Politics & Government

Columbia’s strong-mayor referendum defeated by high white, low black voter turnout

Tuesday’s political spanking for advocates of an elected municipal chief executive pivoted on “No” forces turning out their supporters particularly in two, higher-income City Council districts and on African-Americans staying home in large numbers, an analysis of the numbers shows.

People voting against a change in the form of government carried nine, large, politically active precincts by more than 100 votes each – in three of which the margin reached 200 or more, vote totals show.

Those heavy turnout precincts are in City Council districts 3 and 4.

Further, opponents in six other precincts outvoted the “Yes” crowd by 50 votes or more.

Those who backed a strong-mayor system did not carry any of the city’s 72 precincts by more than 100 votes and won only one – Greenview – by more than 50 votes, the analysis shows.

Turnout reached or exceeded 20 percent in 15 precincts. Opponents of the referendum won each of those precincts.

The “No” votes outstripped the “Yes” votes by nearly 1,400 votes in nine of those 15 precincts alone: Wards 13, 14, 16, 17, 24 and 25, Meadowfield, Woodlands and Pennington, one of the city’s biggest precincts.

Those nine held the key to nearly all of the 1,600-vote margin that decided the election.

Turnout was lower than 10 percent in 21 precincts. The proponents of a new government for Columbia won 17 of them.

African-American voters failed to show up, either because they were not stirred by the issue or they worried about offending their neighbors or black leaders who themselves were deeply divided, spokespeople on both sides of the contentious race said Wednesday.

The confluence of those two factors resulted in a 14 percentage point defeat for “Yes” backers.

Leaders of the “No” campaign credit much of the high turnouts to District 4 Councilwoman Leona Plaugh and District 3 Councilman Moe Baddourah. Both opposed the change and worked their constituents to persuade them the Capital City does not need a mayor who runs day-to-day operations.

“I think both communities (African-Americans and whites) were more comfortable with a form of government in which you can work together – even if sometimes it’s slow – than to risk one that can polarize us,” Kit Smith, one of the organizers of the “No” coalition, said.

Mayor Steve Benjamin, who was re-elected overwhelmingly last month and became the face of the “Yes” campaign, said he plans to continue to advance his agenda and his vision for Columbia as he did his first term.

“When it comes to a change in form of government, the people of Columbia weren’t ready for that,” he said Wednesday from his mayoral office at City Hall. “What I intend to do is do the people’s work under this form of government.”

He said he plans to push ahead with the development of the Bull Street neighborhood, the fight against gang violence and improvements in public safety, among a full slate for his second term that begins Jan. 1.

Lee Bussell is a member of the senior leadership at the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, which backed the “Yes” campaign.

He said turnout was unexpected in well-to-do and lower-income neighborhoods.

“What surprised us was not that they won those (nine) districts, but that they won them with the spreads they did,” Bussell said.

Conversely, “There was just not the passion in the African-American community for strong mayor ... you certainly didn’t see it in the pre-mayoral race polls.”

The nine precincts with the strongest “No” margins included Rosewood, Shandon, the USC area, the Dreher High School area, the Kilbourne Road area as well as neighborhoods around the Veterans Administration hospital.

“Those are the majority-white precincts, especially in District 3,” Bussell said. “That’s the most politically active district in the city.”

Plaugh said, “I gave out hundreds (of fliers) for people to distribute in various neighborhoods. We had boxes and boxes of them.”

Baddourah said he helped distribute hundreds of “No” yard signs. Smith said fellow campaign workers labeled him “the yard sign king.”

Howard Duvall, another leader among the “No” forces, said he believes the issue so divided many black residents that large numbers of voters bowed out on Election Day.

“I think it was because there was a split in that community – whether to vote ‘Yes’ or whether to vote ‘No.’ I think it was easier not to vote instead of making someone upset ... their neighbors ... their leaders,” Duvall said.

He and Smith said their bipartisan, bi-racial coalition took its cue from African-American leaders in the “No” camp. But their push was broader.

“We tried to communicate to everybody – not just the white community, the black community, the rich community,” Smith said. “The message was: You’ve got to decide whether you want to put all your eggs in one basket,” she said referring to a strong mayor.

That coalition billed itself as private citizens gathering around a dinner table to oppose an organized group backed by Big Media (The State newspaper’s editorial pages) and Big Business (the Chamber).

They raised $28,883 but spent more, Smith said. They will raise the difference soon.

Other factors also contributed to Tuesday’s result.

Benjamin’s actions on several high-profile issues caused some in the “No” camp to question his judgment.

“He’s made some bone-headed decisions,” said conservative Columbia businessman Rusty DePass, citing public spending on the redevelopment of the Palmetto Compress warehouse and what he called Benjamin’s effort to hide a report from city attorney Ken Gaines that questioned the wisdom of the city’s deal to provide utilities and amenities on the Bull Street campus.

DePass also has reservations about Benjamin’s push to hire city manager Teresa Wilson, who DePass said lacked experience for the job.

An endorsement from Republican Gov. Nikki Haley also chafed some residents.

“African-Americans in general don’t have a favorable opinion of her and felt if she was for it, they should be against it,” said attorney and former State Bar president I.S. Leevy Johnson.

Lynn Bailey, a health care consultant who has lived in Columbia more than 35 years and is a Democrat, said she was leaning toward “Yes” but switched after Haley announced her support over the weekend.

“Who does she think she is,” Bailey said. “She lives in Lexington County, because her residence in the Governor’s Mansion doesn’t really count. It was such a cheap political move by her that I decided to vote against the strong mayor.”

Bussell said the Chamber plans to reach out to City Council, including the four-member majority that opposed a strong-mayor system.

Though the Chamber invested money, time and effort, he said, “We’re not going to be petulant about it.”

The map below provides a precinct-by-precinct look at the vote. Click on a marker to see the votes cast for each side.

View Map: Precinct Results for Strong Mayor in a full screen map

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