Columbia City Councilman Kirkman Finlay III officially announced his candidacy for mayor Tuesday, setting up a fierce battle with attorney Steve Benjamin that both candidates say will focus on the city's beleaguered budget.
Finlay filed his initial campaign disclosure Monday with the State Ethics Commission.
"My family has a long history of public service, and I want Columbia to go and become the best possible city it could be for my children and my children's children," said Finlay, son of the late Columbia Mayor Kirkman Finlay Jr.
Bob Coble, Columbia's mayor for 20 years, stunned many last week when he said his name will not appear on April's ballot. Times have changed, he said, and he has served long enough. Benjamin and Finlay are the most high-profile candidates to say they are running.
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Finlay represents the city's conservative 4th District on the seven-member council. The district includes Fort Jackson, Garners Ferry Road and the Heathwood and Hamptons neighborhoods. Council races are nonpartisan.
Finlay's ethics filing listed $2,000 in donations, from Columbia attorney Leighton Lord and his wife, Caroline.
Caroline Lord is Finlay's first cousin. Leighton Lord is chairman of the board for the Nexsen Pruett law firm.
In his four years on council, Finlay has been a constant critic of the city's finances, most notably its risk management fund, which lost $34.4 million over five years. In his first two years on council, Finlay voted against the city's budgets because he was upset that the city's accountants could not reconcile the bank accounts and tell him how much money was available.
This spring, Finlay took over the council's annual budget process, orchestrating millions of dollars in cuts that reduced staffing at some fire stations and eliminated some public services, including commercial garbage pickup.
The cuts were necessary, he said, to stop the city's bleeding from the general fund, which on June 30 had less than $2 million available - not enough to cover one month of the city's expenses. The city draws money from its water and sewer fund when needed, then pays it back.
"I brought together a group of six votes on the budget that curtailed expenses and has begun to put us on the road to financial stability," Finlay said. "Our budget has got to continue to move forward in the positive directions that we are beginning to see. We've got to put public safety at the forefront of what we do, but it's got to be within what we can afford."
But this month, three months into the budget year, City Council members were cutting the budget again, this time taking away six of the fiscal year's remaining eight paid holidays for city employees.
"If we're preparing for difficult times, I wouldn't expect us three months into the fiscal year to have to start making deep cuts again," Benjamin said. "I think we're looking at even more difficult times ahead because of the budget that Kirkman crafted."
Finlay has been in the restaurant business for years, owning Doc's Barbecue & Southern Buffet on Shop Road and Pawleys Front Porch, formerly the Congaree Grill, in Five Points.
He also owns commercial real estate and farms corn, wheat and beans in Cayce.
While Benjamin plans to raise $500,000, Finlay wouldn't say what he plans to raise, only that "I think I will raise all of the money that I need to wage a competitive campaign." Finlay has $10,000 in the bank for his district race; he plans to ask donors to allow him to use those funds for his mayoral race.
His campaign against Benjamin is already off to a rocky start, with Benjamin filing an extensive Freedom of Information Act request with the city last week, asking for e-mails, documents and phone records that involve Finlay.
Included in that request were any documents relating to the Forest Lake Club, where Finlay is a member. The country club for years did not allow black members, a fact that some say derailed other politicians' careers, including Katon Dawson's bid in January to become chairman of the Republican National Committee.
In an election in which Benjamin is vying to become the capital city's first black mayor, all of the elements are present for a racial campaign.
But both candidates said race would not be an issue in their respective campaigns.
"I just think if every race on Columbia's future is divided by race and not by issues, no one will win," Finlay said.
"It won't emanate from our campaign," Benjamin said. "We are one city. We are close to various political stripes, different colors, different faiths, and we have got to move this community forward together."