It is the proverbial fresh face versus an experienced veteran in Tuesday’s special election to fill Columbia’s District 4 City Council seat.
Jessica Lathren, a 42-year-old newcomer, hopes to parlay her outsider status to win the seat left vacant with September’s death of Councilwoman Leona Plaugh.
Meanwhile, Daniel Rickenmann – a 47-year-old, former two-term citywide councilman who did not seek re-election 4 1/2 years ago – is seeking to finish the year left on Plaugh’s term, which ends Dec. 31, 2017.
Rickenmann said that if he wins he plans to run for a full, four-year term. Lathren said she, too, likely would run for a full term.
The results of the nonpartisan election will return council to its full complement of seven members — three elected citywide and four from geographic districts.
Both Lathren and Rickenmann worry that turnout Tuesday will be low. Traditionally, special elections attract few voters, and this one is for only a fourth of the city and comes on the heels of the holiday season.
Rickenmann has by far outpaced Lathren in fund-raising, according to the latest campaign disclosure reports. The veteran had raised just more than $34,000, while the newcomer has raised about $3,200, records at the State Ethics Commission show.
‘Practical, business experience’
Lathren downplays her lack of experience in elected office.
“Very few (voters) felt unhappy that I don’t have political experience,” Lathren said of her conversations with residents of the district, which spans from Devine Street and Garners Ferry Road, including Fort Jackson, and wraps around the town of Forest Acres before reaching to subdivisions off Interstate 20. “I’ve heard from a lot of people who think council is corrupt – both city and county.”
Lathren said she tends to just listen to those kinds of remarks and offer her experience of living and working in Atlanta and Denver. “While I don’t have a lot of political experience, I have a lot of practical, business experience,” said the Georgia native who has lived in Columbia for 12 years.
Her resume includes working for about 15 years for IBM in marketing, operations and project management. She now works part time as operations manager for Mann Global Health. She says her attention to detail and fiscal responsibility will help the district.
Lathren’s only other political experience was managing the unsuccessful 2015 campaign of Nickelodeon theater director Andy Smith for a citywide seat on council.
If elected, Lathren pledges to reverse what she sees as District 4’s pattern of responding to problems rather than grappling with them before they grow.
For example, Lathren advocates looking at ways to deal with the space that will be vacated at the Dorn Veterans Administration Hospital when the University of South Carolina medical school begins leaving that site in 2018 for a new campus.
“What happens to Garners Ferry (Road corridor)?” she asked. “Is it just left vacant?”
Lathren also doesn’t buy the talk in business and political circles of privatizing city garages.
“I am not so much for privatizing ... because you’re putting profit over anything else,” she said, adding, “We lose control of pricing.”
A mother of a 12- and 9-year-olds, Lathren has been active in the city school system, including a stint as president of the Brockman Elementary School PTO.
‘No learning curve’
Rickenmann, a partner in the renewable energy company First Generation Energy, is banking his election hopes on voters wanting someone who can hit the ground running.
“This is where no learning curve definitely helps,” Rickenmann said of his eight years of experience at City Hall. “I know where the bodies are buried. I know the issues ... the staff. I think the clear difference is I have the knowledge.”
Rickenmann also says his years as a citywide councilman give him another advantage. “Coming from an at-large seat to a district seat gives me an overall perspective.”
If elected, Rickenmann said much of his attention will go to streamlining red tape and regulations for businesses, especially small businesses, in an effort to increase Columbia’s tax base.
Rickenmann cites a 2015 study by the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce that compared the capital city’s taxes and fees to 15 peer cities in the Southeast.
Among the study findings were:
▪ Columbia’s property tax for commercial facilities is 70 percent higher than the average.
▪ Columbia’s property tax for small manufacturing plants is 2 1/2 times higher than the average.
▪ Columbia’s business license fees are as much as $200 a year more, though lower than fees in Greenville and Charleston.
Rickenmann did not lay out a specific plan for lowering taxes or fees but said they need to be more business friendly.
Expensive water and sewer projects also need to be more closely examined, he said, citing a delayed $15 million sewer project at Crane Creek. The city should look for a cheaper alternative, including negotiating to treat that waste at Richland County’s Broad River Road plant if Columbia installs a sewer line to the county plant, Rickenmann said.
When he announced in 2011 that he would not seek a third term, Rickenmann cited the time needed to launch a new company and help raise his daughters, then 9 and 12.
But his daughters now are 15 and 18, and Rickenmann is ready to come back.
“I do think that having a break – it’s been almost five years since I’ve served – gives you a fresh perspective.”
If you vote
The Jan. 3 special election to fille the one year remaining for the District 4 seat on Columbia City Council will cost taxpayers as much as $50,000. Election officials will open 21 polling places in the district that stretches from Devine Street and Garners Ferry Road, includes Fort Jackson, wraps around the town of Forest Acres and reaches to subdivisions off I-20 in Columbia Northeast.
TIME: Absentee voting ends Friday. Polls will be open on Election Day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
WHERE YOU VOTE: Either contact the Richland County Voter Registration & Elections office at (803) 576-2200 or go to scvote.org and follow the instructions for your precinct.