Columbia mayoral candidate likes his underdog role in campaign

cleblanc@thestate.comOctober 26, 2013 

Mayoral candidate Larry Sypolt gives an interview before a student government Mayoral Candidates Forum at the University of South Carolina campus.

JEFF BLAKE — Buy Photo

He’s the long-shot candidate and ex-cop who has built his mayoral campaign around the hot topic of public safety in Columbia.

Larry Sypolt and his small band of volunteers are running his first race for public office on the strength of Sypolt’s 14-year law enforcement career at a time when talk of violent crime and street gangs is reaching a fever pitch.

Strengthening the Columbia Police Department has become so central to Sypolt’s campaign that it was the deciding factor in his late endorsement of a strong-mayor system for city government.

“I can’t believe I’m going to say this,” he told University of South Carolina students last week at a mayoral forum. “We’ve got to have a strong mayor. I support it now. It’s the only way we can fix the police department.”

In an interview, Sypolt added, “As mayor, I’m not going to entertain anything else.”

That doesn’t mean the former Richland County deputy and FBI civilian intelligence analyst doesn’t have ideas about attracting jobs, streamlining business permits or managing Columbia’s massive water and sewer budget.

But Sypolt is the only one of three mayoral candidates in the Nov. 5 election to have worked in public safety – and felt the impact of crime. Sypolt lost his father to a Columbia police officer who shot him during a burglary in 1977. Sypolt, then Larry Ledford, was 4 weeks old.

The 36-year-old candidate’s volunteer political adviser, former lobbyist and political strategist Larry Marchant, characterizes his candidate’s campaign like this: “The No. 1 thing that we need is someone with a law enforcement background who can take the politics out of (the police department). We need to make some bold changes to take the streets back.”

Sypolt built his ties to Marchant and supporter Vicki Strange after their sons became victims of crime.

The near-death beating of then-18-year-old Carter Strange in June 2011 by a group of teenagers in Five Points inflamed many residents, garnered national media coverage and drove his parents to become critics of the police department and Mayor Steve Benjamin.

A beating of Marchant’s 20-year-old son in July near Five Points was far less noticed, but also turned Marchant into a detractor of the quality of police work in Columbia. The attack, which left the young man with bleeding on the brain but no long-term damage, remains unsolved, Marchant said.

Vicki Strange and Marchant said Sypolt reached out to them and offered support and counsel guided by his knowledge of investigating crimes and dealing with police agencies.

“Honestly, I could care less that he’s a police officer,” Strange said. “It’s his character. He has integrity. That does mean something to me.”

Candidate’s safety platform

Sypolt’s crime-fighting plan is posted on his website.

The Five Points portion calls for using more undercover officers and more assistance from the sheriff’s department and USC police. Borrowing from other agencies would free Columbia police to use officers in other parts of town, he said.

However, Sypolt’s plan is premised on the sheriff’s office and campus police providing help as long as needed and at no charge to the city.

Sypolt wants loitering laws enforced more strictly in the nightlife district. Interim Chief Ruben Santiago has said those are difficult cases to win in court because the streets are public places.

Sypolt also wants to change the focus of the city’s plan to install 800 security cameras at major intersections, at access routes to neighborhoods and in city parks.

He favors installation inside neighborhoods first, leaving other sites to leftover cameras.

Sypolt also favors a 10 percent pay raise for 400-plus police officers and more cars so that officers can drive them home when they get off duty. That would deter crime in the officers’ neighborhoods, he said.

City Council members have said large pay raises for so many employees are more than the city can afford. The police department has 313 vehicles, which means the city would have to buy about 95 more, according to city figures.

The up-front expense of pay raises and shifting to a lease agreement for patrol vehicles would be reduced by the city’s savings from losing so many officers to better paying jobs and by repair costs on aging cruisers, Sypolt said.

Asked where the money for such major initiatives would come from, Sypolt said, “Without being in there looking at the books, I can’t tell you that.”

Road to law enforcement

Sypolt said the death of his father did not lead to his career choice.

“My father really had nothing to do with me getting into law enforcement,” he said. “Law enforcement found me.”

Larry A. Ledford died on the floor of a home on Abelia Road on Nov. 1, 1977. The 33-year-old bus driver attacked a police sergeant with a crowbar as the officer investigated a burglary call, according to police accounts at the time. The officer shot Ledford in the chest and later was cleared of wrongdoing.

His father’s death wasn’t discussed during Sypolt’s upbringing. His mother would answer Sypolt’s infrequent questions without elaborating. After high school, Sypolt said he read a few newspaper accounts from microfilm at the county library.

“I was not raised with any animosity toward law enforcement, which would be easy to understand,” said Sypolt, who took his stepfather’s name.

He never visited the house on Abelia Road, though he takes his 7-year-old son to nearby Heathwood Park. Sypolt said he is separated from his wife of nine years.

But recently during door-to-door campaigning, Sypolt found himself knocking at the very house.

“That was chilling. You’re looking at the floor where your father was killed 36 years ago, and then you’re asking them for their vote,” he said. “How do you handle something like that? You’re maintaining your composure as a candidate for mayor. But it was extremely emotional.”

Sypolt said he graduated from Dreher High School and took part-time jobs while attending Midlands Tech part time. When a full-time position in a construction company where he worked several years was not available, his boss suggested he apply at the sheriff’s department.

Sheriff Leon Lott hired Sypolt at age 21. That was within months of Santiago joining the sheriff’s department, Sypolt said.

Sypolt was a road deputy and later was assigned to a violent crime task force that coordinated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Lott said Sypolt was a solid officer.

The FBI hired Sypolt in 2008 to analyze violent crime information. He said he left that post to run for mayor after realizing that analyst work was not a career for him.

This year, the Melrose Heights resident opened a criminal background and drug-testing company for job applicants and a home-care firm, both in Forest Acres.

Underdog and liking it

Acknowledging that his interest in the mayor’s seat is rooted in ambition, Sypolt said he decided to run when he heard Councilman Moe Baddourah was throwing his hat into the ring.

“I always wanted to work from an avenue where I can have more impact,” Sypolt said. “I had a eye on a few political positions.”

The hot 2010 runoff between Benjamin and then-Councilman Kirkman Finlay directed Sypolt’s attention to the mayor’s office.

Sypolt worked for Finlay in the mid-1990s as a driver for Finlay’s Rising High restaurant.

“He pulled himself up by his bootstraps,” Finlay said last week. “I think everybody ought to take a shot at what they aspire to.”

Asked if Sypolt is ready to be mayor, Finlay referred to the candidate’s police background. “He’s got some know-how that would be really useful to the city,” said Finlay, now a member of the S.C. House of Representatives.

Sypolt’s campaign speeches usually start with him pronouncing himself the nonpolitician in the race. His campaign underscores that.

He has raised little money, banks on shoe-leather campaigning and hopes to buy radio time. Expensive TV ads are out of reach.

His campaign team is cobbled together from dedicated associates who volunteer their time. Sypolt’s media spokesman is a USC senior studying political science.

“I just looked at (the race) and said, ‘I can do it without the money,’” Sypolt said. “I have the organizational skills. I have the drive. I feel like we have a better message.”

Sypolt has carved out a moderate tone that separates him from the sometimes strident exchanges between Benjamin and Baddourah. He thinks Baddourah has painted himself into a corner with heated rhetoric.

Other issues

One of the first things he said he will propose if elected is a forensic audit of city finances.

Forensic audits differ from financial audits in that they are designed to find financial misconduct that can become criminal cases. Forensic audits require specialized skill and are expensive, especially if auditors plumb the maze of city government accounts.

“I want it to be from a firm that has no ties to Columbia,” Sypolt said, adding he favors submitting the findings to the FBI for review.

A forensic audit would require a vote by a majority of the seven-member council. Council has not discussed any such audit within the past two years, at least.

Sypolt also favors further streamlining of the city’s business permits and inspection procedures. He said he opened his businesses in Forest Acres out of frustration with Columbia’s parking requirements and its plodding and confusing permitting system.

“A lot of businesses are going across the river,” he said, without citing examples.

Sypolt still supports a merger of the police department under Sheriff Lott. Council narrowly defeated a cooperative agreement three years ago after the politically difficult proposal drew strong opposition.

Sypolt said he’s optimistic about his chances next month. He’s taking his shot because, “I feel like you regret the things you don’t do in life.”

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