Columbia mayoral candidate Steve Benjamin has hired one of President Barack Obama’s political consultants to lead his campaign — a sign some observers say of what it would take to unseat the popular, powerful 20-year incumbent Mayor Bob Coble.
Craig Schirmer, who led the get-out-the-vote efforts for Obama in the 2008 South Carolina primary and again in the key battleground state of Pennsylvania in the general election, has signed on as Benjamin’s general consultant for the April City Council elections.
Schirmer first appeared in South Carolina in 1998, when he authored a coordinated campaign plan for state Democrats in the year they won five statewide races — including the governor’s office for Jim Hodges.
Since then, Schirmer has developed a reputation as an organizational guru whose specialty is identifying likely voters and getting them to the polls.
“He’s the gold standard,” Hodges said. “He did a remarkable job finding many voters who have never voted before, and to get them out to vote.”
City political observers say that’s what it will take for Benjamin to defeat Coble.
So far, the mayor’s elections have been easy victories bookended by a pair of serious challengers — the first in 1990, when Coble defeated Mayor Patton Adams and the second in 2006, when Coble defeated local advertising executive Kevin Fisher.
“Bob doesn’t miss a meeting. He’s got contacts all over the city and contacts that go back years,” said Carey Crantford, who worked on Coble’s first campaign and is leading his re-election effort. “His campaign is not based on an organizational strategy or some theory. That has allowed him, in all of his campaigns, to have an organization that is creating itself around him rather than to go out and strategize and concoct something based on a concept.
“That’s the best kind of organizing to have if you are doing a political campaign — one that comes to you because of trust and experience.”
While Benjamin has statewide election experience — he raised more than $1 million in a failed bid for state attorney general in 2002 — this is his first foray into the hyper-local politics of city government, where races are won and lost at neighborhood association meetings and backyard barbecues.
Two weeks ago, as neighborhoods across the city held events for National Night Out, Coble made it to 12 of them — a feat he accomplishes every year.
But Benjamin says he is throwing himself into the campaign, determined to match Coble’s energy and stamina.
He has resigned from his law firm — McAngus Goudelock & Courie — and also resigned from a local committee that wants to create a special tax district to pay for a waterfront park USC wants to build as part of their Innovista research campus. The resignations will allow him to campaign full time.
“It’s important not to underestimate 20 years of campaigning,” Benjamin said. “And understand that you’ve got to go out, you have got to do it all.”
Benjamin said his plan is to raise $500,000, which easily would be a record for a city election. Coble raised about $200,000 in his 2006 election.
“If he’ll hire me as his campaign manager and pay me a third of that, we might can solve this thing right here today,” Coble said.
Benjamin has raised $7,000, according to his last fundraising report. But he has less than $2,000 available to spend.
Coble, meanwhile, has raised $19,204 and has $14,199.46 available to spend. Both candidates are calling donors, but Coble’s campaign is still in its planning stages.
“I don’t know that there is a specific goal,” Crantford said about Coble’s fundraising. “It’s early, and we’re trying to kind of see what all the dynamics of the race are going to be.”
Others on Benjamin’s team include Laurin Manning, one of the state’s first political bloggers, who worked on new media for Obama’s presidential campaign in six states. She is helping Benjamin with his Web site.
And Joseph Oppermann, a local attorney, is Benjamin’s campaign manager. Oppermann managed Terence Roberts’ successful 2006 campaign when he beat a 20-year incumbent to become the first black mayor of Anderson, in the Upstate — something Benjamin hopes to replicate in Columbia.
“It’s a similar situation,” Opperman said. “But the big thing that attracted me to this race is Steve Benjamin. I think he’s one of the most brightest young leaders in this state.”
Joseph Azar, owner of Upstairs Audio & Video in Five Points, is also running for mayor in a self-run campaign — but said he is considering hiring professional help.
Reach Beam at (803) 771-8405.