Elections

Finlay focuses on the numbers

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

Retired insurance executive Gayle Averyt was trying to nail down city money for a downtown shelter that business leaders felt would solve vexing issues with Columbia's homeless.

So Averyt arranged a meeting with his nephew, Kirkman Finlay, a member of Columbia City Council. In addition to being family, the two are close.

Finlay's response to his uncle's request for support on a council vote: Finlay slid a pen and a copy of the city budget across the desk, suggesting Averyt circle the items that should be cut to pay for the shelter.

"He was staring me down, just like he stares other people down," Averyt said.

The anecdote reveals the essential Finlay, now a candidate for mayor.

In more than three years on City Council, Finlay has made himself an expert on the city's budget.

He maintains the last decade was consumed with "grandiose plans" and "enormous promises," creating a budget crisis that leaves only enough money now to pay for the basics - a safe, clean and accountable city.

In his first few months in office, Finlay brought to light a multimillion-dollar pattern of overspending.

Since then, he has not let an opportunity pass to bring attention to the red ink, the inevitable cutbacks, the dismal bottom line.

As chairman of the city's budget committee, he paved the way politically for budget officials to trim expenditures this year so they line up with revenues.

The city is now operating under budget and is returning some money to its reserve fund.

Still, Finlay said after last week's council meeting, "We're broke. We're like the family whose house is being foreclosed on, planning their next vacation ... to Disney World."

As mayor, Finlay said he would feed everyone from the same spoon.

Averyt knows that's true.

"We need somebody in there with integrity, brains and guts to get us out of the ditch," he said.

"He's not the normal politician, I'll guarantee you."

FIGURING IT OUT

Much of his life, Kirkman Finlay III has lived on a hill once part of ancestor Wade Hampton's antebellum plantation.

It is within the city but feels like a secluded country manor.

Finlay, 40, and his family - wife Kathleen and their three girls, 6, 7 and 9 - live in a 2 1/2-story wood-frame home set behind a row of five granite columns, remnants of the original mansion, burned by Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's troops.

A dirt driveway through woods ends at a 146-acre farm, with horses, some of them rescued Arabians, and cows tended by hired hands.

Finlay's mother, Rab Finlay, lives next door, within view of "the big house."

Her son was 8 when her husband, Kirk, was elected mayor of Columbia in 1978. The children, Kirkman and his sister Gwathmey, grew up going to festivals and parades, church services and community events with their father, who served until 1986.

The young Finlay played sports - soccer, football, basketball - at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School. He was an Eagle Scout at 13.

His freshman year in high school, Finlay "was really bored, restless," his mother explained. He transferred to Groten School, a boarding school in New England.

He went on to study Greek and Latin at the University of Virginia, graduating in 1992 with a degree in ancient history. He was accepted for the doctoral program but thought better of it, his mother said, because he wasn't sure he'd be able to get a teaching post back home in Columbia.

After college, he took off for a summer in Jackson Hole, Wyo., with childhood friend Carter McEntire.

The two got odd jobs to support their real reason for being there - to go fishing every single day.

"It was there that his life really changed, in that his father got ill," McEntire said.

The older Finlay was diagnosed with melanoma on the brain, a cancer that would kill him the following year, in 1993.

At 23, Kirkman Finlay took over management of the family's real estate holdings and financial obligations.

"While the rest of us were gallivanting around in our 20s," McEntire said, "he had to buckle down and figure it out."

A GRADUAL CONVICTION

Finlay was in mourning and needed hard work to do.

A friend suggested the restaurant business as "a good way to get going and get moving."

So Finlay decided to open Rising High, a bakery and restaurant in Five Points, near USC.

Between 1993 and 2007, he would try six locations, from Forest Acres to Columbia's Main Street and Lexington, before throwing in the towel.

"Part of life is losing," he said.

His more recent incursions into the restaurant business are doing well: Doc's Barbecue & Southern Buffet, on Shop Road, and Pawleys Front Porch, with a South Carolina-themed menu, in Rising High's old Five Points location.

Looking back, his failed restaurants taught him lessons that are useful in city government, Finlay said.

Look for trends. Act on them.

"We never step back, retool, redo, decide it's not working," he said of City Council.

Ultimately, Finlay says his difficulties in the restaurant business pushed him into politics.

Finlay said he came to the "gradual conviction" he should run for council because of the city's "absurd" delay in finishing a massive drainage and beautification project in Five Points.

To run, he would have to take on incumbent Hamilton Osborne Jr., a former law partner of his father's.

Finlay asked the advice of "people I respect for their political and business sense" - Averyt, chairman emeritus of Colonial Life Insurance; S.C. Secretary of Commerce Joe Taylor; and financier-developer Don Tomlin.

Less than two months before Election Day, Osborne, trailing in the polls and in fundraising, resigned, citing a new ethics law that tied his hands.

Finlay took the seat without opposition.

During that first election in 2006, Finlay didn't trade on his father's name.

In fact, some elders in Columbia's business and political circles who were allies of "Big Kirk" declined to talk about his son, saying they don't know him that well.

One who was willing to talk was Judy Stringer, who Finlay's father hired in 1979 to attract people downtown with street parties and special events.

This past spring, Stringer lost her job with the city in a cost-cutting reorganization.

She can't help but blame Finlay, who wants to rein in spending now, in hopes the city can afford to broaden its mission again later.

"I've known that boy since he was a baby, and I knew he was coming up in the ranks. You could tell that," Stringer said.

"The thing that first struck me when he came on council was how hard he was."

When Stringer looks at Kirkman Finlay, she doesn't see the whimsical visionary his father was.

"I see a bean counter," she said.

Others see a father and son who shared a quick wit, problem-solving abilities and Southern sensibilities - similar character traits - but different dispositions.

Kirk Finlay, the father, was extolled as a man who wasn't afraid to dream big, someone who went to bat for Columbia's culture as well as its commerce.

Much like Charleston's mayor, Joe Riley, Kirk Finlay championed city planning, beautiful architecture, historic preservation and the construction of parks.

His signature project was relocating railroad tracks to open-air tunnels, unleashing the potential for redevelopment in the downtown warehouse district he named the Congaree Vista.

He recognized the Vista's potential as a center for arts and culture.

Kirkman Finlay, the son, may have cut some of that discretionary spending from the city's beleaguered budget.

While his father created the Cultural Council of Richland and Lexington Counties to help pay for the arts, the son argues art groups should be self-sufficient and not rely on local government for money.

Under his tenure, Finlay said, the mayor would host a major fundraiser for the arts twice a year.

While his father nurtured development corporations to attract business to bedraggled parts of town, the son says that approach has shifted the focus from the city as a whole.

"I think people at points want me to be my father," Finlay said.

"But he and I are different. The times are different."

Once the city gets back on track, Finlay said, he wants to refill Main Street and recreate a vibrant downtown where businesses want to locate and people want to live.

For now, Finlay's campaign message sounds like political castor oil.

He offers no apologies.

"I think people are ready to hear the reality they all know is true," he said - that the city must trim its mission to core functions.

Do you know anybody who hasn't cut their household budget by 10 percent in the past year, he asks rhetorically.

CAMOUFLAGE AND CONFIDENCE

Kathleen Finlay said her husband balances their budget at home - to the penny - using the finance software Quicken.

"He's very strict," she said, a grin creeping over her face. "He loves his Quicken, and he likes to tell me exactly where we've gone over budget and where we're going to change."

In public life, her husband isn't inclined to let down his guard, she said. "I don't think many people see his fun side, especially on City Council. And I do tell him he's a downer sometimes."

But her husband also is a good cook who enjoys entertaining at home, riding horses and taking their daughters out in the woods to watch for ducks.

Though he wasn't sure how it would go over, he bought camouflage fleece jackets for each of the girls for Christmas.

They've been a big hit, though "the teachers at school laugh when they jump out of the car," Kathleen Finlay said.

Others who know Kirkman Finlay best describe him as direct and unflinching. He deals with life on life's terms.

He is analytical and says of himself, "I love the numbers, and I can get so far down in the weeds."

With his full beard, he looks like Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton - and some might say he goes to battle at each and every City Council meeting, attacking the status quo, political favoritism and short-term solutions.

He said he's committed to facts and numbers, not the illusion of well-being.

He ends an acerbic observation about a city tax proposal on an unexpected note. "As my child would say, 'Ouchie- ouchie!'"

One of his favorite observations is that children make the world a happier place.

His minister, the Rev. Chip Edgar, said the two talk often about the nuts and bolts of spiritual life. Among the topics they have explored are what it means to be a good public servant and what the Bible says about forgiveness.

"He's a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of person," Edgar said. "He's direct, very strong, but he's also very open to ideas. He's very open to finding creative solutions to things."

Finlay loves the outdoors. He hunts deer, ducks and dove, roaming with his Labrador and Boykin spaniel through Lower Richland and Edisto, two areas where he has set aside land in conservation easements.

He said his dad used to kid him: "Called me the most educated redneck he'd ever met."

McEntire, his hunting buddy, said Finlay has learned to say what is on his mind without being abrasive.

"To a lot of people, it comes across as arrogance," he said. "But what it really is, is confidence in his positions."

Rab Finlay said her son always had a knack for numbers.

She remembers him at about 8 years old, watching a clerk prepare a hand-written receipt for the purchases she had made at a clothing store.

When the fellow told his mother how much she owed, young Kirkman Finlay suggested the clerk might want to refigure the math.

"And the man said, 'No, no, no, I added it correctly,'" Rab Finlay recalled.

Her son persisted. The manager came over and pulled out an adding machine to settle the matter.

Sure enough, she said, the total was $10 off.

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