A typical political forum turned tense Monday when the two African-American candidates for Columbia City Council District 1 clashed over membership in the NAACP and political party affiliation.
The challenger, 27-year-old Chris Sullivan, asked 20-year incumbent Sam Davis if he is a member of the NAACP. The district is predominantly African-American.
Davis shot back: “Are you a Republican?”
Sullivan, who once voted in a GOP presidential primary, said: “I’m a card-carrying Democrat.” Sullivan also said he’s a member of the civil rights organization.
Later, Davis called Sullivan, “so (expletive) immature. It’s pathetic.”
Davis, the council’s most senior member, told a reporter his membership in the civil rights organization is inactive. “I fought with the NAACP for years,” he said.
But Lonnie Randolph, the longtime head of Columbia’s NAACP chapter and currently president emeritus of the statewide chapter, said Davis is not a member.
“Hell, no,” Randolph said vehemently when a reporter asked if Davis is an NAACP member.
The NAACP, the Eau Claire Community Council and Capitol Consulting Strategies organized the forum.
The candidate exchange happened as the 95-minute forum in a full Eau Claire Print Building wound down. The otherwise routine answers from candidates for one citywide seat and District 1 grew pointed after Mayor Steve Benjamin arrived and effectively endorsed the incumbents.
Benjamin, who is unopposed for a third term in the Nov. 7 election, told voters at the forum that a thriving downtown and the city’s heavy investment along North Main Street are intertwined. They help the entire North Columbia area, he said.
“More resources have gone to District 1 than any other district,” the mayor said, citing that as an example of Davis working for his constituents.
In response to another question from the audience minutes later, Benjamin took the opportunity to take jabs at Sullivan, a 27-year-old small businessman.
Benjamin said Sullivan has lived in Irmo, where the mayor said Sullivan voted in the Republican presidential primary. Sullivan also has lived in Blythewood and now Columbia.
“You just moved into this district to run against Sam,” said Benjamin said. “I came to Sam’s (election) announcement. Kirkman Finlay came to yours.”
Finlay, a Republican state representative, once served on Columbia City Council and once challenged Benjamin for mayor. His late father was mayor.
At-large candidate Joe Azar complained to Benjamin about endorsing incumbents at the forum. Some in the audience said the mayor was being unfair to challengers.
One woman chastised Davis about his remarks to Sullivan, saying, “You shouldn’t (publicly) demean anybody.”