Benjamin newsletter lays out busy agenda for Columbia mayor

dhinshaw@thestate.com June 25, 2014 

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin in his office.

TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com Buy Photo

There are a lot of things being said in court about Mayor Steve Benjamin that he can’t control.

But Wednesday, the Columbia mayor tried to get out his own message.

He sent an email to more than 10,000 constituents, letting them know he’s been hard at work over the past week doing the city’s business.

With Benjamin’s name being bandied about in a highly publicized corruption case, some Midlands public-relations professionals say distribution of the conversational email — beginning with a corny joke — was a good strategy.

Bob McAlister, a conservative-leaning strategist, said the mayor is doing “exactly the right thing” by spreading word of trips representing the city at a medal of honor ceremony by invitation of the White House and going to Dallas for the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting. Both trips were paid for with public dollars at a total of about $920, the mayor’s office said.

“He’s busy with the public’s business,” McAlister said. “He is carrying on his responsibilities.”

But Michael Wukela, the mayor’s spokesman, said there’s no strategy to it: Benjamin sends the newsy messages at least twice a month.

Wukela said he has advised the mayor not to follow media coverage of the federal trial in Columbia where, for nearly two weeks, Benjamin’s name has been loosely and repeatedly connected with an Orlando strip club and financial issues surrounding a Columbia housing project, the Village at River’s Edge.

Wukela said the trial is potentially distracting to Benjamin during a busy time in city life and there’s no benefit to focusing on it.

The mayor has said he won’t talk about the matter until the trial is over, and Wukela said he does not know whether the mayor has followed his advice.

Benjamin has not been accused of anything criminal or unethical, but has been put on notice that he may be called as a witness by lawyers defending a former business partner, Jonathan Pinson, of Greenville, in the complex corruption case.

“There’s a lot to talk about. There’s a lot of news to report. And we like to keep constituents informed,” Wukela said of Wednesday’s email.

“I would tell the cynic that regardless of what is being said in court, the mayor’s still the mayor. He has a job to do.”

That note was sounded by others who make their living in the art of public relations, while USC political science professor Don Fowler warned, “Frankly, attempts at diversion sometimes backfire.”

Rick Silver, a PR executive involved in public issues, said the mayor is communicating that the trial is not distracting him from his obligations.

“Whether that is a tactic or a strategy, or whether that is just Steve being Steve and moving forward and not being distracted — that’s a positive on either count,” Silver said.

“He’s not being invisible, and he shouldn’t be. He is running business as usual.”

Silver noted that the mayor made a statement early on that he would address the public after the trial — and not until then. “The real key is what he does when this is all over.”

Fowler agreed.

The Democratic activist said he had to deal with some serious public accusations made about his fundraising activities after he was chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

All proved untrue.

“I’m not sure what kind of constraints he’s under, but my advice to him would be, as soon as possible, he should make a clear, factual statement and not try to hedge,” Fowler said. “And if some of it’s embarrassing, so be it. ... Having been through that sort of thing, I am totally convinced that’s the best way to handle it.”

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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