Many Columbians expected the city’s first autumn mayoral election to be a cakewalk for the incumbent.
After all, Mayor Steve Benjamin, a well-funded, popular politician with an ambitious agenda, is opposed so far by a political newcomer and a one-term councilman midway through his first term.
But the spring and summer have been unkind to campaign strategists.
Benjamin’s challengers say the city’s string of troubles underscore their campaign platforms, especially the argument that Columbia needs new leadership.
Benjamin counters that naysayers are forever naysayers. He argues that voters are telling him they support his goals and that the spate of unexpected troubles can best be addressed by changing city government into a strong-mayor form.
He acknowledges, however, “It has been an odd several months.”
“A politician worries about how events are going to affect his campaign,” Benjamin said. “A leader cares about ... making decisions that will benefit the city.” Putting the mayor in charge — “That’s not opportunism. That’s reality,” and that’s what’s needed, he said.
The rapid-fire series of events largely have swirled around the police department, extending from shake-ups and allegations of corruption to complaints of mishandling a case that resulted in the slaying of a mother of four. But Benjamin’s handling of the city’s final deal for the start of construction on the vast Bull Street neighborhood and questionable decisions by a new city manager that many residents believe Benjamin handpicked add fuel to the debate.
Add to that list the public safety concerns fed by a renewal of violence in Five Points in the stabbings of two bar employees as July drew to a close. That attack occurred after several months of relative calm in the entertainment district.
Benjamin’s campaign said his job-approval rating was 73 percent in a June internal poll.
“I’ve been polling for Mayor Benjamin long enough to know that any poll showing him vulnerable is bogus,” said one of Benjamin's campaign strategists, Adam Fogle.
Still, District 3 Councilman Moe Baddourah’s campaign said its weekly polling of voter preference — which is distinct from job approval — shows its candidate’s numbers have jumped 16 percentage points, to 37 percent, since March.
Ten of the 16 points came since the Bull Street vote and Baddourah’s call for the FBI to investigate allegations by ex-police Capt. David Navarro. Navarro signed a sworn statement and did media interviews accusing interim police chief Ruben Santiago of asking him to plant cocaine and a stolen gun in the car of a senior assistant city manager. The plot was intended to advance career paths for then-chief Randy Scott and Santiago.
Baddourah’s numbers are from outside of his home district, said RJ Shealy, the councilman’s campaign director.
Larry Sypolt, in his first race for public office, said he does not do polling. But the former Richland County deputy said he’s seeing a difference as he campaigns. “It’s obviously given a lot more substance to my platform,” Sypolt said of the barrage of controversy.
Baddourah said he’s finding similar responses in his door-to-door campaign.
“The leadership is lacking ... the dots are not connecting,” he said voters are telling him. “I think it makes my positions, my beliefs ... stronger. People are paying a little more attention to my beliefs.”
Ex-mayor Bob Coble said he’s sure that during his 20-year tenure the city was roiled by a string of controversies. But Coble could not recall an example of so many cascading events as a campaign season geared up.
Coble’s view is that the corruption complaint against Santiago is the linchpin to perceptions of a downward spiral.
“If that allegation is not true, then there are no scandals,” said Coble, a lobbyist who has held fundraisers for Benjamin and other council incumbents and works for Bull Street developer Bob Hughes. The longtime former mayor said he supports Benjamin’s responses to the developments.
In recent weeks, Benjamin has again been raising the issue of switching the city from a council/manger form of government to a strong-mayor form.
He stated it in a prepared statement he released about two weeks after the July 12 arrest of NAACP leader Lonnie Randolph on resisting arrest and other charges.
He did not mention the change when he announced his re-election May 13. Only under questioning by a reporter did Benjamin say he would seek another vote from City Council after council voted it down by a one-vote margin in May 2012.
But as the controversies accumulated, Benjamin has raised the issue repeatedly. He said it in the July 24 statement when he called for a policy to stop city administrators and politicians from going to scenes of active crime investigations.
Benjamin closed his two-page statement by saying, “I believe a lot of these issues would be easy to resolve if, in fact, the mayor had the authority to resolve them. ... When we are faced with challenges like these which require swift and decisive action, all I have is one of seven votes on City Council and the long, slow process that goes with it.”
Sypolt shot back last week. “You can’t have it both ways,” he said. “You can’t say, (with) all the good things, ‘This is what I’ve done,’ and, (with) the bad things, ‘Well, I’m powerless.’”
Sypolt stopped short of saying that Benjamin was manipulating the situation for political gain. Rather, the challenger said, Benjamin “waits to see the (political) climate.”
Changing the form of government will require either a majority vote by City Council to place the question on the ballot when Columbia holds its first fall election Nov. 5, or getting signatures from 15 percent of registered voters to put the issue on the ballot by petition.
Benjamin said last week that the issue will be put back on council’s agenda soon, though he said he doubts a majority of council would authorize a referendum.
Asked if he would then push for a petition drive, Benjamin said, “Yes.” That’s the first time the mayor has said publicly he would favor a petition.
Winds began whipping on the day after April Fool’s Day.
News erupted that chief Scott – whose constant public presence had made him arguably the face of Columbia’s government – was going into indefinite seclusion, with pay, to manage unidentified problems.
Newly named city manager Teresa Wilson called Scott’s leave of absence a personnel matter. Still, she told The State newspaper that she had spoken to Scott about workplace troubles brought to her attention. Wilson said it was “possible” she would have taken disciplinary action if Scott had not stepped aside temporarily. She would not elaborate.
Three weeks later, Scott was gone after a tearful news conference in which he attributed his sudden departure to job stress.
The loss of yet another police chief – the fifth in five years – rattled residents who thought Scott had stabilized the top ranks and cleansed the department of a culture that kept it in the headlines as far back as the 1970s.
Wilson quickly named one of Scott’s handpicked deputy chiefs, Santiago, as interim chief.
Wilson and Benjamin proclaimed the department was in good hands while she prepared to conduct a national search for Scott’s replacement. In reality, Santiago was positioned to take the top job, in the eyes of many in the community, until the Navarro allegations surfaced.
Benjamin issued a thinly veiled criticism of Wilson in his July 24 statement. She had said she went to the scene of Randolph’s arrest because it was her duty and because she was nearby and knew of Randolph’s struggles with Type 1 diabetes.
“However well intentioned,” Benjamin wrote, “it can send the wrong message and can create an appearance of impropriety, and it needs to stop.”
Recently, Benjamin also has talked about speeding the process of selecting a new chief. He might call for hiring a national firm that specializes in helping municipalities choose chiefs. That might take the decision out of the hands of the city manager, who makes hiring and firing decision under the current form of government.
From frying pan to fire
As July began, the glare again turned on police.
Neighbors in well-heeled Heathwood complained to reporters that officers had confirmed that a fingerprint found on a door of a home burglarized June 11 was that of a man accused later in the July 1 shooting death of Kelly Hunnewell, a 33-year-old mother of four.
Santiago said the 5th Circuit solicitor’s office had not approved a warrant against Lorenzo Young, 18, for lack of sufficient evidence. The office said Santiago’s police officer did not ask for one. Young had been out of jail on bond for a series of violent crimes prior to the Heathwood break-in and Hunnewell’s slaying.
Benjamin empaneled a group of high-profile residents to look into ways to reform bond procedures, though the group has no legal authority to make changes.
Soon after, a wide range of city residents turned their ire on the four City Council members who were to approve a development agreement with Hughes to use public money for infrastructure to trigger the start of construction of the 181-acre Bull Street neighborhood.
The mayor, who led the charge to approve the deal and did almost all the talking for council in support of it at two public hearings, was roundly criticized for ramrodding a multimillion-dollar commitment in public money.
Others praised Benjamin for simply leading.
Benjamin insisted that if council did not endorse the deal by July 9, Hughes would walk away from a project that might eventually pump up to $1.2 billion into the local economy.
At a packed public hearing during which speaker after speaker asked for a slowdown, Benjamin went so far as to say he could “guarantee” the deal would fall apart if council did not vote that day.
Last week, Benjamin characterized his handling of that decision as an example of his ability to make tough, even unpopular, decisions for the sake of thousands of new jobs and tens of millions of dollars in property taxes as the project is built over 20 years.
After residents and political leaders debated the development of the Bull Street property for almost three years, Benjamin said he listened to a wide range of opinions before deciding to push ahead with a slim, four-vote majority.
As his supporter Coble put it: “Only in Columbia could a three-year process be considered ramrodding. That’s part of the nature and charm of Columbia.”
In recent weeks, crime again has taken center stage.
A shooting that killed a man in an apartment complex parking lot and another that injured a child watching television in her home fanned fears about safety.
“It’s getting to the point in Columbia that people don’t want to go outside their homes after dark,” said Durham Carter, a longtime neighborhood activist for the Martin Luther King Park and Lower Waverly communities. “This should not be.”
Asked whether his neighbors might vote against Benjamin, Carter said, “It’s a toss-up. Some are in support of the actions of the mayor. Some are thinking of going in the other direction.”
Santiago and Benjamin agree that despite statistics showing violent crimes dropping this year, many residents remain shaken.
“If people don’t feel safe, it doesn’t matter what our numbers are,” said Santiago, who plans Monday to announce an initiative to get help from community and church-based organizations to rally residents against gang violence.
Benjamin said he has seen little blowback from the controversies.
“People, I think, appreciate the fact that when tough things need to be said, I’ll say them,” he said. “I’ve always aspired to be the best mayor that Columbia’s ever had ... and to be held accountable for the decisions I’ve made.”
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.