COLUMBIA, SC — Steve Benjamin rolled to his second mayoral term Tuesday and immediately called on supporters to make him the Capital City’s first strong mayor.
“It’s time for a change in Columbia,” he told a cheering crowd at the Sheraton Convention Center. “It’s time for a strong mayor in Columbia. It’s time to rise above power struggles.”
At 8:35 p.m., Benjamin’s campaign team had called the race privately over Councilman Moe Baddourah, even with 18 precincts still out, although 17 of those had broken his way in the 2010 runoff.
“It’s almost mathematically impossible for you to lose,” Benjamin campaign chairman Sean Wise told the mayor in a cramped office at campaign headquarters on the second floor of the Keenan Building.
“We want a mandate,” Benjamin said, smiling at his team.
The Richland County elections office later released a final, but not certified, tally that gave Benjamin a nearly 2-to-1 margin, with 15,244 votes cast in the nonpartisan race.
Baddourah, a one-term District 3 councilman who has about half his term yet to serve, said he had been optimistic on Election Day.
“I really thought three hours ago that I was going to be dancing on the tables,” he said as he prepared to concede the race to Benjamin.
He said he wore out five pairs of shoes during his door-to-door, meat-and-potatoes campaign that emphasized public safety and basic city services.
Baddourah said he is ready to put the contentious race behind him and work with Benjamin.
“I’m ready to move forward. I’m ready to sit down and figure out how we’re going to pay for Bull Street,” he said in a backhanded reference to part of his platform. “I’m ready to sit down and figure out how we’re going to improve public safety.”
In the three other City Council races, incumbents held on to their seats.
Benjamin’s congratulatory phone calls started coming in just before 8:30 Tuesday night. S.C. Senate President Pro Tem John Courson, R-Richland, was among the first callers.
Within 40 minutes, Benjamin, his family and election staff arrived to a crowd at the convention center on Washington Street, a room still undergoing renovation.
Democratic gubernatorial challenger Sen. Vincent Sheheen, former Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges, former S.C. House member Jim Felder and former state Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, were in the overflowing room, along with USC basketball coach Frank Martin.
Congressman Jim Clyburn, deputy minority leader in the U.S. House, introduced Benjamin.
“This is Phase One,” Clyburn said. “In about a month, we’ve got to suit up again and cinch this deal,” he said of the Dec. 3 strong-mayor referendum.
Though Benjamin’s second term as mayor begins Jan. 1, council has talked about delaying the effective date of a strong-mayor system, if the referendum were to pass, until July 1. That would allow city staffers time to make appropriate changes in municipal laws, including shifting the day-to-day powers of the city manager to the mayor.
Benjamin and business leaders have aligned to push for the mayor as Columbia’s chief executive. Under current law, the mayor has no more authority than any other member of council, other than the pulpit the job provides.
Benjamin, 43, won Tuesday as he did in 2010, with strong support from African-American voters and healthy support from white voters, who endorsed him and his theme of “one Columbia.”
Benjamin’s base has been growing stronger, voter registration rolls show. About 7,200 more African-Americans have registered in the city during the past five years. White voter population grew by 4,170 during the same period, data from the State Election Commission show.
That means black voters comprise 60 percent of newer city voters, while newly registered white voters grew by 34 percent.
Overall, however, white voters remain the majority in Columbia at 50.5 percent, while African-Americans make up about 46 percent, according to the figures. In 2008, those proportions were 54 percent white voters and 43.5 percent black voters.
Columbia has about 74,120 voters eligible. That’s up by about 12,230 new voters since the election season of 2008, according to state voter records.
Turnout – always the biggest factor in election results – has varied in recent races.
In Benjamin’s first race, 27 percent of voters went to the polls in a seven-candidate race to replace Mayor Bob Coble, who stepped down after 20 years, city records show. Turnout jumped to 31 percent in the runoff between Benjamin and Councilman Kirkman Finlay III.
Turnout plummeted to about 12 percent in last spring’s City Council races. That election for three seats did not pit any incumbent against a challenger because two retired. A third had minimal opposition.
Benjamin underscored his plans for the next four years. As he stepped from the stage, Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s 1974 hit, “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” blared from speakers.
Staff writer Noelle Phillips contributed. Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.