How do you replace a 27-year Columbia city councilman in 27 days?
That's the question facing the candidates vying to replace veteran Councilman E.W. Cromartie, whose resignation Tuesday prompted City Council to schedule an impromptu election for April 6.
The answer could be to piggyback on Cromartie's legendary political network - an informal citizens advisory committee that has swelled from 20 people in 1983 to more than 200 today.
"If I was running in that district, and the infrastructure is already in place, you'd be crazy not to go after that committee," said Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, who as an at-large councilwoman has reached out to the committee herself.
But reaching the committee isn't easy. Even calling it a "committee" would be generous, said Elizabeth Marks, who has been a member for 22 years but can't tell you how she joined it.
Cromartie "would (say), 'You're on my committee,' and you never knew it. He would just tell you," Marks said. "It was the name he gave to the people he checked with when there was an issue involving the community. It was a two-way street. We asked him what was going on, and he asked us what was going on."
Cromartie held one last committee meeting Thursday night in the fellowship hall of the Bishops Memorial AME Church, at Washington and Oak streets downtown, this time to say goodbye. Reporters were turned away from the meeting by two men who described themselves as church officers. They denied Cromartie was inside, saying it was "choir practice."
An invitation for the gathering obtained by The State called it an "important advisory committee meeting" that would include "various candidates running for office in the City of Columbia" with "attorney Steve Benjamin as our guest speaker to answer any questions you may have."
A spokesman for Benjamin, who is running for mayor, said he was attending a campaign fundraiser Thursday night and had no plans to attend Cromartie's meeting.
Some had speculated that Cromartie had called the meeting to endorse a candidate to replace him. The meeting was announced on Cromartie's City Council stationery and dated March 9, the day Cromartie resigned. Benjamin was listed as a guest.
King B.L. Jeffcoat, a District 2 resident and former Richland 1 School Board member, said the meeting was not scheduled for Cromartie to endorse a candidate but "to say farewell."
Devine said Cromartie called her Wednesday and invited her to the meeting. But Devine, who is running for re-election, said she could not attend because of a previously scheduled campaign event.
"I don't think he's like 'The Godfather' and he can control a lot from behind closed doors or that kind of thing, but I do think that he could if he wanted to," Devine said. "My last conversation with him - he's got a lot to get in place himself before he gets ready to leave. He'll be focusing on that. I think he cares about the community and certainly cares about who will succeed him. But I don't think he's going to try to interject himself in this race."
Marks said in the 22 years she was on the committee, Cromartie never asked her to vote for anyone.
"People think it was something like a big machine," Marks said. "It was more neighborhood people than political people."
Brian DeQuincey Newman, a local attorney who is running for the seat, said he was not invited to Cromartie's Thursday night meeting. When asked whether he would try to reach out to Cromartie's committee, Newman said, "We're reaching out to everybody."
Laddie Howard, a self-employed lobbyist who said Thursday he will run for the District 2 seat, said the fact that the election is scheduled for April 6 is evidence of Cromartie's lingering influence.
"E.W. has known for months now he would not be able to serve and he would have to abide by the plea agreement he has entered," Howard said. "I would posit the wait until the 11th hour (to resign) is an exercise of influence that everyone should be concerned about, particularly in District 2."
Attempts to reach Cromartie for comment were unsuccessful.
Others who have said they might run are business owner Harold "Puff" Howard and real estate appraiser Chris Barczak.
City Council set the April 6 election date Wednesday, pending a ruling from S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster. The U.S. Justice Department would have to approve the election. Filing for the seat opens at noon Monday and closes at noon March 19.
District 2 includes Main Street, the Vista and portions of Five Points and Harden Street.