By: Denise Stewart
Voters in Columbia, South Carolina go back to the polls on April 20 in a runoff election to select their first new mayor in 20 years, a contest that could also give the city its first black mayor.
Longtime Mayor Bob Coble didn’t seek re-election. Steve Benjamin, a black lawyer, was the top vote-getter in the election on April 6. He faces city councilman and restaurant owner Kirkman Finlay III.
“The response has been good. We’re encouraged,” Benjamin told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “This campaign is about building a better city – a safe city, a clean city and a city that is run well. We’re also focusing on job creation.”
Attempts by BlackAmericaWeb.com to reach Finlay were unsuccessful.
According to information posted on Finlay’s Web site, he also wants to focus on making the city safe while growing the local economy and making the government more fiscally accountable.
“It’s time for the city of Columbia to be the great place it can be,” Finlay said.
Only 26 percent of the city’s 63,000 voters went to the polls. In the race that included seven people, Benjamin dominated in Council Districts 1 and 2, beating Finlay by about three to one. He did not fare well in Finlay’s District 4 or in District 3.
Benjamin’s family roots are in Orangeburg, South Carolina. His parents moved to New York, and he was raised in Queens. In 1987, he went off to college at the University of South Carolina and has made the state his home since.
About 43 percent of the residents in Columbia are black and 52 percent are white, according to the U.S. Bureau of Census.
Benjamin said his support has crossed racial lines, and he has strengthened his ties in the business community with plans for job creation and a focus on Main Street.
“When people visit your city, they don’t ask where is X Street or Y Street. They want to see Main Street – your main business corridor. They make a judgment about your city based on what they see. And we still have lots of work to do there,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin, a 40-year-old father of five- and two-year-old girls, could become the city’s first black mayor. His political experience includes his appointment by former Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges in 1999 to lead the state Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole, a post he held until 2002. The University of South Carolina graduate previously served on the Columbia Planning Commission from 1995 to 1997.
Finlay is the son of former Columbia Mayor Kirkman Finlay Jr., who served from 1978 to 1986. The younger Finlay took over his family’s real estate holdings and finances at age 23 when his father died. The 40-year-old father of three daughters aged nine, seven and six runs two restaurants in Columbia.
Finlay has been credited with helping uncover the city’s multimillion-dollar budget woes after winning office in 2006. As chairman of the city budget committee, he has been vocal about the need to cut back to balance the budget.
Columbia’s major newspaper, The State, endorsed Benjamin for mayor in an editorial last Friday.
The newspaper questioned whether Benjamin’s plan for restoring funds to the city’s public safety department would work, given its current financial stress. But it applauded his vision for Columbia.
The newspaper complimented Finlay for his grasp of city finances, but said that his focus on finances may prevent him from focusing on the city’s future.
Benjamin said Columbia has exceptional potential and can become one of the strongest cities in the Southeast.
“It can happen,” he said. “We will be creative in developing a way for all businesses to prosper, and we’ll have a regional economic development plan. When you work together with the region, you can create thousands of jobs.”