Attorney Stephen K. Benjamin told The State on Tuesday he is running for mayor of Columbia, ending months of speculation about whether he would enter the race.
If successful, the 39-year-old Benjamin would be the first black mayor in the city’s history.
“I’ve been given some incredible opportunities to get involved in making this city better,” Benjamin said. “I want to take a more central role in making that happen. I want to try to help provide some vision, some leadership, and also help restore some sense of accountability.”
Benjamin’s run for mayor could represent the first major challenge to Mayor Bob Coble, who has breezed to re-election four times since first winning office in 1990.
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Benjamin, a partner in the law firm McAngus Goudelock & Courie, served as chief executive of the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services during the administration of former Gov. Jim Hodges. He won the Democratic Party’s nomination in his ultimately unsuccessful run for state attorney general in 2002.
In that losing effort, Benjamin raised more than $1 million and ran what was seen as a credible effort, given this state’s racial history and its recent preference for Republican officeholders.
Coble has had strong support from black voters in a city where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 41 percent of residents are black.
Benjamin said he is aware of the historic significance of a win but does not want voters to focus on race.
“I don’t think race is or ought to be an issue,” he said.
Coble said Benjamin will be a “very strong candidate.”
Benjamin, who has served on various government and business boards, has backed the mayor in previous elections. But during a meeting in November, Benjamin said he told Coble he wanted to run for mayor.
Coble indicated then that he plans to run for re-election — a pledge he reaffirmed to The State on Tuesday.
The mayor said he does not see Benjamin’s entry into the race as a betrayal.
“That’s politics,” Coble said. “If you don’t like politics, you shouldn’t be in elective office.”
As for the notion that Benjamin could cut into his support among black voters, Coble said he does not want to lose the support of any voters, black or white.
“We’ll be worried about losing any support,” he said. “We’ll run a hard campaign and let the voters decide.”
Another possible candidate for mayor, City Councilman Kirkman Finley III, said Benjamin’s decision to run will “make it an interesting race.”
“I think competition is always a good thing in politics,” he said. “It’ll make us a better city.”
Benjamin has some strengths in his quest for mayor, technically a part-time position that pays $17,500 per year.
He is a known political entity with strong connections to the business community. And he has a proven track record in fundraising.
But Benjamin will have some hurdles to clear, too, most notably Coble’s connections and popularity in a city he has run for nearly two decades.
“I told Steve Benjamin he’s a fine fella but that I would be supporting Bob Coble for mayor,” City Councilman E.W. Cromartie II said. “He’s been supportive of issues that are important to the people I represent.”
Benjamin could also face questions about his position as a board member for Advance America, a payday loan company. Critics believe the payday loan industry has preyed upon poor residents, especially those in black communities.
Benjamin, according to Forbes.com, was paid $257,467 from 2006-2008 by Advance America. Benjamin said his position with Advance America has given him some of the business experience he wants to put to use for city residents.
But he said he knows that might not be enough to sway some voters.
“If that’s your single issue, then I probably won’t get your vote,” he said.
Rather than race or payday lending — which he said could be raised by those who want to distract voters from more pertinent issues — Benjamin wants to focus on what he said is needed most:
Economic development and job creation
Improving public safety and the city’s finances
Getting residents more involved in city government.
The city’s finances are a mess, Benjamin said, and Coble has at times been too accommodating and unwilling to make hard choices.
“You don’t have to have a strong mayor form of government to have a strong mayor,” he said.
Reach senior writer Wayne Washington at (803) 771-8385.