Imagine, for a minute, that it wasn’t the federal government that shut down for several weeks recently, but the City of Columbia.
Unless you’re a federal worker, we’re willing to bet a city shutdown would have affected you far more dramatically. Actually, a lot of the city’s roughly 3,000 workers would have had to stay on the job because they’re essential: cops, 911 operators, sanitation workers, wastewater plant employees. And without the remaining city employees working, the city would be a much different place. Clogged parking. Dirty streets. Without zoning approvals, construction would halt. Without business licensing, new businesses couldn’t open. There’d be less funding for music festivals, art shows and other cultural events.
When people talk about politics, they tend to talk about hot-button issues like abortion and the debt ceiling, but your day-to-day life is probably more affected by local government than by what goes on in Washington. So are your property tax and restaurant bills.
All this is to say: Local voting matters.
And this time around, while the mayoral race is drawing the most attention (as usual), the most interesting race around might be the challenge to Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine. Though the same currents are present in the mayoral race, the contrasts between ideas about what city government can and should do are especially stark in the at-large race.
On Tuesday, Nov. 5, all City of Columbia voters get to vote for the mayoral seat and the at-large seat; District 1 and 4 voters also get to choose a council member for their district. All Richland County voters get to decide whether to approve a property tax increase to fund more library facilities. And across the river in the Town of Lexington, voters get to select a mayor.
Several other Midlands municipalities vote Nov. 5, too, including the towns of Batesburg-Leesville, Chapin, Irmo, Pelion, Pine Ridge, South Congaree, Springdale, Summit and Swansea, and the City of West Columbia.
To check your voter registration and precinct, visit scvotes.org.
Incumbent: Tameika Isaac Devine
Challenger: Tommy Burkett
In 2010, long-serving Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine came close to being knocked off by a novelty candidate named Grant Robertson, one half of the duo behind the Internet TV show Drinking in the Morning With Aaron and Grant. (His co-host, Aaron Johnson, ran for mayor on the same ballot, and was soundly trounced.) Robertson garnered 42 percent of the vote to Devine’s 57 percent.
Today, she says the close vote was a wake-up call. As the second-longest serving member of Council, it was on Devine and her colleagues’ watch that the city plunged into debt in the early 2000s, with mismanaged accounting that took years to untangle. She also faced criticism after the city gave a federal loan to her mother, landing the city in hot water with Housing and Urban Development in 2009. (Devine had cleared the loan with the State Ethics Commission, she notes.) She’s weathered those storms, though, and today even her critics consider her Council’s most visible, responsive member.
Once an ally of Mayor Steve Benjamin — and his friend for many years — Devine has lately gone rogue. She worked against the mayor’s push to switch the city to a strong-mayor form of government, believing it would undermine and politicize the professional management of the city. She voted against Benjamin’s deal with a developer for the massive Bull Street tract in downtown Columbia, saying it was rushed. She’s complained publicly about the rancor on Council, saying she believes it’s partly the mayor’s fault. Now, she says, “I jokingly say that I’m not part of the in-crowd anymore.” She used to be party to certain plans and Council decisions before they happened, but not anymore. “Honestly, I don’t mind that, because I don’t think that’s the way to run the city,” she says.
Her opponent, Tommy Burkett, who runs an electrical contracting company, says he thinks Devine has only been voting the way she has because she’s facing a challenge — that she’s “flip-flopped.” “Now that she has someone running against her, she’s changed her voting,” he says.
Devine responds, “I vote my conscience no matter whether it’s election time or not. I’ve been very vocal the entire time I’ve been on Council.” (Burkett actually called back the next day, regretting that he’d “gone negative.”)
For Burkett, the Bull Street deal — which even the city attorney advised against — and the city’s purchase of the Palmetto Compress warehouse are signs the city’s going down the wrong path. But he notes that in north Columbia, where he lives, there are positive signs: double-digit drops in crime, businesses thriving. “I want to do for the whole city what I have personally been involved in being the president of the North Columbia Business Association,” Burkett says.
Burkett has the same campaign manager as Moe Baddourah, who’s running for mayor, and the two share a nuts-and-bolts, basic-services focus: Government shouldn’t spend too much or reach too far.
Devine, meanwhile, believes the city can do more than just pick up trash and supply clean water. In her next term, she wants to continue improving the city’s bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, create more youth programs to help address crime, and be a greener city. She also talks about “improving the financial stability of our citizens” through financial literacy programs and helping provide affordable housing. “Our city has done a phenomenal job with home ownership, but our community tends to shy away when we hear ‘affordable rental housing,’” she says. “We can’t say that and then say ‘we have all these homeless people.’”
When it comes to fundraising, Devine’s pulled in about $25,000 in donations — less than her previous elections, in part because Benjamin hasn’t been pointing any donors her way. In Burkett’s most recent campaign report, he’d taken in less than $1,000 in contributions.
Incumbent: Steve Benjamin
Challenger: Moe Baddourah
City Councilman Moe Baddourah, who runs the Italian restaurant Moe’s Grapevine, isn’t a visionary — he’s a nuts-and-bolts politician who, over the past few months, has knocked on more than 10,000 doors in the city. (Free Times saw him hit about 40 doors in an hour-and-a-half one morning.) And when he’s out knocking on doors, he says, people mostly care about a few things: crime, and basic city services like storm drainage.
Indeed, public safety has become the major theme of the mayoral election this year. Though long-term trends show crime in the city dropping, a rash of high-profile incidents have made people feel unsafe — particularly a recent shooting in Five Points that paralyzed a college-aged bystander; and a stray bullet in a gang shootout that hit a 4-year-old watching TV inside her home at the Colony Apartments. The police department’s been hit by scandal, too: Its chief resigned in February, citing post-traumatic stress disorder; and a high-ranking cop accused the command staff of criminal conspiracies, triggering a state investigation.
Mayor Steve Benjamin, by contrast, is a big-ideas kind of guy. When he took office in 2010, he was Columbia’s first new mayor in two decades. During his term, he’s pushed through big development deals and wooed businesses downtown, talking in broad terms about Columbia’s future. He’s also restructured the way Council works, implementing a committee system that pushes the detail work to his colleagues so he can focus on the big picture.
The mayoral election was a three-way race until Oct. 28, when former FBI analyst Larry Sypolt dropped out and endorsed Benjamin.
Baddourah’s core solutions to the crime problem: hiring a police chief right away; hiring more officers and paying them more; and using police dogs to look for guns and drugs in Five Points and other key areas.
Benjamin, meanwhile, touts the fact that Council increased public safety funding by $8 million during his first term. In the campaign, he’s made an issue of wanting city leaders to take a more hands-off approach to the police department, citing years of meddling — and to that end, he’s pushed for a policy banning council members and the city manager from crime scenes. (His colleagues defeated it 6-1.) He’s also been calling for state-level reforms in courts’ ability to release violent criminals.
But Baddourah defends the right of city council members to visit crime scenes. “Every council member, even the mayor in the past, has gone to a crime scene … to comfort the victims,” he said at a mayoral forum. “As long as you’re outside that perimeter, you’re a citizen.”
Baddourah’s other big campaign push is to stop the city from transferring money (about $4.5 million last year alone) out of the water and sewer fund for general uses. The city’s water and sewer infrastructure is crumbling, and the city’s agreed to spend millions on it under threat of action by the federal government. Baddourah’s critics, including Benjamin, point out that Baddourah hasn’t proposed an end to the transfers during his 16 months on Council, or specific cuts that would offset their end.
Benjamin says he supports ending water and sewer transfers, too, but that the reduction has to be gradual so the general fund doesn’t lose a big funding stream all at once.
Baddourah has often voted against the mayor’s various proposals and spending, often joining Councilwoman Leona Plaugh in 5-2 votes. But he’s also championed a few projects of his own: pushing to relocate the Busted Plug sculpture to Finlay Park; and helping pull down federal funds for the cleanup of arsenic-laden soils in the Edisto Court neighborhood.
The mayor’s gotten a lot done during his first term. But he’s also drawn criticism for what some council members see as a newly combative tone on council, and a rush to vote on things without much discussion. He’s been slapped down a few times, too, trying and failing to bring in Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott to run the police department.
Benjamin’s raised buckets of money from donors near and far, corporate and individual: $443,562, or nearly as much as he raised in 2010 against moneyed opponents to win the seat in the first place.
As of press time, Baddourah’s final pre-election campaign report was overdue, but his campaign manager estimated Baddourah has raised around $50,000. Baddourah’s campaign has complained about Benjamin’s “misplaced priorities” when it comes to fundraising.
This year’s mayoral election also takes place in the shadow of another election. On Dec. 3, Columbia residents will vote on whether to change from the city’s current form of government, in which the city manager runs things, to a strong mayor form, giving the mayor broad administrative powers to hire and fire employees, write budgets and essentially run the day-to-day operations of the city. Current Mayor Steve Benjamin has gunned hard for the change in government. Whoever is elected Nov. 5 would serve under whichever system voters choose Dec. 3.
Incumbent: Sam Davis
Challenger: Bruce Trezevant
In every election since he took office in 1998, Sam Davis has run unopposed. That could be because he keeps his head down, going out of his way not to make waves. But this time around, Trezevant, a funeral home apprentice who used to be a cop in Los Angeles, is challenging Davis, a business consultant and artisanal blacksmith, to represent the majority-black district that covers Eau Claire and other parts of north Columbia.
Trezevant wants the city cops to change the way they police District 1 — more foot patrols, more security cameras (he himself owns a camera company, and has complained about the city not giving him business). “When someone gets beat up in Five Points, they run out there and put the cameras out there,” Trezevant says. “But a young man gets killed in our community, nobody says [anything].”
Davis points out that crime in north Columbia has been consistently dropping over the past several years; the police region is fully staffed. “He doesn’t tend to want to address the positives,” Davis says of his opponent. But Trezevant says crime’s down because the police aren’t taking reports.
For Davis, there are perennial problems facing the district: abandoned homes; poor storm drainage; absentee landlords — and he says he’ll continue to work on those.
On Council, Davis has been a reliable ally of Mayor Benjamin, voting with him much of the time on development projects and spending. (Trezevant calls Davis a “puppet.”) And Benjamin’s been directing campaign contributions Davis’ way. But there’s one count on which Davis is at odds with the mayor: He opposes a strong mayor system. “The larger cities where you have [strong mayors] tend to have problems — corruption, lack of access, partisan politics,” he says.
Incumbent: Leona Plaugh
Challenger: Todd Walter
On most issues, there’s not much daylight between Plaugh and Walter. They both want the city to stop transferring money out of the water and sewer fund for general use. They both want to speed up city permitting and zoning.
But in her first term in office, Plaugh, who runs an entertainment management company, has made a name for herself as a clean-government reformer, designing a city ethics policy, picking apart the details of city contracts and voting down big spending — and that’s played well in the fairly conservative, wealthy district she calls home.
Walter, a real estate developer, meanwhile, says Plaugh’s approach has been too negative — he says people have told him Plaugh is not a “productive” force on Council. Her response: “If it’s spending money we don’t have, I think ‘no’‘s the right word.”
Plaugh voted against buying the Palmetto Compress cotton warehouse. She also voted against a contract to develop Bull Street. Walter says he’s not sure how he would have voted, as he wasn’t party to the Bull Street negotiations, but in general he believes the city can play a role in attracting and encouraging development.
If Richland County voters approve a Nov. 5 bond referendum, the library system will be able to borrow $59 million for infrastructure funding. The proposed bond would increase the property taxes on a $100,000 home by $12 to $14 per year. The library wants to build new buildings for the Sandhills and Ballentine branches, and overhaul the other nine locations, adding new space and improving aging facilities. The library’s last bond came in 1989, 24 years ago.
Critics say county voters have seen too many tax increases recently, most notably a 1 percent hike in the sales tax in May to fund road improvements and the bus system.
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