The first salvo of Columbia’s fall election has been fired by one of the city’s first openly gay contenders for City Council.
Tige Watts, a veteran political strategist and neighborhood activist, said Wednesday he probably will oppose citywide Councilman Cameron Runyan. Runyan, a first-term, at-large representative, said he is seeking re-election in the Nov. 3 race for one of three council seats.
Watts, 42, said he plans a formal announcement of his candidacy within a month but has yet to launch an organized fundraising campaign.
He opposes many of Runyan’s major votes on council, but Watts said the deciding one was Runyan’s sole “no” vote Nov.18 against extending city health benefits to Columbia employees who are part of same-sex couples.
“It’s an issue of equality,” said Watts, who has been with his life and business partner, Nigel Mahaffey, for 22 years. They married Feb. 19, 2014, in San Diego and own Campaign Research and Strategy, Watts said.
Watts said he considered City Council races twice before: When Kirkman Finlay stepped down from his District 4 seat to run for mayor in 2010 and in 2012 when Runyan ran a second time for the citywide seat then being relinquished by Daniel Rickenmann.
“I just believe now is the time to do it,” Watts said, qualifying his candidacy by saying he’s “seriously considering” a race this year.
Runyan drew support and stinging criticism for his vote against benefits for same-sex couples. But opposition exploded after Runyan wrote a Nov. 23 column in The State newspaper explaining his decision.
“(M)y eyes were opened a few years ago to the reality that increasing moral relativism is contributing to the unraveling of the societal foundations we all depend on,” Runyan wrote. “Because so many now see all moral issues as being relative to the individual, we are quickly becoming a society where absolute moral truth no longer exists.”
Wednesday, Runyan said he welcomes Watts’ candidacy. “It’s clear that Tige and I have very different world views and the public will get to make a choice between distinct world views.
“Not everybody agrees with his position on the (same-sex) issue and I represent the rest of the people,” the incumbent said.
“I respect him,” Runyan said. “He’s a very smart man. I will find it a challenge intellectually to debate him.”
Critics have called Runyan a hypocrite, in part because he sought support from the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community during his political campaigns.
Watts stopped short Wednesday of calling Runyan a hypocrite. But the would-be challenger said same-sex activists held “pink parties” to raise money for Runyan and worked for his election after he said he supported them.
Watts – president of the Brandon Acres/Cedar Terrace Neighborhood Association and the Richland County Neighborhood Council – also objects to Runyan voting in favor of the contract to commit the city to some $88 million in public money for the Bull Street complex and its city-owned baseball stadium.
Runyan’s 2013 initiative to clamp down on homeless adults wandering downtown streets and violating nuisance laws brought unwanted national attention to Columbia, Watts said.
Runyan also tried to undermine city manager Teresa Wilson’s search for a new police chief when Runyan issued a late-hour call to stop the search and allow Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott to run both departments, Watts said.