Columbia voters have a veritable feast of offerings in two races next month’s city elections – from surging newbies, a perennial candidate and a controversial, citywide incumbent to a legacy contender.
Five challengers are seeking to fill an open District 2 seat, which is a sweeping, diverse district that stretches through the city center into neighborhoods from St. Andrews to Edgewood to Dentsville, touching Five Points and running south to Olympia.
The winner will gain the seat held for six years by outgoing Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman, who decided not to run again.
In the second race, six candidates are jostling to win a citywide, or at-large, seat. The five challengers to councilman Cameron Runyan are likely a record number to challenge a sitting council member. The crowded field could result in a runoff.
No one filed to oppose District 3 incumbent Moe Baddourah, whose name still will be on next month’s ballot.
Winners will take office in January and serve until Dec. 31, 2019.
THE CITYWIDE SEAT
Andy Smith, 36, Nickelodeon theater director, and municipal government expert Howard Duvall, 72, bring youthful vitality and years of municipal government experience, respectively, to the citywide race.
They are among the group working to unseat Runyan, a first-time councilman who is caught up in a whirl of fierce opposition fueled by what he himself has described as a moment of moral clarity in 2011 that changed his world view and his politics.
Smith is in his first race for public office, with the backing of Mayor Steve Benjamin, who just four years ago championed Runyan and said Runyan’s 2012 win was “a great victory for Columbia.”
Duvall returns to elective politics after a three-decade layoff. In 1986, he finished a term as mayor of Cheraw, in the Pee Dee, after serving as a town council member there.
Duvall then spent 21 years at the Municipal Association of South Carolina, which advocates for the state’s 270 cities and towns as well as trains their council members and staff on the proper administration of municipal government. For 16 years, he was the group’s director.
He knows municipal accounting well, which poses a steep learning curve for most first-time council members.
The 38-year-old Runyan is staking his re-election on a strong turnout by the city’s faith community, particularly from African-American churches. The black vote helped propel Runyan to a win with nearly 60 percent of the vote.
“If The Church in Columbia turns out in this race and votes, there will be no runoff,” Runyan said, explaining that ‘The Church’ means people motivated by moral values, lower taxation and what he terms social justice issues such as protections against predatory lenders. “Are they really going to stand up for what they believe? If they stay home, I won’t make it to the end.”
Runyan has angered much of Columbia’s gay rights community with votes against extending health benefits to same-sex city employees and his objection to creating a commission to protect against discrimination. His push to crack down on the homeless population in the city center also was criticized as harsh, lacking in compassion and possibly unconstitutional. He counters that council’s attention to the situation helped move about 1,400 homeless adults into programs designed to help them restart their lives.
The gay community has targeted him, Runyan said. “They must kill me because there is one (council) member out of seven that disagrees with them. There is absolutely a coordinated effort in the LGBT community to defeat me, and it is running right through the mayor’s office and some of my opponents,” he said, specifically mentioning Smith.
Smith has criticized Runyan for his treatment of gays and transgender people. But Smith said that group was fired up against the incumbent before he decided in August to oppose Runyan.
“He’s taken a hard, hard tack to the extreme right, and I do not think that is representative of our city,” Smith said.
Duvall said council would be more effective if he replaces Runyan. “I think that a lot of the time he wants to be the Lone Ranger,” the challenger said.
Duvall, meanwhile, said his experience in helping other cities through natural disasters and working with the arcane processes of the Federal Emergency Management Agency will serve Columbia well as it seeks to recover from record-setting floods earlier this month.
John Adams, 42 and son of former mayor Patton Adams, is in his first race for public office.
His kitchen-table campaign, which he said does not include paid political strategists, focuses on bettering basic city services. He wants to upgrade the water and sewer systems and raise pay for police officers and firefighters.
Five Points businessman Joe Azar, 64, is in his 11th campaign to win a seat on council.
He hopes that the lawsuit he helped file challenging City Hall’s practice of shifting millions of dollars from the city’s water and sewer systems into other programs will resonate with voters. The state’s Supreme Court in September said council could not treat that money as “a slush fund.” It sent the case back to the trial court for a resolution.
Four-time council candidate Nammu Muhammad could not be reached for this article.
Contender Aaron Bishop has eclipsed the competition in raising $20,000 for the District 2 seat, according to available campaign disclosure records.
Bishop is currently a member of the Richland 1 school board of trustees.
He is running against far less well-funded contenders Ed McDowell Jr., and community activists Katie Fletcher Bolden, Doretha Bull and Alexena Furgess.
Councilman Newman is not seeking a second, full term after replacing E.W. Cromartie, a force on council until his indictment and imprisonment for tax evasion.
Most of the contenders have criticized Newman for not being well engaged in representing the district.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.
Candidates in brief
Here is a quick overview of the six candidates for a citywide seat on Columbia City Council and the five contenders to represent the city’s economically and racially diverse District 2.
JOHN ADAMS: The son of former Columbia councilman and mayor Patton Adams threw his hat into the ring this year because he felt that, by age 42, he is a credible candidate.
He said he was drawn to seeking a citywide seat rather than a district one after weighing a race in 2010 for the District 4 seat won and still held by Councilwoman Leona Plaugh.
Adams’ self-run campaign is about improving basic city services: advocating for clean water, a well-run sewer system and more attention to salaries for police officers and firefighters.
First responder agencies, especially the police department, should pay well enough to attract and retain quality officers. “I’d like it to be the highest paid in the state,” he said of starting pay. Adams said he has not come up with a plan to pay for the cost.
He has raised $5,920, according to his most recent campaign pre-election contribution disclosure report filed with the State Ethics Commission.
JOE AZAR: The Five Points businessman and outspoken political activist is banking that his longtime opposition to City Council’s practice of transferring millions from the water and sewer accounts will motivate voters now that the state’s highest court has said those monies cannot be treated as “a slush fund.”
In a city where so much government and non-profit property is not taxable, Azar, 64, favors the creation of a special purpose tax district that would impose yearly fees on all customers, including the University of South Carolina, state and federal government buildings and nonprofits.
He also opposes the practice of extending tax breaks to developers of student housing projects that have sprouted around the growing USC campus. Developers who build projects of at least $40 million are getting 50 percent property tax reductions for 10 years under a law passed by council. The tax break expires at year’s end.
Azar on Saturday filed a re-election campaign disclosure report that shows he has raised $350.
HOWARD DUVALL: His years working with municipal governments, including administration of their finances, puts him in a position to bring that experience to bear as Columbia starts the long road to recovery after the devastating Oct. 4 flood, Duvall said.
“I want to use the skills and knowledge I have gained throughout my career to prepare the city of Columbia for the growth forecast in the next decade,” Duvall has said.
He said he was pulled into running for office after he helped lead the 2013 fight to defeat a strong-mayor form of government for the capital city. “That drew me out of a rather comfortable retirement,” said Duvall, who stepped down from the Municipal Association in 2008.
Duvall has raised $71,711, according to his most recent campaign disclosure filing.
NAMMU MUHAMMAD: Efforts to reach the community activist, who has run for a council seat in 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2015, were unsuccessful.
He had not filed a disclosure report as of Friday.
CAMERON RUNYAN: The one-term councilman is running a campaign rooted in his religious and moral faith based in a moment of clarity about how he should live his life. He also is appealing to Columbians who might agree with him that they are over taxed on their properties, businesses and utilities.
He has taken tougher positions against the city utility fee and has proposed reducing or eliminating business license fees.
Runyan has drawn the most stinging criticism for votes viewed by some as anti-gay and against the city’s homeless population.
“There are hills to die on and hills not to die on,” Runyan said of those votes. “Those are two hills to die on, and I have no regrets – none.”
Runyan has raised $29,901 during the current campaign disclosure reporting period and has a total of $116,652 in contributions, the report shows.
ANDY SMITH: His focus, Smith said, is tapping the city’s big thinkers and innovators to “shape a bolder future for Columbia.”
Smith was born in the capital city, moved to Savannah, Ga., at age 10, then lived in Alabama before attending Swathmore College in Pennsylvania and, later, UCLA in California.
He has been director of the independent Nickelodeon theater on Main Street since 2011.
The Nickelodeon has been the beneficiary of millions of dollars in hospitality tax – or meal tax – money, which helps finance a range of arts and cultural events. Smith said the cultural community needs to do a better job of showing how their events bring financial gain to the city. But first, artists need to devise a cultural plan to guide how public money is spent.
Arts organizations also are lacking in African-Americans in leadership positions, Smith said.
He has raised $45,735, according to his disclosure report.
DISTRICT 2 SEAT
AARON BISHOP: The 40-year-old member of the Richland 1 school board and its immediate-past chairman, cites his experience as a leader. “I think the community wants a leader who has been tested and tried,” Bishop said.
The Belvedere neighborhood resident said he wants communities like his to have the amenities that others have, including a public swimming pool and enclosed recreational facilities.
The lack of parks and other recreation outlets prompted him to seek a council seat, Bishop said. He requested that his home, which was in a “doughnut hole” surrounded by the city, be annexed about the time he announced his campaign in July. City Council approved the annexation shortly thereafter. Without annexation, Bishop would not be eligible to run for City Council.
Those less well off areas also need better basic services such as garbage pickup and police protection, Bishop said.
Bishop’s latest disclosure report shows he has raised $19,876.
ED McDOWELL JR.: The retired United Methodist pastor said his biggest strength in the race is that his retirement allows him to dedicate himself full time to representing the district.
His key issues are attracting more businesses to the community and working with them to bring parity to areas that have not shared the benefits of Columbia’s expanding commercial base.
The 66-year-old Waverly resident said he wants to improve on community policing programs by extending them to Gonzales Gardens, Allen-Benedict Court and other lower-income housing complexes.
Former councilman Cromartie is mostly a financial backer who also offers advice to the candidate, McDowell said. Cromartie’s larger-than-life presence often diverts voters’ attention from McDowell’s campaign, he said.
Still, the one-time political powerhouse has paid his debt to society and his accomplishments should not be overshadowed by his court conviction, McDowell said.
“If I can do half as well as E.W. Cromartie did during his 28 years of service, I would be an excellent councilman,” McDowell said.
Cromartie went to federal prison and later was on house arrest for failing to pay income taxes, trying to shield his income from taxes and lying to investigators about the scheme.
McDowell has raised $2,546, according to his latest disclosure report, which also shows that Cromartie hosted a luncheon for the candidate that amount to a $246 contribution. But McDowell said Cromartie has contributed significantly more to his race. McDowell said Friday he wasn’t sure how much more.
KATIE FLETCHER BOLDEN: Bolden is a lifelong Columbian, community activist and retired financial advisor from Wachovia bank. The 66-year-old also has a contracting company that does roofing, vinyl siding and other repairs.
Bolden, who is no relation to Columbia native and NASA head Charles Bolden, said not enough has improved in her community.
Bolden wants to improve the quality of life in the district by improving law enforcement and partnering with local and state agencies as well as businesses to improve the job climate.
“These are things that I have done, and it’s proven to work,” she said, calling herself a hands-on person.
Bolden said Newman tuned out of his district and was not accessible.
Bolden has raised $1,920, according to her latest disclosure report.
DORETHA BULL: Bull a retired psychiatric social worker who lives in the Waverly community where she was raised.
Bull, 68, has run for the Richland 1 school board, but this is her first campaign for a council seat.
She wants to help attract more small businesses and to stop the gentrification of many parts of the district where single-family homes have become rentals for college students. Bull wants that trend reversed.
The district’s two most recent representatives did not improve the lives of African-Americans, Bull said. “He delivered the bacon,” she said of Cromartie, “but we didn’t get any of it.”
Bull had not filed a campaign disclosure form as of Friday.
ALEXZENA FURGESS: This former instructor at Benedict College and USC retired in 2001 from AT&T as a process quality manager. She ran for the seat before, in 2010.
An activist, Furgess said she led the fight to keep the U.S. Post Office at Midlands Shopping Center and worked to improve bus service to the community. She said she has fought against the issuance of licenses to an increasing number of liquor stores in neighborhoods, even taking one case to court.
Furgess, who declined to provide her age, said she also has been vice president of the Columbia Council of Neighborhoods as well as president and vice president of the Jones-McDonald Neighborhood Association. She also served on the Columbia Housing Authority Commission in 2012 and 2013.
“I am the only person out of all five of us who has ever really worked in this community,” Furgess said. “I am not backed and supported by anyone who has big dollars.”
Furgess has raised $2,738, according to her pre-election disclosure report.