggressive action that could undermine negotiations between the city and the developer that include a discussion about what buildings are to be preserved.
Barring the entry of another challenger, there’s little reason to think that Mr. Benjamin won’t win convincingly in November.
And it’s not only because he’s a well-organized incumbent who can raise money. Although he has had some challenges, including an unfortunate car accident in which a woman was injured the morning after his victory in 2010, he has performed admirably, and he and the council have some solid accomplishments under their belts.
On Monday, he cited successes such as thousands of new jobs, $1 billion in business investment and decreasing crime rates.
In addition, Columbia climbed out of the deep financial hole it was in when Mayor Benjamin took office. It had gone through two straight years of general fund deficits but has been firmly in the black the past couple of years.
Not only that, but the mayor can declare that the city is delivering on the issue he made a cornerstone of his first term: the revitalization of Main Street. There’s more work to be done, but Main Street has been making a strong comeback as new businesses and office space and retail stores and restaurants have helped fuel a renaissance.
The mayor had said that if Main Street wasn’t revived, “then we will have failed.” They didn’t fail.
While I believe those accomplishments and his overall vision of hope and unity for the city will carry Mr. Benjamin to a relatively easy win, he’ll still have to work for it. Considering the increased level of public jousting between the mayor and Mr. Baddourah at council meetings since the councilman announced his candidacy, my guess is Mr. Baddourah will be calling the mayor out on a few issues.
Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Baddourah stand on the opposite sides of some controversial and important issues that could cause the mayor some angst in the run up to the election.
Chief among them is City Council’s decision to spend $7 million — borrowed from a reserve fund — to purchase and improve the historic Palmetto Compress warehouse in hopes of finding developers to put it to some adaptive reuse. Mr. Baddourah and Councilwoman Leona Plaugh opposed spending money on the effort. Mr. Benjamin pushed hard to get the city to close on this deal; no doubt, Mr. Baddourah — as well as other critics — will be watching for any sign of failure.
Mr. Baddourah and the mayor also were on opposite sides when it came to the hiring of city manager Teresa Wilson, with the councilman pushing for the council to hire a more experienced manager. He’s not alone; others in the community have complained about Ms. Wilson’s hiring and her $190,000-a-year salary.
Of course, what’s important now is how well Ms. Wilson performs. From what I can tell, so far so good.
Despite the fact that she received the votes of four council members, she is largely perceived as Mr. Benjamin’s pick, and because of that many hope to pin any miscues on the mayor. For example, Ms. Wilson will be leading the effort to hire a new chief of police following the recent resignation of Randy Scott. You can bet that will be a closely watched process.
And speaking of the police department, expect there to be much scrutinizing of crime statistics in the upcoming election. Mr. Benjamin has rightly talked with pride about the reduction in crime in the city, but I suspect Mr. Sypolt in particular will be looking for any blips in that trend.
Another issue worth watching arose Monday during Mr. Benjamin’s campaign announcement. Responding to questions, the mayor said he will push to get the City Council to approve a referendum to change the city’s governing structure from council-manager to strong mayor.
That’s another place he and Mr. Baddourah disagree — I think. I’m not sure because just prior to joining the council last year, Mr. Baddourah back-tracked on what had been a strong stance in favor of allowing voters to decide whether the city should be run by a full-time mayor. Had he stuck to his initial position, we would have a majority of the current council in favor of allowing voters to decide. But during a visit to a council meeting prior to being sworn in, Mr. Baddourah did a 180 when asked where he stood.
Where does he stand now that he’s running for mayor? We might find out if Mr. Benjamin is able to force a vote. It’s a question all three candidates will be asked many times over the coming weeks and months.
There are many other issues likely to surface between now and November that could affect the mayor’s race as well. It’s hard to tell exactly what might spark controversy during a campaign or how it might impact the outcome.
Still, you’ve got to think that of the three candidates in the field, the only one who could effectively defeat the mayor is, well, Steve Benjamin himself, meaning he would have to make a monumental gaffe. Anything is possible in politics, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.