Columbia City Councilman E.W. Cromartie, facing a year in prison for not paying federal income taxes, resigned Tuesday afternoon, and City Council members will vote this morning to schedule an election to replace him.
It's unclear when that election will be. The State Election Commission says the city is required to hold the election April 6 - the date of the city's next general election, 27 days away. If City Council members don't set that date, the commission says, the governor will be forced to step in and do it for them.
But some worry an April 6 election is too soon and would not give voters enough time to make an informed decision. Not only has filing opened and closed for the other seats but the ballots were to be printed Monday.
"It will be a very divisive vote, in my view," Mayor Bob Coble said. "But you have to follow the law."
State law says: "A vacancy in the office of mayor or council shall be filled for the remainder of the unexpired term at the next regular election or at a special election if the vacancy occurs one hundred eighty days or more prior to the next general election."
Two state attorney general opinions, one from 1979 and one from 1994, interpret the "shall" language to be "clearly mandatory and cannot be waived." State Election Commission executive director Marci Andino told the city Tuesday the election must be held April 6 because Cromartie's resignation is within 180 days of the upcoming election.
However, the city could schedule a special election after April 6 if it were "technically impossible" to schedule the election in April.
That's what City Council must decide when its members meet at 9 a.m. today: Can they pull off an election in less than a month?
Moments before he resigned - after an unrelated community meeting held at City Hall - Cromartie urged council members to place the election on the April 6 ballot.
"I hope that the City Council will feel and know that this district cannot be without representation," Cromartie said.
Any decision by council will have to be approved by the U.S. Justice Department as part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Councilman Sam Davis said he "wouldn't have a problem" with an April 6 election, while Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine said the city had no choice but to schedule the election for April 6 or risk "running afoul of the Justice Department."
"You would have a predominantly minority district unrepresented for up to three months" before another election could be held, Devine said. "I believe there would be some Justice Department issues with not having it on April 6."
Meanwhile, at least three candidates were lining up support Tuesday to run for District 2, a seat created in 1983 whose voters have never elected anyone other than Cromartie.
The potential candidates include:
- Chris Barczak, a real estate appraiser who ran unsuccessfully against Devine in 2006. Barczak does not live in the district, but owns a home on Governor's Hill and said he is considering establishing a permanent residence there.
- Harold "Puff" Howard, owner of Puff Howard's Towing and Howard's Garage on Two Notch Road and brother of state Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, and former chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus.
- Brian DeQuincey Newman, a former Richland County prosecutor who is in private practice with the Rikard & Moses law firm. Newman is a nephew of I. DeQuincey Newman, a pivotal civil rights leader in South Carolina who in 1983 was elected the state's first black state senator since 1886.
Some have speculated that Cromartie's son, Ernest Cromartie III, would run for the seat. Attempts to reach Ernest Cromartie were unsuccessful Tuesday. E.W. Cromartie said he did not know whether his son plans to run.
All the potential candidates for the District 2 race said they hope the election is held April 6.
"If the election were held tomorrow, I could win it," Howard said.
Some of the city's eight candidates for mayor worried how the election would affect their race, which has been ongoing for more than a year. An open seat in District 2 would almost certainly increase voter turnout in the majority black district.
"Is there potential for politics to enter in what should be a pretty tough, clear-cut decision in the law, I suppose, yes," mayoral candidate Kirkman Finlay said. "The only thing that would upset me is if politics trump good government."
Mayoral candidate Steve Morrison said he would "be opposed to anything that smacks of a railroad deal that assists any individual candidate in District 2."
"I think it's unfair," he said. "Everybody else had to file in February, and I don't think it's fair to the people of District 2 or the people of the city of Columbia to have a rushed election for such an important seat."
Just before 5 p.m. Tuesday, the state Supreme Court announced that because of his agreement to plead guilty, it was suspending Cromartie's law license.
The high court also appointed Columbia attorney Matthew Richardson to take over all of Cromartie's files, trusts and escrow accounts, as well as all of his other legal accounts.
The terse Supreme Court announcement, signed by Associate Justice Costa Pleicones, noted Cromartie had consented without protest to the suspension - routine in cases where a lawyer faces formal criminal charges - but had objected to the appointment of a lawyer to "protect his clients' interests."
The order prevents Cromartie from accessing any of his law office's bank accounts. The order also noted, without explanation, that Chief Justice Jean Toal did not participate in the decision.
Toal's husband, William, practices law in the same Columbia law firm as I.S. Leevy Johnson, Cromartie's attorney in this case.
Tuesday was Cromartie's last day at City Hall, when he presided over a previously scheduled 4 p.m. meeting addressing neighborhood concerns about The Salvation Army opening a soup kitchen on Farrow Road.
Cromartie led the meeting as if everything were normal, his loud, dominating voice cutting off other council members and establishing his authority.
He joked with reporters, saying "if I wouldn't be on my way to jail, I wouldn't be resigning." He even gave Councilwoman Belinda Gergel a second, longer hug so photographers could get a better shot.
"It's a joyous moment from the point of view that the community is moving forward," Cromartie said about his resignation. "I thoroughly enjoyed representing the people of District 2 for the past 27 years. I think we've been able to do a lot of the things for the community. It's been my pleasure, my privilege and my honor to serve."
Toward the end of the meeting, after neighborhood leaders again voiced their strong opposition to The Salvation Army's plans, Cromartie calmly restored order.
"I would ask us to stand and I would ask for a word of prayer," he said. "Let's all join hands."
After the final amen, the veteran councilman reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes.