Strategies shift in mayor's race

Now that Columbia Mayor Bob Coble is not seeking re-election, challenger Steve Benjamin has set his sights on another target: Councilman Kirkman Finlay.

Benjamin's campaign this week submitted seven separate Freedom of Information Act requests to various city departments requesting "copies of all written correspondence, e-mail, phone records and facsimile communication with or that refers to Kirkman Finlay III."

"We are specifically trying to get a full picture of Councilman Finlay's role in crafting this budget. It's a disastrous budget that could leave us broke within three months," said Joseph Oppermann, Benjamin's campaign manager.

Benjamin was meeting with clients Friday and unavailable for comment, Oppermann said.

Finlay, who represents District 4 on City Council - Fort Jackson and the Heathwood, Hamptons and Garners Ferry neighborhoods - has not officially declared his candidacy for mayor but is considering a run.

"I would respond that I voted against the first two budgets that allowed $24 million of reserves to be squandered," Finlay said. "This budget will bring us back to or begin to bring us back to a financial even keel.

"I am confused about his comments. The only other options to balance our budget would have been a massive tax increase, or a massive layoff or salary cut."

The FOI requests were made by New Partners, a Washington-based political consulting firm that includes Craig Schirmer, who led President Barack Obama's presidential campaign in South Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Benjamin has hired Schirmer to help run his campaign.

The requests were sent to the city's police department, mayor's office, city manager's office, economic-development office, municipal court, grants administration office and Finlay.

In addition to any document mentioning Finlay, Benjamin's campaign requested anything referencing 36 companies and LLCs in which Finlay has or has had an interest, including the Forest Lake Country Club, where he is a member.

"It's an expected practice in modern campaigns to try to learn as much as possible about what you might be dealing with later drown the road," Oppermann said.

But Finlay characterized it as a political fishing trip, saying Benjamin's campaign sent similar requests to the Department of Commerce and the City of Cayce, where Finlay has purchased property.

"It certainly seems like they are laying the groundwork for a nasty and divisive campaign," Finlay said.

Bob Wislinski, a political consultant who has worked on City Council campaigns for years, said he doesn't remember ever seeing this kind of opposition research in a council race.

"It's a sign of the maturing political economy of Columbia," he said. "We're becoming more complex. There are more groups out there with money with an interest. The city budget is bigger. Decisions the city makes affect so many more bottom lines than they did 20 years ago."

Coble said Friday he was staying out of the fight, but added:

"I think the Mayor Bob era is over, I'll just put it like that. That's going to be a tough campaign there."