Warren Bolton

Bolton: Content of character, not content of graffiti

"NO N----- mayor die."

Please. Let's not be naive.

There's nothing surprising about the ignorance exhibited by the vandals who spray-painted this slur on the side of Columbia City Hall on Dec. 30. It's a part of our ugly, racist past that continues to linger.

I grew up in Columbia; there's been some level of racial tension in the city all my days. While we've made many strides in our fair city - many - there are still issues to be addressed and people who haven't progressed. I've got phone messages, e-mail and letters to prove it. It's not been that long since private clubs where business deals get done first started allowing black folks to join; one, although not in Columbia proper, is still holding out. And have you seen the Confederate flag lately?

All that said, the racial graffiti found at City Hall says far more about the sorry saps who scrawled it than it does about Columbia or its residents. No, we don't know who they are - yet - but we know that they are, and that they or others like them likely will be with us all of our days.

In the world of "us" (civil-minded people of good will) versus "them" (closed-minded bigots), there are far more of "us" in Columbia than "them." But that doesn't mean much if we - that's "us" - don't step up and prove it every day by how we treat one another and how we go about building an inclusive, progressive city and community.

We can make sure that each of us does our best to denounce such language in our own spheres of influence. We can demand that those we do business with and those we elect treat everyone fairly regardless of their race. We can insist on an open, accountable government for all people. And city voters can make sound, informed decisions about who will lead Columbia based on - you know where I'm going - the content of the candidates' character and their ability to do the job, not the color of their skin.

Frankly, Columbia already has proved that the backward, racist attitude reflected in the graffiti doesn't prevail. Twice, city voters elected Tameika Isaac Devine, an African-American woman, in at-large races for City Council. When Mrs. Devine revealed a couple of months ago that she wouldn't run for mayor, she said that she didn't have to because she was just as powerful as the mayor and could get what she wanted accomplished as a council member. It's true: Her vote on the council counts as much as the mayor's, and she has the same access he has.

For that matter, all council members - including those who represent districts - have the same power as the mayor. Two of the four who represent districts - E.W. Cromartie, who has served more than two decades, and Sam Davis - are African-American.

It's quite obvious that the numskulls who scribbled the filth on City Hall have no understanding of how Columbia operates. If they did, they would know that the mayor, while a significant position from which the right person can lead, is little more than a figurehead. No special power here.

Fact is, the most powerful person in Columbia city government over most of the past decade was an African-American - former city manager Charles Austin. When you include the more than a decade he ably served as chief of police, it could be argued that Mr. Austin was the most significant figure in the city for nearly two decades, until he retired from the city manager's position last year.

But there's no denying that his six-year stint as city manager made him the most powerful man in the city for that period. He ran the city's day-to-day operations. He did the hiring and firing. He oversaw the police and fire departments, managed the city's spending, granted pay raises and reorganized the city staff. While the council set policy, nothing actually happened unless Mr. Austin gave the word. Yes, we can argue about how well he did his job - he's certainly partly to blame for the city's severe financial woes - but there's no doubt that he was in charge.

So, it makes little sense to fret over some mindless vandalism by someone who's obviously a non-factor in the life of the city.

The upcoming election isn't about black or white, but about choosing who's most right for the city at this critical juncture in its history. While Columbia has some serious financial problems that must be corrected, it also has a bright future - given the right leadership and right vision - despite the ongoing recession.

For sure, if an African-American is elected - whether it be Steve Benjamin or retired Lt. Col. Gary Myers - it would be a significant milestone that should be celebrated. But an African-American shouldn't be elected simply to make history. When that happens, it should be because the candidate who is best able to lead the city happens to be black.

Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Myers as well as the other candidates - Councilman Kirkman Finlay, Steve Morrison, Joseph Azar and Sparkle Clark - all have to make their own pitch. Weigh them on their merits and what they bring to the table, positive and negative.

The racially tinged graffiti and any related garbage have no place in the April 6 election or the continuing life of this city.