Bolton: Bull Street hearing provided snap shot of Columbia’s mayoral election

Associate EditorJuly 21, 2013 

Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— IN THE MIDDLE of the July 9 public hearing on the controversial Bull Street development agreement, Mayor Steve Benjamin motioned toward the door and blurted out that someone was trying to take a picture of him.

It was R.J. Shealy, Moe Baddourah’s campaign adviser. Mr. Shealy was trying to get a photo for Mr. Baddourah’s campaign to unseat the mayor, Mr. Benjamin suggested, drawing chuckles from the crowd in the packed Earlewood Park Community Center. All eyes shifted toward the doorway as Mr. Benjamin playfully taunted Mr. Shealy, telling him to come on in and get a good shot.

It was a light-hearted moment in the midst of a sometimes-tense public hearing, during which many tried to convince the council to slow down in its haste to approve the agreement that will guide the development of the old State Hospital property on Bull Street. But in as much as it served as a brief distraction from the weighty matter at hand, the exchange also exposed the undercurrent of politics attached to the moment. Although filing for the November municipal elections doesn’t begin until Aug. 8, the public hearing provided a preview of some of the debate we can expect in the mayoral election.

Not long after the mayor put Mr. Shealy — Mr. Baddourah, really — on the spot, he took advantage of a photo-op more to his liking, when Perrin Brunson and her daughter, Maggie, came up to speak. After Ms. Brunson spoke in favor of the council moving forward on the agreement, her young daughter made an appeal for a playground.

“Maggie owes me a hug,” Mr. Benjamin chirped before the mother and daughter left the podium.

The youngster approached the table where the council was seated, but her adorable little arms weren’t long enough to make the complete connection. So, Mr. Benjamin directed her to come around, and he met her halfway to not only get a big hug but hoist her into his arms.

Something tells me that Mr. Shealy didn’t get a shot of that, but others, including news organizations, captured much of the moment. It’s a safe bet that Mr. Benjamin’s team didn’t miss the opportunity.

But the July 9 hearing yielded more than simply photo-ops. The substance of the meeting could play a role in the elections, particularly the mayoral race. After the public hearing, the council, led by Mayor Benjamin, voted 4-2 to approve the agreement, despite the calls to slow down.

Over the past few months, Mr. Baddourah and Mr. Benjamin have been jousting openly during council meetings, and this high-profile issue proved no different.

Mr. Baddourah, along with council members Tameika Isaac Devine and Leona Plaugh — both of whom are up for reelection — fought to get the matter delayed so there could be more public discussion and, possibly, additional changes to the agreement. (Councilman Sam Davis, who sided with Mr. Benjamin and the majority, also is up for reelection.)

It doesn’t take much brain power to figure out that historic preservation and the Bull Street development-agreement process are likely to be two big elements in the election debate between Mr. Baddourah and Mr. Benjamin. (Former FBI analyst Larry Sypolt also has announced his candidacy for mayor.)

Many in the city implored the council to slow down on its approval of the agreement, wondering if the city was promising too much money and yielding too much authority. Preservationists were upset that too many older and historic buildings have been left for dead.

If you recall, Mr. Baddourah had jumped the gun and attempted to get nine buildings on the site protected prior to the agreement being brought before the council. While his attempt failed — and it should have, because that needed to be handled as part of the development agreement — he had sent a not-so subtle message to preservationists that he was on their side.

So, it would make sense for Mr. Baddourah to seek to gain some ground with voters disenchanted about the rush to approve the agreement, as well as those who feel more buildings should be preserved.

But can he make any headway in an uphill battle against a solid incumbent? I’d guess he would be at least mildly successful, given the fact that some still are rankled by the rush job. But it could be short-term success if Greenville developer Bob Hughes moves quickly to begin the project — he has said work will start in the fall — and begins announcing partners and tenants. In that case, things could turn in Mr. Benjamin’s favor.

Still, Mr. Baddourah, Ms. Devine and Ms. Plaugh could roll out their good-government bonafides in this election season, making the case that their cautious position on the Bull Street deal was in the spirit of being responsible representatives exercising due diligence to get taxpayers the best deal while still providing the needed support to make Bull Street a success. The deal is done, but did the city give up too much, while telling citizens too little in the process?

It’s a question we’re likely to hear not a few times during the run up to the election.

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

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