Politics & Government

Columbia voters reject strong mayor

Columbians decided Tuesday to keep City Hall as it has operated for 64 years, resoundingly rejecting a strong-mayor form of government.

About 11,700 voters went to the polls in the city’s first single-issue referendum in most residents’ memory and voted “No” by a 57 percent to 43 percent margin, according to unofficial results. Voter turnout was roughly 16 percent.

That’s a nearly 14 percentage point victory to maintain the council-manager system that has come under severe criticism in the hotly contested campaign.

“I told folks, if it’s not broken, don’t break it,” a happy I.S. Leevy Johnson said as the outcome became clear by 8:30 p.m. The former president of the State Bar Association and one of the state’s first African-Americans to be elected to the S.C. House in the early 1970s, Johnson said he made radio ads and recorded robo calls in opposition to making the mayor Columbia’s chief executive.

Kit Smith, one of the organizers of the “No” campaign, reveled in the outcome.

“Never doubt the power of a small group of citizens coming together and working together,” Smith, a former Richland County Council member, told a cheering group assembled at her Wales Garden home afterward.

It seemed foolhardy in the beginning of the campaign just weeks ago to try to oppose so many of the state’s and Columbia’s most powerful figures, Smith said in an interview.

“Taking on (Gov.) Nikki Haley, (former Gov.) Jim Hodges, (former State Attorney General) Henry Dargan McMaster, the Chamber of Commerce, (former city Councilwoman) Belinda Gergel, (Charleston Mayor) Joe Riley, (state Sen. and gubernatorial candidate) Vincent Sheen, Rep. James Smith, The State newspaper editorial board was daunting,” she said of “Yes” backers.

Mayor Steve Benjamin, who became the face of the “Yes” campaign, acknowledged the vote without uttering the word “concede.”

“It’s important to respect that vote,” Benjamin told about 50 supporters gathered in the lobby of the Barringer Building at Main and Washington streets. In an interview earlier, he said of trying to improve the city, “We fought the good fight and came up short. We’re going to have to work a little harder, and it’s going to take a little longer.”

Asked if he would try again in four years with a strong-mayor push, as his second term ends, Benjamin said, “I haven’t even thought about it.” But he added, “My parents raised me to be a change agent.”

State law requires at least four years between referendums to change a city’s form of government.

Howard Duvall, the former director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina and a leader of the “No” campaign, repeated on Tuesday one of the group’s key strategies – to separate the form of government decision from Benjamin’s popularity. Benjamin won a second term just last month by 30 percentage points.

“We support Steve Benjamin,” Duvall said. “He is a young, energetic leader with a vision. We were never anti-Benjamin. We were just pro-professional manager.”

The mayor’s coattails did not carry over to the referendum.

In the politically influential Greenview precinct, for example, 329 of 1,700 registered voters cast ballots. Some 214 voted “Yes;” 115 voted “No.”

Greenview twice has voted overwhelmingly for Benjamin.

Two old friends from the neighborhood seemed to personify the split the referendum created.

Harold Murray and Oliver Francis stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the entrance to Greenview Park, where voters cast ballots.

Asked if they supported a switch to a strong mayor as Columbia’s chief executive, they answered simultaneously: “No,” responded Murray. “Yes,” Francis said.

The African-American friends, who met while coaching baseball in the neighborhood, already had decided to stand at the entranceway to greet voters and express their views.

“I do not think there would be any benefit to a change in government,” Murray told a reporter. “If we have problems, we need to change people.”

Too many Greenview voters see the referendum as an endorsement on Benjamin’s programs, Murray said. They aren’t looking at what it would mean to change the form of government, he said.

Francis argued the public would gain accountability with an empowered mayor answerable to voters, compared to a city manager who answers to council. Francis also wants to stop what he called revolving doors in the city manager and police chief offices.

“With is this type of government, we have seven chiefs and you just keep passing the buck,” Francis said. “To me, it ain’t working.”

In Ward 8, a huge largely African-American precinct with about 3,400 registered voters which Benjamin won easily last month, a mere 80 people voted.

At Ward 33, which votes at Martin Luther King Park and has about 1,100 registered voters, 147 people voted. The split was close with 80 voting “Yes” and 67 voting “No.”

In largely white Pennington precinct in the southern, more conservative part of town, the referendum went down hard: 412 “No” to 165 “Yes.” Pennington has about 2,600 registered voters.

Wards 24 and 25 rejected a strong mayor by large margins: more than 3-to-1 in Ward 25; 4-to-1 in Ward 24, the uncertified numbers show. Both precincts vote at Kilbourne Park Baptist Church.

Both sides of the divisive issue claimed they spoke for broad coalitions.

Columbia Citizens for Better Government was organized into the “Yes” campaign with backing from the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, politicians from both parties, as well as leaders from some neighborhoods and churches – and, toward the end, Gov. Nikki Haley.

Benjamin called them “a motley crew” during his speech to supporters. “We all came together and centered on an optimism campaign. Thank you for your hard work, and the hard work’s just beginning.”

The crowd packed into Smith’s home showed the unusual range of the “No” group, which formed under the named Communities United for a Better Columbia.

Vickie Eslinger, a Columbia lawyer at the party, said, “I voted with people I never voted with before.” A Democrat, Eslinger spotted conservative Columbia businessman Rusty DePass in the crowd. She laughed when she learned they each cast votes against a strong mayor.

“I said, ‘oh my gosh – does that mean we’re on the same side?’” Eslinger said.

People who dropped by Smith’s house displayed the diversity of opponents of the referendum: City Council members Moe Baddourah, Sam Davis, Leona Plaugh and Tameika Isaac Devine; NAACP president Lonnie Randolph; former S.C. House member Candy Waites, former Chamber president Robin Gorman, former City Council member Anne Sinclair, perennial council candidate Joe Azar, social activist Kevin Gray and attorney Johnson.

Smith said the citizen-volunteers adopted some of the trappings of a professionally run campaign on a shoestring budget.

They formed a phone bank that in recent days made hundreds of calls, put up $2 yard signs and mailed out thousands of postcards at a cost of about $1 a card, she said.

A month ago, Smith said, the “No’s” raised $4,000 to $5,000, and “we found we could win if people had more information.”

At 9:05 p.m., Smith read the final tally to the crowd, with her side getting 6,684 votes and victory.

The crowd exploded into cheers.

Johnson said that Republican Haley’s weekend endorsement of a strong mayor “was one of the turning points.”

“We started picking up momentum then,” he said.

Bob Liming, a former member of the Columbia-area transportation authority, said that what happened Tuesday was a response to an empowered mayor. “Absolute power – that is what the people rejected tonight!” Liming said, adding that Haley interjecting herself into a local campaign irked Columbians.

Benjamin had pushed City Council several times this year to allow voters to decide for themselves. Council rejected all but one of those efforts, each time by a one-vote margin.

Only after Benjamin and the leadership of the Chamber united publicly to force a referendum, did council relent. The “yes’ forces hired a private company to gather the necessary 11,000-plus signatures of eligible voters to mandate Tuesday’s election.

Strong-mayor opponents argued that the current form of government is sufficient – if council members would let the city manager run the city without meddling in daily operations.

Those pushing for change say Columbia needs an elected chief executive with the administrative muscle to make decisions quickly so the city can better compete for businesses and the jobs they would bring.

Duvall, who specialized in municipal government, said he has cautioned council members that they must start abiding by the legal standards that state law spells out for a council-manager, or strong-manager, form of government.

Tuesday night, as an excited Smith looked around her crowded living room, she smiled broadly. She was gazing at blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats, and conservatives and liberals.

“I have to say that coming together with this coalition has been the ride of my life!” she said. “Some of us have never been in the same room before! But we came together because we really, really believed in what we were doing.”

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