Elections

Benjamin says he understands 'fabric' of city

-- Editor's note: Steve Benjamin and Kirkman Finlay will compete in a runoff for mayor Tuesday, April 20.

Steve Benjamin builds networks.

Just ask Bianca Crawford.

In 2003, the recent college graduate traded business cards with Benjamin at a luncheon. An hour later, he e-mailed a list of five prominent bankers in Columbia he thought she needed to know.

Crawford called them and brought up Benjamin's name. Each agreed to see her.

"It was just great," said Crawford, who owns a Columbia public relations firm. "Every single one of those people I still talk to on a regular basis.

"One of the things I've learned from Steve is you have to do that for everybody."

Making connections has served Benjamin well since he first arrived in 1987 as a freshman at the University of South Carolina. It has led to jobs, political appointments and service on countless boards of directors.

Now Benjamin, a lawyer and lobbyist, hopes that skill of connecting with people can help him in his bid to become Columbia's first black mayor.

"I've been so involved in the fabric of the city I have a sense of what the community needs," he said. "If we have great needs over here and a deep talent pool over there, we need an ambassador to tie them together."

Benjamin, who officially launched his campaign in August, is considered a front-runner.

He has raised more cash than his opponents - $210,000 as of Jan. 10, the most recent figure available. That's more money than any of the eight other candidates and puts the race on track to be the most expensive in city history.

Running on a platform of public safety and building the economy, Benjamin said he is in the race because he owes the city his service after receiving so much opportunity from it.

"I've been blessed," said Benjamin, 40. "I've never thought twice about giving back. I am the product of the sacrifice of so many people. The price I have to pay is service."

Former S.C. Gov. Jim Hodges said early on he encouraged Benjamin to run for office.

"Fifteen minutes after you meet Steve Benjamin, you realize he's got real star power," said Hodges, who appointed Benjamin to his Cabinet in 1999. "I hoped he would be a politician."

A FATHER'S INFLUENCE

Maggie Benjamin said her youngest son always has had a way with people.

"He remembers names and things about people that may seem trivial to you," she said. "They seem to relax and open up to him."

Maggie and Sam Benjamin raised sons Samuel and Steve in New York City.

The elder Benjamins left segregated South Carolina in 1967 to find opportunities available to black people up North - something Steve Benjamin brings up on the campaign trail as motivating him to help create good options for his own daughters.

In the New York borough of Queens, the Benjamin home was the neighborhood's social hot spot. The children had free rein of the Benjamin basement, where they played ColecoVision video games and watched television, Maggie Benjamin said.

Hot dogs, peanut butter sandwiches, cereal and chips were plentiful, she said.

"If parents were looking for their kids, they didn't have to look far because 90 percent of the time they were at our house," Sam Benjamin said.

The Benjamins liked it that way; if the neighborhood was hanging out at their house, they knew their boys weren't getting into trouble.

Sam Benjamin is a hero to his son, who describes his father as "my man" and "a prince of a guy."

Family members say Steve Benjamin got his big personality from his father.

"He strives to be as funny as his daddy," said DeAndrea Gist Benjamin, the candidate's wife.

Sam Benjamin said there is another trait he passed to his son: workaholic.

The elder Benjamin sometimes worked three or four jobs at once to support his young family.

"Steve works 26 hours a day when there's only 24 hours in it," Sam Benjamin said. "I had to work with my hands. He works with his head."

The Benjamins, who moved to Columbia in 2003, said they sometimes get text messages from their son at 4:30 in the morning as he is starting his day.

His campaign staff is used to text messages at 1:30 or 5 a.m.

Steve Benjamin's daily schedule is a work in progress as he juggles his jobs and family life. In addition to a private law practice, he also is on various community boards, including Benedict College and the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

He uses three cell phones that constantly ring or bleep as a new message hits in the inbox.

All of the activity begs the question: Is he stretched too thin to focus on the mayor's office?

Already, Benjamin has scaled back his participation on some boards - and plans to drop off the board of Advance America, the country's top payday lender, in May.

Benjamin also has sold his interest in two property developments that could be a conflict of interest for a mayor.

"My priorities are very much in order," Benjamin said. "I've had to push back from some of the community activities I was involved in."

MAKING AN IMPRESSION

Benjamin was lightly involved in student activities in high school, his mother said.

But he jumped into student life at USC, largely because he met the Rev. Charles White, now the NAACP's national field director.

White was a junior when he took Benjamin, a freshman, under his wing.

He persuaded Benjamin to join the student chapter of the NAACP and talked him into spending a summer on Johns Island to work with migrant farm families.

"He wasn't afraid to try new things," White said.

White mentored Benjamin and watched him thrive.

Benjamin eventually became president of the student body. At USC's School of Law, he was president of the student bar association in his third year.

Through his participation in activities, especially student government, Benjamin met influential people.

And he impressed them.

As a clerk for the McNair Law Firm, Benjamin found himself rubbing elbows with state legislators. The firm hired him to work as a lobbyist after graduation.

There, he met Hodges, then a state representative.

When Hodges was elected governor in 1999, he put the then-29-year-old Steve Benjamin in charge of the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon.

Benjamin did not have law enforcement experience when he took the helm of an agency with 950 employees and a $415 million-a-year budget.

While director, Benjamin established a Special Operations Response Team to work with other law enforcement agencies. And he pushed a change in state law that would give probation officers full arrest powers.

"Believe it or not, often the biggest problem in law enforcement is turf battles," Hodges said. "That just did not exist with Benjamin."

Benjamin left the governor's Cabinet when he decided to run in 2002 for attorney general, his first try at public office.

He didn't win. But he said he learned what was important to voters.

"Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, black or white, rich or poor, the priorities for families are the same," he said. "People want good quality law enforcement and for their communities to be safe."

GETTING TO KNOW PEOPLE

Benjamin's ability to network is an asset to his campaign. Scores of people already know who he is even if the only familiarity is his annual New Year's Eve party at Rust, a Vista nightclub.

The event, hosted by Benjamin and Carl Solomon, another Columbia attorney, is the place to be for Columbia's up-and-coming crowd.

About 400 guests pay a $15 entry fee that is donated to charity.

"You get everybody's friends of friends of friends who come," Crawford said.

Jack Van Loan, who runs the Five Points St. Patrick's Day Festival, has been inviting Benjamin to roundtable discussions at The Gourmet Shop.

There, Van Loan introduces four or five friends to Benjamin, and they pepper the candidate with questions.

Van Loan said Benjamin holds his ground when he disagrees with people in those small gatherings.

"He's not a 'yes man,'" said Van Loan, once a prisoner of war in Vietnam. "He doesn't slap anybody down. He just says, 'That wouldn't work well.'"

In the mayor's election, Benjamin is making public safety his top priority. He constantly talks about funding for the city's police and fire departments, and he is deft in tying it to other issues.

At a recent forum at the Columbia Museum of Art, the discussion centered on money for museums, music venues, theater and other arts forums.

Benjamin swung around to public safety, saying downtown needed to be a place "where people can feel safe in enjoying these arts venues."

A BALANCING ACT

DeAndrea Benjamin said her husband began talking seriously two years ago about running for mayor.

Benjamin called on others for help in the decision, among them White and a prayer circle of 10 men, all former friends from USC now living around the United States.

"I'm not very political, but I know what goes along with politics," she said. "I asked if he was sure this is something he wants to take on at this point."

DeAndrea Benjamin knew the campaign would leave the bulk of parenting their two daughters - Bethany, 5, and Jordan Grace, 2 - in her hands.

But the Benjamins try to keep Friday nights open for family, dining out and watching movies.

Until November, the family had lived in Eau Claire. Today, they live in Woodcreek Farms, an affluent Northeast Richland neighborhood that is home to some of the area's most prominent residents, among them USC football coach Steve Spurrier.

Still, Benjamin continues to tout his ties to Eau Claire. Until last week, he listed Eau Claire as his home neighborhood on the campaign Web site. It was changed after a reporter asked about it.

"Honestly, we hadn't paid any attention to it," Benjamin said. "It was just an oversight."

In some ways, DeAndrea Benjamin is a reluctant campaign partner.

She is a city court judge who aspires to a higher bench. Because judges are supposed be impartial, she refuses to put a "Benjamin for Mayor" bumper sticker on her car.

She is selective in which campaign events she attends.

If Benjamin is elected, her city court judge's position could become a conflict, since judges are hired by City Council. The Benjamins have not decided how they would resolve that conflict.

NO DISTRACTIONS

Already, Benjamin has dealt with other conflicts to run for mayor.

Benjamin resigned from the board of National Bank of South Carolina.

And he sold his interest in the Village at River's Edge development, a project that is receiving city money. He also is no longer part of a project to build a hotel on Sunset Boulevard because that, too, was getting financial support from the city.

He also mailed a letter of resignation, effective May 27, to Advance America, a Spartanburg-based payday lending company. He was on the company's board of directors since 2004.

That has been the biggest conflict for his campaign, since City Council and leaders of in-town neighborhoods have been working for years to corral payday lenders.

In late January, Columbia City Council unanimously approved restrictions on payday lenders designed to reduce what some council members say is the clustering of payday lenders in poor areas of the city, allowing them to take advantage of people who live paycheck to paycheck and causing a blight on commercial areas. Council banned the businesses from opening new locations in buildings smaller than 12,000 square feet or within a half-mile of an existing lender.

"I'm removing myself from anything that might be a distraction," Benjamin said.

Benjamin is involved with several community boards, both high-profile and grass-roots. And he's not shy about recruiting others to serve with him.

Crawford, who owns a public relations firm, is on the March of Dimes board because of Benjamin.

"They needed someone on their marketing and PR committee," she said. "He game the executive director my name."

All of that, Benjamin said, comes from commitment to community. He said it brings him satisfaction to see others get involved.

Now, though, he's scaling back so he can devote his energy to the mayor's race.

"Being mayor is my No. 1 priority, " he said.

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