Warren Bolton

Bolton: Mayor, Council District 4 races the ones to watch

IT MAKES sense - and would be partly right - to assume that Columbians' anger over City Council leading the city into one of the biggest fiscal debacles in its history prompted candidates to crowd the field for mayor as well as the District 4 council seat.

Candidates in both races are spouting rhetoric about being fiscally responsible, frugal, prudent, open, transparent ... you name it. They all know they're not going to win if they don't sell themselves as someone who can get the city back on solid financial footing.

But you have to wonder why one incumbent - District 1 Councilman Sam Davis - is unopposed and another - at-large Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine - has only token opposition. Apparently voters in Mr. Davis' district are very pleased with him. That's how it works in many districts - if voters like you, you don't get opposition - but it's not healthy. Officials up for re-election need to be pushed to defend their record and to tell the people why they deserve to continue to serve. They should answer for all they've been a party to while in office, good or bad.

Mrs. Devine faces Antonio Williams, who has run unsuccessfully for council in the past, and Five Points business owner Grant Robertson, a political novice. She should win handily. It's odd that a citywide race didn't draw more interest at a time when the public is raising serious questions about the direction of the city.

While fiscal responsibility will be a big issue in the April elections overall, it appears it will play a bigger role in the race for mayor than the Council District 4 seat.

So how are those two races shaping up?

Mayor's race: You can expect the nine-candidate mayor's race to be a dandy. None of the three top candidates - Steve Benjamin, Councilman Kirkman Finlay and Steve Morrison - stands head and shoulders above the other. Each has a good chance of being the next mayor.

Back when Mayor Bob Coble was still considering a re-election bid and neither Mr. Finlay nor Mr. Morrison had entered the fray, Mr. Benjamin cranked up a high-powered campaign team and set his sights on raising gobs of money. Since entering the race, Mr. Finlay has shown some fundraising prowess as well, and there's little doubt Mr. Morrison can raise what he needs to be a viable contender.

That means that we're in for a high-spending campaign the likes of which we've never seen. Let's just hope that it's all worth it. Let's have had a good, thorough, challenging campaign where folks lay out their best ideas and plans for our capital city. And let's hope voters make a good choice.

Many were giving Mr. Benjamin the nod even when Mayor Coble was still in the game. He has the cash, the early start, the organization and a pretty solid civic record.

Chances are that he and Mr. Morrison will contend for some of the same voters: progressives, business types and African-Americans, who make up nearly half the city's population and comprise a formidable voting bloc.

While Mr. Finlay likely will draw some business support as well, his biggest draw will be from some of Columbia's most consistent voters - older, rich, white conservatives. But don't be fooled; Mr. Finlay will make a play for voters across the spectrum, as will Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Morrison.

The other mayoral candidates are Joseph Azar, a Five Points business owner and perennial candidate; Irwin Wilson, a contractor and associate minister at New Shiloh Baptist Church in Rosewood; Aaron Johnson, another Five Points business owner; Sparkle Clark, a postal employee; retired Army Lt. Col. Gary Myers; and Nammu Muhammed.

Despite the large field, the top three will easily grab the lion's share of the vote. The question is whether any one can get a large enough majority to stave off a runoff. It might come down to who can muster the most formidable ground game.

Strange things can happen in municipal elections: They're held at an odd time of year, and voter turnout is typically low. The candidate who can most effectively energize people to get out and vote will win.

District 4: The District 4 race could prove to be as engaging as the race for mayor. It also could be a boost for Councilman Finlay's mayoral hopes. The more energized his home district is, the more votes he's likely to garner.

The field is full of familiar names: former Richland County Council chairman Tony Mizzell; Kevin Fisher, an advertising executive who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2006; Walter Powell Jr., a commercial Realtor and volunteer firefighter; Leona Plaugh, a former Columbia city manager; and Mary Waters, co-president of the Heathwood Neighborhood Association.

While Mr. Mizzell has the experience and has run and won a County Council race in that community, don't give him the edge just yet. He lost his last County Council race. Expect stiff competition across the board, particularly from Ms. Plaugh, who, though fired as city manager, knows the city and its needs inside out. And Mr. Fisher ran an admirable race against Mayor Coble in 2006; he too is knowledgeable and adept at pinpointing issues. His biggest shortcoming before was that he didn't have enough answers; don't expect that problem this time around.

Columbia voters should pay attention to these elections and take advantage of the multiplicity of debates and forums being held around town. This is a huge election that comes at a time when there's a need for not only fiscal leadership, but leadership overall.

Although times will get better and revenues will rebound somewhat, the city won't be able to return to business as usual. Policies and priorities must change.

Come April, voters will determine who will lead Columbia in that change.