Columbia Free Times

Free Times 50: Who Runs Columbia SC?

The Power Issue 2013
By Free Times
Wednesday, June 26, 2013 |
Columbia SC Main Street
The view down Main Street from the State House steps. File photo
Who runs Columbia?

That’s a harder question than it might seem at first. But last year, we sought to answer it with our first-ever list of the Free Times 50: fifty influential local people who are getting things done in the Capital City. The Power Issue quickly became one of the most popular features in the 25 years we’ve been publishing Free Times.

Now, we’re back for another crack at it.

Some names from last year have disappeared from this year’s list — or moved up or down on it significantly. There are lots of reasons for the changes. Belinda Gergel, for example, was a powerful member of City Council last year, but has since moved to Charleston. Wesley Donehue, an up-and-coming political consultant, is spending more time away from Columbia, too. Jake Knotts lost his seat in the state Senate. In other cases, people who were in the spotlight last year haven’t been this year, and therefore moved down, while others jumped onto or up on the list for the same reason.

To track these changes, we’ve added arrows indicating how much someone has moved up or down from last year’s list.

Generally, a move up means a person was either more visible or more effective at getting things done in Columbia, and a move down means the opposite. But those ups and downs should be taken with a grain of salt: A move of one to four spots in either direction is essentially a status quo situation, whereas a move of five or more spots indicates that something changed. Again, though, some perspective is in order: Anyone who is on the Free Times 50 list at all — or even in our Next 50 list — is part of a highly select group of people getting things done locally. And, let’s be honest: There are lots of people who get things done in Columbia, so we’ve also added some new names to acknowledge those contributions. Altogether, approximately one-third of the names on this year’s Free Times 50 are new ones.

What does it take to land a spot on the Free Times 50? Holding political office doesn’t necessarily do it; it takes more than winning an election to get something done or to influence the behavior of others. Money doesn’t automatically buy you a spot, either: Some people might be barely scraping by financially, but still wield influence in the city.

A word on methodology: This is not a scientific list; it’s a subjective one. We haven’t ranked people on the basis of how many boards they serve on, how much money they’ve contributed to political campaigns or how many pieces of legislation they’ve gotten passed. Instead, we asked ourselves: Who is most responsible for key attributes of our city? What follows is our answer to that question.

Are there people we missed? No doubt there are. That’s where you come in: We welcome your input on who should have made the list and your missives about how so-and-so never should have been included. By all means, let us know where we got it right and where we got it wrong by commenting at free-times.com or emailing .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). — Dan Cook

Dan Cook, Eva Moore, Corey Hutchins and Patrick Wall contributed to this report.

Photos by Sean Rayford.


Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott

1. Leon Lott ↑ 9

When a county sheriff takes on a statewide political party chair at politics — and wins — you know you’re looking at someone who knows how to get things done. Last fall, when former state Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian was trying to oust Republican State Senator John Courson, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott crossed party lines to stand up for Courson and smack Harpootlian down. Since being elected in 1996, Lott has built up an unequaled fiefdom of community and political influence, serving on local, state and national boards and being named the DEA/D.A.R.E Law Enforcement Official of the Year in 2012. You might hear some grumbling now and then about Richland County’s aggressive police tactics, but you won’t see the sheriff taking a political hit for it. Far from it: From mentoring former Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott to taking him back under his wing after a bizarre resignation and public meltdown, the longtime elected sheriff has become the Midlands’ untouchable politician. Lott even met five times with convicted double-murderer Brett Parker between the time of the murders and the trial, and there’s been nary a peep of criticism toward Lott for getting involved. You got a problem with Lott dressing up every year for the Vista Queen title? Yeah, we didn’t think so.

2. Steve Benjamin ↓ 1

Mayor Steve Benjamin has lost some of his sheen since he was elected in 2010, running into the same volatile mix of limited power, tight resources and entrenched interests that often stymied his predecessor, Mayor Bob Coble. Still, Benjamin is wringing what he can out of Columbia’s part-time, weak-mayor system, using his bully pulpit to corral votes and push his vision of Columbia as an up-and-coming Southern hot spot. Benjamin faces a re-election battle in the fall, but the smart money is on continuity at City Hall. Remember, the last guy served five terms.

3. Darrell Jackson Sr. ↑ 19

Generally speaking, a high ranking on the Free Times 50 list comes from having the ability to get things done in the Capital City. Democratic S.C. Sen. Darrell Jackson is the exception this year: Jackson moves up 19 spots not on the basis of what he’s done, but rather on the basis of what he has thwarted: the ability of Richland County voters to have faith in their elections. Jackson was the chief defender of former elections chief Lillian McBride after last year’s botched elections and continues to side with the half-assed efforts of the Election Commission to move forward rather than with a full-scale investigation and overhaul of that troubled agency.

4. Nikki Haley ↓ 1

Does Gov. Nikki Haley wield power in Columbia? Sort of: Despite a low approval rating and an up-and-down relationship with the General Assembly, Haley still has enough power to set the tone at the state level (read: rejection of Obamacare at all costs) and to shake up the state agencies where many locals work. And despite the hacking scandal at the Department of Revenue last year, Haley still has a relatively positive image in national GOP circles, has been aggressively and successfully recruiting jobs, and — despite the ardent hopes of Democrats — has a strong chance of being re-elected next year.

5. Harris Pastides ↓ 1

Now into his fifth year as president of the University of South Carolina, Harris Pastides has presided over the continued growth of the university system — every year posts a new enrollment record, it seems — and a general rise in national rankings, particularly those related to the university’s status as a research institution. Pastides might be a low-key figure compared to Mayor Steve Benjamin, but he presides over a system with more than twice the number of employees and 10 times the budget of the City of Columbia. If you wrap your head around those numbers, it starts to make sense why USC always seems to win when there’s town-and-gown friction around here.

6. Jim Clyburn

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson of Lexington isn’t on our list, but U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn is near the top of it. Why? Because Clyburn is not only a much more powerful figure in the halls of Congress, but he also makes it his job to wrangle as much bacon out of Washington as he can for his district. When you hear Clyburn’s name floated for major cabinet positions, as it was a few months ago for the Department of Transportation, it’s a reminder of the rarified circles Clyburn moves in.

7. Jean Toal NEW

Last year, we left South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice off of our power list. That wasn’t a mistake: We know she wields a lot of power statewide, but argued in our introduction that the power list should be more tightly focused on impact in Columbia. What we didn’t factor in, though, was how much sway Toal has in the Columbia legal community. A pioneer among female attorneys in the state, Toal was the first woman to serve on the state’s High Court and has long championed civics education and technological upgrades in the state’s court system. She’s also the referee in chief of the often-contentious relations among state-level officeholders and policymakers.

8. John Courson NEW

With Shandon neighborhood resident John Courson’s election by his colleagues last year to the position of president pro tem of the state Senate, the power landscape in the upper chamber tilted dramatically from Charleston to Columbia. Sen. Courson is a well-respected member of the majority Republican Party who brings much clout to the area. Courson’s new leadership position also gives him a seat on the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, which has long been used by Lowcountry lawmakers to promote pet projects in the 843 area code. Courson now has massive sway to get some road project funding dollars flowing into the Midlands if he chooses. He also has much control over the flow of legislation in the chamber that ultimately decides what does or does not become law. 

9. Alan Wilson NEW

Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson has been making a name for himself as a state-level prosecutor willing to combat public corruption, even within his own party. Last year, Wilson sent GOP Lt. Gov. Ken Ard back to Florence after successfully prosecuting seven counts of public corruption against him. But the state attorney general’s office is a political animal as much as it is a law enforcement office. Wilson’s mettle will be tested in the coming year in how he handles three big cases: an investigation into illegal gambling in his own backyard of Lexington; a criminal ethics probe into black Democratic former Senator Robert Ford; and a criminal ethics probe into GOP House Speaker Bobby Harrell, perhaps the state’s most powerful politician. Sometimes power is about what you do; sometimes it’s about what you choose not to do. Regardless, so far no credible opponent — in either political party — has made noise about challenging Wilson for the office in 2014. 

10. Curtis Loftis ↓ 1

As the state’s Republican state treasurer, Curtis Loftis is popular among the tea partiers but respected well beyond them. From his straight talk on pensions to his Palmetto Payback program — in which he returns money to people who didn’t know they were missing it — Loftis has the touch of a populist. He’s also shown himself to be savvy in the public relations game, gaining ink on a whole host of high-profile disputes with the powerful and entrenched state retirement board on which he sits — and that controls a $25 billion pension system. Loftis argues the state pays too much in fees to Wall Street for risky gambles and too low a return. The high-risk fights between Loftis and board members have been epic, and Loftis has come out on top in public perception every time. He might have flirted with running against frenemy Nikki Haley for governor at one point, but he’s decided to run for re-election as treasurer instead. 

11. Kevin Marsh ↓ 6

SCANA’s credit rating was recently downgraded to negative by Standard & Poor’s because of the heavy costs associated with SCE&G’s nuclear expansion at V.C. Summer. Whether SCANA CEO Kevin Marsh can successfully navigate the situation his company is in remains to be seen. Nonetheless, Marsh — who doesn’t yet have the name recognition of his predecessor, Bill Timmerman — is impacting your life daily by jacking up your power rates to build those new reactors, and also by slashing CO2 emissions by shutting down several coal-fired plants.

12. Darla Moore ↑ 14

Darla Moore doesn’t live in Columbia, but her presence is felt here. She’s donated more money than anyone to her alma mater, the University of South Carolina, and USC returned the favor with its business school that bears her name. Moore’s influence is being felt in other ways, too: She donated $5 million for a USC aerospace center and garnered lots of positive press two years ago after Gov. Nikki Haley tactlessly ousted her from the USC board. She also helped launch the ArtFields art competition in her native Lake City this year, an event with close ties to the Columbia arts scene and which is sure to bring much attention to the state in coming years. Last but not least, last August she became one of only two women admitted to Augusta National. (The other was Condoleezza Rice.)

13. The Quinns ↓ 1

Columbia power broker Richard Quinn is perhaps the most well connected political consultant in South Carolina. His son, Rick, is an influential Lexington lawmaker who once led the Republican majority in the House. The Quinndom, as it’s referred to at the State House, pulls strings for some of the state’s most powerful politicians and institutions, from the University of South Carolina to the Attorney General’s Office. These Republicans also get involved in local affairs and cross party lines. Mayor Steve Benjamin owes his political career in part to the Quinns, who he still pays to advise him — an interesting choice considering it was the Quinns who ran Henry McMaster against Benjamin for attorney general in 2002. The Quinndom is also running Benjamin’s re-election campaign. Maybe it goes to show just how good they are at what they do: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.


S.C. Sen. Katrina Shealy
S.C. Sen. Katrina Shealy

14. Katrina ShealyNEW

Anyone who knocks off Jake Knotts in an election deserves a spot on our power list. Anyone who knocks off Knotts as a petition candidate really deserves a spot. (Shealy did not run on a party ticket and had to gather signatures to appear on the general election ballot.) As a member of the emerging William Wallace Caucus in the state Senate, Shealy is part of a group that is bringing a more strident brand of conservatism to that typically more moderate body. Whether she’ll ultimately become a major player at the State House remains to be seen, but she’s already making her mark as a new heavyweight in Lexington County.

15. Michael Amiridis ↓ 1

As provost of the University of South Carolina, Michael Amiridis oversees everything related to academics, from parceling out money to laying out the university’s academic goals to deciding who gets tenure. Don’t think that’s power? Try talking to a professor who’s been denied tenure or had an axe taken to their department. Trained as a chemical engineer, Amiridis has served on more than 15 National Science Foundation and Department of Energy review panels, experience that no doubt has helped USC’s recent rise as a research institution.

16. Bob Hughes ↓ 9

You’re supposed to have an impact on Columbia to be on the Free Times 50 list, so why is Greenville developer Bob Hughes on our list? As the man who has the City of Columbia by the balls over the development of 180 acres of property on the Bull Street campus downtown, Hughes could have more influence on what Columbia looks like in 10 years than anyone else. Or he could just leave us with a bunch of empty land and millions of dollars in infrastructure liabilities. Either way, he’ll have had an impact.

17. Kelvin Washington NEW

For years, Richland County Council has maintained a delicate balance between its urban and rural constituents. But with Washington as chair, rural issues have been pushed to the front burner, including his recent high profile effort to redistribute hospitality tax proceeds to rural parts of the county. He’s also survived a number of minor scandals over the years, including a Hatch Act warning and repeated failures to file campaign finance reports. Nonetheless, he swatted aside his only challenger in the last election.

18. Ann Timberlake NEW

The only reason environmental issues have any traction at all in a state like South Carolina is because of Ann Timberlake, director of Conservation Voters of South Carolina, who is occasionally able to persuade the good ol’ boys in the Legislature that conservation is in the interests of their hunting and fishing habits.

19. Emile DeFelice ↑ 1

Anybody with an MBA and some luck can end up with the power to hire and fire people. It’s another thing entirely to change the eating and grocery shopping habits of a whole city. Emile DeFelice founded the All-Local Farmers Market (now called the Soda City Market) and revolutionized the way locals think about food. By moving the market to Main Street last year, he’s also having an impact on downtown revitalization.

Columbia SC City Manager Teresa Wilson
Columbia City Manager Teresa Wilson

20. Teresa Wilson NEW

You might not like the quiet way the City of Columbia hired her — with no public input and little public disclosure — but Teresa Wilson is nonetheless the new city manager, and as such one of the most powerful figures in local government. Already, she’s staked out an aggressive strategy for improving the city’s customer service and attracting economic development. Depending on whether she’s able to navigate the labyrinth of city government, become the go-to person between City Council and top administrators — and, perhaps most importantly, carve out some independence from Mayor Benjamin — Wilson could rise on this list next year or fall off it entirely.

21. Mick Zais ↓ 4

State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais is the man responsible for storming the last bastion of statewide Democratic power in South Carolina. Zais ran a stealth campaign for the office in 2010, and it worked. Promising a world of options for students and parents on the campaign trail, it turns out what he meant was he’d push for school choice, home-schoolers and charter schools and barely contain his contempt for the public education establishment. Zais hasn’t had much luck on the school-choice agenda, but he has managed to thumb his nose at Washington a few times, keeping some federal education money out of local classrooms in the process.

22. Michael Biediger ↓ 4

Last year, Lexington Medical Center opened its new heart center over the objections of many who said it wasn’t needed. It took years of political brawling to get it done, and Michael Biediger is the guy who made it happen. As CEO, Biediger is also one of the top employers in the region; Lexington Medical Center employs roughly 5,200 people, more than the University of South Carolina.

23. Nick Kremydas ↓ 4

When state budgets are tight, lawmakers give teachers the shaft. But the real estate industry? Not so much. Remember Act 388, which reduced state property taxes, ostensibly to be made up by an increase in the sales tax? Here’s how that turned out: The General Assembly now has to cover a multimillion-dollar shortfall from this so-called swap every year. Nick Kremydas is head of the South Carolina Association of Realtors. You might not know his name, but the people writing the tax code do.

24. Mike Dawson

Years after other cities had developed their riverfronts, Columbia’s sat untapped as an environmental and economic resource. The guy who pushed us to realize the potential of our rivers is Mike Dawson, head of the local River Alliance. Next time you’re floating down the Congaree on a tube or in a kayak, remember that it’s Mike Dawson you should thank.

25. Carey Shealy ↓ 17

Why the drop for Shealy? It’s not because he’s lost power, per se — it’s more about how his power has lost its novelty. If you’ve been on Main Street downtown, around Five Points or even in other parts of the Capital City, chances are Carey Shealy has your digital image on file somewhere. Those surveillance cameras that have proliferated throughout the most heavily trafficked areas of Columbia in the past few years? He owns them as president and CEO of Statewide Security Systems. They are in bars, restaurants, stores, and outside on the streets and the sidewalks. They see what you’re doing. They record it. Do something wrong? Chances are Shealy will find you, tracking your activities via his network of compiled digital data. He works with the cops under a murky agreement, and so far his spy eyes have helped police solve several high-profile crimes. The city has doubled down on Shealy and his surveillance security network; City Council voted unanimously in May to spend $700,000 to install 800 more of them throughout the city. 

26. Todd Rutherford NEW

This year, Columbia Democratic Rep. Todd Rutherford was elected by his colleagues to become the new Minority Leader in the S.C. House. That means Rutherford is the top Democrat in the state’s lower chamber, giving him considerable clout when it comes to shepherding legislation or killing it. It also means he becomes a top party functionary and a Democratic attack dog. An attorney, perhaps Rutherford’s most famous recent client is the man Rutherford beat for the minority leader’s position: Democratic Rep. Ted Vick, the guy who cops arrested for DUI charges after he stumbled around the State House after a lobbyist function. Vick wasn’t drunk, Rutherford argued; Vick had a pebble in his shoe. Creative defense. Whether Rutherford can be as creative in his new role as a legislative leader remains to be seen. 


Richard Burts
Richard Burts

27. Richard Burts

Richard Burts has been an active force in Columbia for a long time — think of the restaurants Monterrey Jacks, Hannah Jane’s and Saluda’s — but his involvement in the renovation of 701 Whaley took things to a new level. The once-dilapidated former community center in Olympia is now the hub around which some of the coolest things in the city revolve, including the 701 Center for Contemporary Art and numerous other local events. This year, Burts was key in convincing the city not to let the owners of the Palmetto Compress warehouse tear down the historic structure; instead, the city spent $5.65 million to buy it. And no matter how you feel about it, you can’t deny that that’s power. Burts’ latest plans involve renovations of a historic building across from the State House and a tentative plan to develop a performance space behind 701 Whaley.

28. Sam Tenenbaum NEW

Being president of the Palmetto Health Foundation is enough to get you a seat at the table in Columbia. But Tenenbaum, retired owner of Chatham Steel, is also a philanthropist, political donor and a respected figure in local Democratic Party circles. His wife, Inez Tenenbaum, chairs the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission and is a former state Superintendent of Education.

29. Ray Tanner NEW

In a town where the university is a major player, the massive revenue streams and accompanying national media coverage of the university’s sports programs are a big deal. Having taken over last year from Eric Hyman, the man now running the show is Ray Tanner, two-time national champion baseball coach and an active force in the community through the Ray Tanner Foundation. Tanner got off on the wrong foot with journalists last fall when he coddled Steve Spurrier during a spat with sports writer Ron Morris — rather than telling the Ol’ Ball Coach to put on his big boy pants — but Tanner is generally a highly effective and likable presence, and his low-key, win-anyway mentality is a major long-term asset for the city, even if the university, historically, hasn’t let the city play ball at its facilities.

30. Karen Brosius

When Karen Brosius began her tenure as director of the Columbia Museum of Art in 2004, the museum was coming out of a tumultuous period of leadership. Today, the museum is the cultural anchor of Main Street’s renaissance, it’s setting the standard for the visual arts statewide, its exhibitions garner regional and sometimes national press, and it’s a more active and inclusive institution than it’s ever been. 

31. Morihiko Nakahara ↑ 3

Orchestras are dying on the vine all over the country, but not in Columbia, where excitement behind the South Carolina Philharmonic has increased thanks to the charming personality and dynamic leadership of Morihiko Nakahara. Just think of him as the guy who made going to the symphony cool again.

32. Vince Ford ↑ 3

As senior vice president of community services for Palmetto Health, Vince Ford oversees $17 million in community health funds. He’s also on the board of Richland One and has served as board chairman in the past. With 20 years on the school board and deep roots in the community, Ford has seen superintendents come and go; if they want to stay, they’d be smart not to ignore Ford.

33. Jay Matheson NEW

Anyone who knows Jay Matheson will know that the adjective “powerful” seems like an odd fit. Matheson is low-key, funny and self-deprecating, not the kind of guy who strikes fear into the heart of his adversaries. (He’s also not the kind of guy who has adversaries to begin with.) Nonetheless, the criteria here is having an impact in Columbia — and with Matheson’s successful Jam Room Music Festival last fall, he showed Columbians how far a modest budget can go when it’s put in the right hands. Hospitality Tax Committee, we hope you’re listening.

34. Tameika Isaac Devine ↓ 23

Devine still wields a lot of power around City Hall, but her signature plan— two tax increment financing districts that could have kick-started development in North Columbia and the Innovista area — is either stalled or dead. Nonetheless, Devine still knows how to build a coalition, something most of her fellow council members have never gotten around to learning. Devine faces re-election this fall; the last time around, she almost got knocked out of office by the Aaron and Grant campaign, so she could be facing a tough four months. Or she could end up unopposed, which is what usually happens to incumbent council members in Columbia.

35. Will Folks ↓ 4

The former spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford and current smashmouth libertarian blogger runs arguably the most influential public relations arm in the state when it comes to reaching insiders obsessed with South Carolina politics. FITSNews can make a political career or ruin it with a single post. It breaks news, posts leaked documents and has a deep network of sources; efforts thus far to shut the blog down, or compete with it, have failed. Some state agencies block it at the office. He likes to say he is “protected from on high by the prince of darkness.” 

36. Mac Bennett ↑ 1

Illiteracy, poverty, homelessness, hunger, teen pregnancy — Columbia has all of these problems in spades, and Mac Bennett has been working for decades to alleviate them. Since 2005, he’s been president of United Way of the Midlands; before that, he led the Central Carolina Community Foundation for 14 years. He’s also a founding director of the South Carolina Association of Nonprofit Organizations.

37. Larry Hembree ↑ 1

Few local arts leaders can work a room — or get things done — like Larry Hembree. From his time at the state Arts Commission to his leadership of the Nickelodeon Theatre and now Trustus Theatre, Hembree has long been that rare leader who can comfortably navigate between the worlds of arts, business and government — and make all but the most uptight bust out laughing, too.

38. Sam Johnson NEW

Pro: If you want to talk to the mayor, you have to go through city staffer Sam Johnson. Con: He helped book The Wallflowers for last year’s Famously Hot New Year’s celebration.

39. Joe & Melissa Blanchard ↑ 1

Joe Blanchard is president of Blanchard Machinery, the leading Caterpillar dealer in South Carolina. His wife Melissa runs two high-end boutiques, Pout and Van Jean. But the reason they make the Free Times 50 is their support of arts and culture. If you want Columbia to get major exhibitions such as Turner to Cezanne — a Blanchard-supported show that brought 46,000 people to the Columbia Museum of Art in 2009 — you can’t do it without people like the Blanchards.

40. Ryan Nevius ↑ 1

It takes a lot of work to be an expert on all things local and environmental — and to make people listen. As the director of Sustainable Midlands, Nevius almost single-handedly held up a decision for months by Columbia City Council to sell property in Olympia to a Walmart developer; Walmart eventually bailed on the deal.

41. Steve Wiggins NEW

Anyone in a top executive position at BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, one of the state’s largest employers, is pretty powerful. But executive vice president and chief information officer Steve Wiggins commands special power as head of the company’s information services, where he’s supervised the building of a massive data center that processes hundreds of millions of claims and billions of data transactions a year — representing almost 10 percent of the nation’s total health care spending. Within the company, Wiggins is generally known to get his way. He’s also chair of the board of IT-oLogy.

42. Ben Arnold ↑ 6

As president of Arnold Construction and the Arnold Family Corporation, Ben Arnold has his fingerprints all over Columbia — think Vista Lofts, 700 Gervais Street offices, Vista Station entertainment complex, Lake Carolina’s town homes and mixed-use office building, and The Palms apartments on Main Street, to name a few. His most recent project is Marina Bay, an upscale development on the east side of Lake Murray near Harbison. All together, Arnold leases and manages approximately 700,000 square feet of space in South Carolina. Beyond being a real estate magnate, Arnold wields influence through his service on local boards. 

43. Satch Krantz NEW

You might have noticed that local tourism-related groups get nervous every year as the budget cycle rolls around and they angle for their annual infusion of accommodations and hospitality tax revenue. Rarely, though, will you see anyone from the Riverbanks Zoo breaking a sweat. That’s because under the leadership of Satch Krantz, the zoo has basically carved itself a spot above the fray — funded in part by your property taxes, and basically untouchable thanks to the million annual visitors the zoo brings in each year. The zoo has so much power it can even shut down a popular river access point without worrying about political fallout. Krantz began his tenure as director of the zoo in 1976 and has served as president of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association and the World Zoo Organization.

44. Luther Battiste

Back in 1983, Luther Battiste III was one of the first two blacks elected to City Council. A respected trial lawyer by trade, he’s also served as president of the Richland County Bar Association and the South Carolina Trial Lawyers Association. His influence extends well beyond politics and law, though: He’s also served on the boards of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce and Columbia College, and he’s the new board chair of the Columbia Museum of Art. 

45. Bob Coble

Behind that bland smile hides serious power. After serving as mayor of Columbia for 20 years, Bob Coble didn’t retire: Instead, he became a registered lobbyist at the State House for some of the most important and controversial companies in the nation: Boeing; General Motors; Waste Management; sweepstakes companies; pharmaceutical companies; and more. As such, he’s been right at the silent center of some of the state’s biggest political battles over the past several years.

46. Don Tomlin

The sight of Don Tomlin’s name on a political donor list no doubt makes opponents’ knees tremble — because this developer has some deep pockets, and he’s not afraid to shell out for local candidates he thinks will support his business-friendly causes. An entrepreneur of diverse interests, Tomlin has owned newspapers and TV stations, built developments like Lake Carolina and helped fund USC’s Columbia Technology Incubator. He also founded an investigative journalism award. 

47. Mike Brenan NEW

There’s flashy power and there’s low-key power, and Brenan’s style is more the latter. Brenan is the regional group president of BB&T and has chaired more local boards than we could possibly list here, among them the South Carolina Bankers Association, the United Way of the Midlands, the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

48. Moe Baddourah NEW

As a member of Columbia City Council running for mayor against incumbent Steve Benjamin, Baddourah is taking a common tack for challengers: obstruction. And that’s powerful — but only to a point. He can vote “no” all he likes, but until he’s joined by more than just fellow council member Leona Plaugh in his protest votes, he won’t be able to enact his own agenda.

49. Tracie Broom & Debi Schadel (Flock+Rally) ↓ 36

Broom and Schadel made the Free Times 50 list last year for having outmaneuvered everyone else in town, establishing Flock + Rally as the go-to firm for organizing and/or publicizing many of the hippest events in the city (including, full disclosure, Free Times’ Best of Columbia party). Inevitably, though, Schadel and Broom had to move on to less sexy, more corporate clients — which is why they’re hyping luxury apartments at Lake Murray these days.

50. Anne Postic ↓ 17

Ostensibly a blog about fashion, food and culture here in the Midlands, Postic’s blog The Shop Tart is actually an aspirational product, and Postic herself — the lean, trendy, chatty mother of three — is what’s for sale. Whether it’s a new restaurant or on sale at a local boutique, when The Shop Tart blogs about it, people will show up. 


The Next 50: 51-100


No doubt there are more than 50 people getting things done in the Capital City, and a lot of other names were considered in our efforts to rank the Free Times 50.

Here they are, in alphabetical — not ranked — order.

Bill Amick – member of BIPEC advisory board, SCANA board of directors, Blue Cross/Blue Shield board of directors, Palmetto AgriBusiness Council

Jim Apple – CEO, First Citizens Bancorporation

Chuck Beaman Jr. – CEO, Palmetto Health

Sue Berkowitz – director, South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center

Butch Bowers and Kevin Hall – local attorneys

Dave Britt – director, Greater Rosewood Merchants Association 

Natalie Britt – director, Palmetto Conservation Foundation

Terry Brown – CEO, Edens

Judith Davis – executive VP and chief legal officer, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina

Richard Davis – president, Capitol Consultants

Dwight Drake – partner, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough

Lonnie Emard – president of IT-oLogy

Mary Anne Fitzpatrick – dean, USC College of Arts & Sciences

Libby Gober – assistant to City Council

Don Herriott – director, Innovista

Greg Hilton – director, Center for Entrepreneurial and Technological Innovation

Bobby Hitt – secretary, S.C. Dept. of Commerce

Rev. Dr. Charles B. Jackson – senior pastor, Brookland Baptist Church

Dan Johnson – solicitor, Richland County

Tony Keck – director, S.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services

Tom Law – owner, Conundrum Music Hall

Reggie Lloyd – former chief, SLED; managing shareholder of Lloyd Law Firm

John Lumpkin Jr. – senior executive adviser, Cogdell Spencer ERDMAN; former CEO, Edens

Percy Mack – superintendent, Richland One

Bob McAlister – president, McAllister Communications

Joe McCulloch – attorney

Earl McLeod – director, Home Builders Association of Greater Columbia

James Metts – sheriff, Lexington County

Steve Morrison – partner, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough

Stewart Mungo – CEO, Mungo Homes

David Pankau – CEO, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina

Greg Pearce – councilman, Richland County

Mark Plessinger – owner, Frame of Mind; founder, First Thursdays on Main

Tom Prioreschi – owner, Capitol Places

Lonnie Randolph – president, South Carolina NAACP

Wim Roefs – board chair, 701 Center for Contemporary Art

Ed Sellers – retired CEO of BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina

Andy Smith – founder, Indie Grits Festival; director, Nickelodeon Theatre

James Smith – Democratic representative, S.C. House

Joel Smith – retired banker; former dean of the Darla Moore School of Business

Stephany Snowden – director of public information, Richland County

Steve Spurrier – Head football coach, USC Gamecocks

Jack Swerling – criminal defense lawyer

David Swinton – president, Benedict College

Joe Taylor – venture capitalist; former CEO of Southland Log Homes; former S.C. Commerce Secetary

Catherine Templeton – director, S.C. Dept. of Health and Environmental Control

Joann Turnquist – president and CEO, Central Carolina Community Foundation

Michelle Wang – owner, Miyo’s restaurant group

Bobby Williams – CEO of Lizard’s Thicket

George Zara – CEO, Providence Hospitals 

Let us know what you think: Email editor@free-times.com.

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