Racist graffiti causes furor

Vandals spray painted "No n - - - - - mayor die" on the side of Columbia City Hall on Wednesday, an act swiftly denounced by city officials and mayoral candidates.

Those candidates, including two African-Americans, pledged the act would not affect their campaigns.

City officials discovered the graffiti - 18-inch-tall red letters spray-painted among three decorative arches on the Laurel Street side of City Hall - about 7 a.m. Wednesday, according to city manager Steve Gantt. City workers removed the graffiti a short time later.

Columbia police are reviewing video footage from three nearby security cameras, including two at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court next door and a city traffic camera at Main and Laurel streets, said Gantt, adding he is confident authorities will have some solid leads.

Attorney Steve Benjamin and retired Army Lt. Col. Gary Myers are attempting to become the first black mayor of South Carolina's capital city in its April 6 election.

Benjamin held a news conference at his Washington Street headquarters Wednesday afternoon to say he was "disgusted" by the act and to pitch his candidacy to the public.

"This is exactly why we need a new leader who can unify all of us behind a new vision for Columbia, and I am now, more than ever, dedicated to that cause," Benjamin said, reading from a prepared statement.

Benjamin said he was not concerned for his safety, adding his wife, parents and pastor "all advised me to stay encouraged."

"I know the people of Columbia are good people universally, that they are offended by this and we'll stand together against this," he said.

Myers said the real victim is the city of Columbia.

"When you're dealing with hatred, it's not really directed at Steve or I, it's directed at defiling the image of Columbia and the state," he said.

Racial tensions have ebbed and flowed in Columbia for centuries, most recently with the Confederate flag debate and comments by a political activist referring to an escaped gorilla at Riverbanks Zoo as an "ancestor" of first lady Michelle Obama.

Some downplayed Wednesday's incident.

"What's the big much ado about nothing?" Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina NAACP, said Wednesday. "We don't make an issue of all the other racist activities that take place every day in the city of Columbia."

Others expressed a mix of outrage and embarrassment.

Debbie McDaniel, owner of Revente in Five Points and a Benjamin supporter, said she was offering a $100 reward for information leading to the arrest of the culprit.

Durham Carter, president of the Martin Luther King neighborhood association, said he didn't believe it when he saw the graffiti Wednesday.

"I was highly, highly embarrassed," he said. "All my life, 80 years in Columbia, I've seen things like that written, the word and what not, but this century? I didn't expect it. I thought we were beyond such garbage."

Six City Council members, led by Mayor Bob Coble, condemned the act at a morning news conference at City Hall.

"We all, as a group, want to convey the message that this is not Columbia," said Coble, who is not running for re-election. "This is not what Columbia stands for. We are a city of the new South, a diverse city that embraces everyone in our community. This incident is not reflective of our city."

The maximum sentence a city judge could impose for the vandalism would be 30 days in jail or a $500 fine.

Federal hate-crime laws carry much stiffer penalties, but it is unclear whether the city will pursue that option.

Police Chief Tandy Carter said the threshold for the federal law is "the threat to an individual."

"It's very difficult to prove intent," he said.

Columbia Police spokesman Brick Lewis said it was "way too early" to discuss federal charges.

"We just want to find the person who did it," Lewis said. "I don't think anybody federally has been contacted at this point."

But others said the word "die" in the message could be enough to prove a threat of violence.

"That really escalates it from my standpoint," Councilman Daniel Rickenmann said. "We want to identify who did this."

Fellow mayoral candidate Steve Morrison said in a statement through his spokesman that he is prepared to make a joint appearance with all the mayoral candidates to condemn the graffiti and "pledge unity."

"I deplore the racist spew found desecrating City Hall and condemn this bigoted act," Morrisron said. "I am angry for every citizen of Columbia. Now is a time for all of us to come together in unity to condemn the awful scourge racism and rededicate ourselves to justice."

Councilman Kirkman Finlay, who is also running for mayor, was out of town Wednesday. He said later he did not think the graffiti would have an impact on the campaign.

"If you let the lunatic fringe that creeps out at night to write this kind of stuff to affect campaigns and political outcome, what you've done is ceded them more control than they ever deserve. ... If they can be prosecuted, they should be - and ignored as someone who is contributing nothing to the debate."

Video of candidate Steve Benjamin addressing the graffiti incident. News conference was held at 3:30 p.m.