Warren Bolton

August 26, 2014

Bolton: Whether racist or just racially insensitive, West Columbia, SC, campaign sign unacceptable

THE NASTY political squabble over who should control West Columbia has drifted from the absurd to the ridiculously offensive.

THE NASTY political squabble over who should control West Columbia has drifted from the absurd to the ridiculously offensive.

In a grudge match that already had gotten too personal and no longer resembled a reasoned debate over the best form of government for West Columbia — if it ever did — some of Mayor Joe Owens’ critics stooped to a new low last week when they gratuitously dragged President Barack Obama and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin into the senseless debate.

Mayor Owens’ critics are so set on derailing his attempt to get voters to adopt a strong-mayor system in West Columbia that they resorted to one of the oldest, sickest political tricks: Blame the black man. They didn’t even try to hide the obvious appeal to race. Call it racist or racially insensitive — take your pick — the yard sign picturing Mr. Owens, who is white, sandwiched between President Obama and Mayor Benjamin, both African-Americans, is downright dirty dealing.

The message on the sign said: “Want to have ONE voice controlling our government? Me neither. Vote No! to strong mayor. Unite our city.”

West Columbia United, the group opposing a Sept. 30 referendum that would make the elected mayor an empowered executive, is responsible for the sign.

Bruce Brutschy, co-chair of the group, says the sign links Mayor Owens to those who exemplify “failed leadership” and that the images have “nothing to do with race.”

“It points to the larger scene to what’s wrong with politically operated government,” he said.

We live in South Carolina. We know the power of such images. We’ve seen similar stunts in other campaigns.

Don’t strain your brain in an attempt to grasp a legitimate point from this yard sign; you might pop a blood vessel. It makes no sense to include Mr. Obama and Mr. Benjamin in this mess. They don’t share in their politics and likely have some philosophical differences.

While Mr. Obama is the man many Republicans and conservatives like to blame for just about any conceivable ill — even things on the state and local level — there’s no acceptable reason for drawing him into this entirely local matter, which really isn’t about governing or leading at all. It’s a power struggle, pure and simple.

As for Mr. Benjamin, while he’s a strong-mayor proponent, he still serves in a weak-mayor system. Columbia voters made sure of that in December.

If you really want people to think about whether they want a strong mayor exercising considerable influence, why not picture Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, easily the most powerful mayor in the state? Yes, I know: He’s very popular, very effective — and very white; he wouldn’t have served this group’s purpose.

And while you certainly can question Mr. Obama and Mr. Benjamin on any number of decisions they’ve made — being a leader, by the way, isn’t about just appeasing other people — simply labeling them failed leaders is lazy political rhetoric.

Even with its imperfections, the passage of the president’s Affordable Care Act was monumental. While it’s not perfect, we’ll one day be thankful that President Obama took health care further than any other president could.

Mr. Benjamin is fair game to be questioned, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a mayor in this region who has led more aggressively, set a clearer agenda and brought about more positive change. One of the first things Mr. Benjamin did when he was elected was stake his political future on turning around the fortunes of Columbia’s downtown. As anyone who has been down there lately or has been reading the news accounts of the many hotels, restaurants, businesses and apartments flocking to the city center will tell you, things are hopping.

And guess what? West Columbia and other surrounding communities are going to benefit from that bit of failed leadership — that’s if leaders in those communities can get it together themselves.

What’s going on in West Columbia is indeed failed leadership. Voters elected council members and the mayor to work together in the best interests of citizens. They don’t have to like one another; they don’t have to be best friends; but they are supposed to work together.

But instead of working together — and the mayor and the council both are at fault — they’ve engaged in petty politics, which led to a majority on the council stripping Mayor Owens of his power to run meetings and set agendas. Now, he and his supporters are asking voters to not simply restore his power but give him more via the ballot box.

The two sides are so busy trying to discredit the other that they haven’t even had an intelligent debate about this possible dramatic change in governance.

I happen to favor the strong-mayor form of government; it allows an empowered executive to make decisions and be accountable for the results. People know exactly where the buck stops, and if they don’t like the results, they can fire the mayor at the next election.

Here’s the unfortunate truth: No matter what happens Sept. 30, the mayor and council still will be at each others’ throats unless they decide to act like grownups and get along. Another unfortunate truth: That seems even less likely with each passing day.

In this ill-advised attempt to somehow cast a negative light on Mr. Owens, West Columbia United has gone about as divisive as you can get. This not only widens the divide within West Columbia — it raises concerns on the part of many in surrounding areas about the intent and character of some of the so-called leaders who signed off on this tactic.

Mayor Owens is right when he says it’s “improper and unseemly” to imply the president and the leader of West Columbia’s largest neighbor are involved in a local dispute.

But if all you’re trying to do is win a fight — even if you lose your city — who cares about the offensive means? It appears that some in West Columbia aren’t satisfied with the city imploding by its lonesome; they’re intent on dragging others across the region down into the sewer as well.

What a sad state of affairs in what’s in danger of becoming a sad little town.

But I believe that regardless of where they stand in the struggle over the control of the council, most West Columbians are better than that. They shouldn’t remain quiet but should reject such offensive tactics and fight for the soul and image of their city.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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