Columbia Free Times

Free Times 50: The Power Issue 2014

Who Runs Columbia?
By Free Times
Wednesday, June 25, 2014 |
Launched in 2012, the Free Times 50 power list quickly became one of the most popular features in the nearly three decades we’ve been publishing Free Times.

Our Power Issue seeks to answer a simple question: Who runs Columbia?

It’s a harder question than it might seem at first glance. After all, this isn’t a high school civics quiz; we’re not asking who holds specific positions of authority in the city administration.

What we’re asking is a more fluid — and, frankly, nebulous — question: Who has the ability to get things done?

Holding political office doesn’t necessarily get a person a spot on the list; there are plenty of legislators and council members who collect a public paycheck but don’t have much of an impact on the city. Money doesn’t automatically buy you a spot, either: Plenty of people have money, but don’t use it to effect change in Columbia.

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 or how much money they’ve contributed to political campaigns. Instead, we asked ourselves: Who is most responsible for key attributes of our city? What follows is our answer to that question.

Just as we did in last year’s edition, we’ve added arrows indicating how much someone has moved up or down since last year’s Power Issue. As we cautioned last year, those ups and downs should be taken with a grain of salt: A move of a few spots in either direction is essentially a status quo situation, whereas a move of five or 10 spots indicates that something changed. Regardless, 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. We’ve also added new people to the list — which, of course, necessitates some other people falling off.

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 who should rank higher or lower. By all means, let us know where we got it right and where we got it wrong by commenting below or emailing .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). — Dan Cook

Porter Barron Jr., Dan Cook and Eva Moore contributed to this report.

Photos by Sean Rayford




1. Nikki Haley ↑3

Readers, we know how many of you feel about Gov. Nikki Haley — you tell us every week on the Rant & Rave page. And if we didn’t get the message there, we would surely get it in our annual Best of Columbia issue, where you have voted Haley the Biggest Waste of Public Funds and the Biggest Local Zero in recent years. But the Free Times power list is not a list of who young urban liberals like, but rather a list of who actually has power in the Capital City. And Haley has power. Whereas her predecessor, Mark Sanford, waged constant warfare with his own party in the General Assembly, Haley has often gotten legislators to carry out her will — whether it’s adopting her education reform plans or taking cues from her opposition to Medicaid expansion and a gas tax. Meanwhile, in a state where the average Republican candidate has a built-in 10-point advantage in a statewide election — and where the unemployment rate is now at a 13-year low — Haley will likely cruise to re-election in the fall. (This in spite of a scandal that has engulfed the state Department of Social Services and forced its director, Lillian Koller, to step down.) If and when Haley wins re-election — well, then she’s a second-term governor poised to play kingmaker in the 2016 GOP presidential primary. So, yeah, like it or not, Haley has power.

2. Bob Hughes ↑14

After years of uncertainty, Columbia City Council finally signed off on Greenville developer Bob Hughes’ plans for developing Columbia’s 180-acre Bull Street campus, which include building a stadium for minor league baseball. That means that Hughes — more than any other person, including Mayor Steve Benjamin — is calling the shots on the largest single real estate project this city has ever seen. Current plans call for ground to be broken this summer and work to begin on the stadium in the fall. If all goes according to plan — a big if when it comes to construction — there could be some residential units open by August 2015 and a minor league team playing by the spring of 2016. The iconic Babcock building is slated to be renovated as a 200-room hotel.



3. Alan Wilson ↑6

Elected in 2010, Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson has made a name for himself as a state-level prosecutor willing to combat public corruption, even within his own party. In 2012, Wilson sent GOP Lt. Gov. Ken Ard back to Florence after successfully prosecuting seven counts of public corruption against him. But the stakes are even higher in a criminal ethics probe into GOP House Speaker Bobby Harrell, perhaps the state’s most powerful politician. In January, Wilson sent the ethics case against Harrell to a state grand jury to investigate. Harrell challenged whether Wilson had the authority to do so, and a circuit judge ruled that he didn’t, saying the matter should head to the House Ethics Committee instead. Wilson stood firm, filing an appeal with the S.C. Supreme Court and citing a state statute saying the investigation could continue while the matter is on appeal. The Court took up the case this week.



4. Jason Freier NEW

All you really need to know is that Columbia is getting a new minor league baseball stadium and that Jason Freier, CEO of Hardball Capital, is the guy who’s bringing the team that will play in it. A graduate of Harvard and Yale Law School who’s involved in hedge funds and private equity firms in addition to baseball teams, Freier lives in Atlanta — but his ability to get the stadium deal done in Columbia earns him a top spot on our list.

5. Jean Toal ↑2

A frequent Free Times tipster was ranting to a reporter recently about South Carolina’s good ol’ boys — and its “good ol’ girls, too,” he noted, “like Jean Toal.” It’s this ultimate insider’s last term on the S.C. Supreme Court, and Chief Justice Jean Toal is going out with a bang: When she faced a challenge from Associate Justice Costa Pleicones, her allies at the State House rallied support to keep her in the top spot. Toal’s power comes not merely from the rulings she’s made, or from her role as the courts’ chief administrator: It’s that she knows the system inside and out, and all the people who make it go.

6. Steve Benjamin ↓4

Mayor Steve Benjamin won re-election in a landslide last November, only to take a big hit politically one month later when the voters of Columbia chose not to adopt the strong-mayor system Benjamin wanted — and which would have given him a much firmer grip on city government. But in the up-and-down world of politics, it didn’t take long for Benjamin to claim another victory, winning narrow approval from City Council to build a multi-use minor league baseball stadium on the Bull Street campus. Sure, the mayor has lost some of his sheen since he was first elected in 2010 — running into the same volatile mix of limited power, tight resources and entrenched interests that any Columbia mayor faces — but he’s still driving the city’s agenda. Lately, his name’s come up an awful lot during the ongoing corruption trial of his business partner Jonathan Pinson; it remains to be seen how that’ll affect his career.

7. Leon Lott ↓6

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott has been sheriff for a long, long time, but his power doesn’t rely on quite the same kind of good ol’ boy network as other entrenched South Carolina sheriffs. Rather, it comes from his reputation for brutal honesty — whether it’s about the county’s longtime gang problem, the governor’s terrible handling of child protection services or the various “bad guys” (as he calls them) whom he tracks down. Make no mistake, Lott is a media-savvy guy, and he enjoys the spotlight. But he also seems like a genuine dude — and he has allies all over the place: black and white, gay and straight, Republican and Democrat. Oddly, it was Lott’s former command staff — Ruben Santiago, Randy Scott, David Navarro — who laid waste to the Columbia Police Department’s reputation when they took over the city’s police leadership, but Lott never seems to take the blame for that.

8. John Courson ↔

In 2012, longtime Columbia state Sen. John Courson ascended to the position of senate president pro tempore as part of a power-structure shakeup that followed the resignation of former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard. This year, Courson abandoned that position in the midst of another power shakeup at the State House. It’s a bit complicated, so bear with us: Charleston’s Glenn McConnell, in his final days as lieutenant governor before assuming the presidency at the College of Charleston, tried to ram through a bill that would convert that college into a research university, attempting an end run around the Senate Education Committee chaired by Courson. When that failed, McConnell announced he would leave office early — essentially an attempt to trigger the line of succession that would remove Courson from the debate and compel him to take up the lieutenant governor’s position. But Courson — despite the urging of both McConnell and Gov. Haley — refused to take the bait and instead outmaneuvered McConnell, long considered the ultimate State House tactician, by stepping down as president pro tem but retaining his Senate seat. McConnell’s move was roundly denounced by senators who had been praising him at his recent portrait unveiling. But Courson’s move — by keeping himself in the debate and out of the powerless lieutenant governor’s office — was a win for his Columbia constituents that also put a boot in the ass of the outgoing master of parliamentary manipulation. No doubt about it: Courson emerged the bigger man.



9. Kelvin Washington ↑8

Richland County Council has become more parochial than ever, with members focused on steering pet projects toward their own districts. Kelvin Washington plays that game particularly well. His district covers a large section of Lower Richland, an area long ignored by the powers that be in the Midlands. But Washington led a charge to carve up the county’s hospitality tax to build some major projects — a sports complex, a water park and more — in the county’s outlying areas. He also finally — after literally decades of debate — ended the dirt-road paving debate by proposing an alternate paving program and steering penny tax money toward paving programs.

10. Darla Moore ↑2

With the new Darla Moore School of Business about to open at the University of South Carolina, we’re going to be reminded again of how powerful Moore is around here. It’s no coincidence that the new building — a $106 million, state-of-the-art facility with electronic trading desks, a café and a 500-seat auditorium — is markedly more attractive than anything that surrounds it; Moore personally insisted on her choice of architect, Rafael Vinoly. Another reminder of Moore’s influence already stands at USC: the McNair Center for Aerospace Research and Innovation, launched in part with a $5 million donation from the Rainwater Investments vice president in 2011. Moore is also having an impact on the statewide arts scene, having launched the ArtFields festival in her native Lake City two years ago. No, she doesn’t live in Columbia — but yes, she has a big impact here.

11. James Clyburn ↓5

With the publication of his memoir, Blessed Experiences: Proudly Black and Genuinely Southern, James Clyburn and his life in South Carolina politics have been in the spotlight quite a bit lately. His approach to representing South Carolinians in Congress is markedly different from his counterparts; whereas most of them seek to distance the state from the federal government, particularly in the area of health care, Clyburn has always sought to get all the help he can for the state. In a blood-red state, Clyburn’s reach is limited: He hasn’t been able to nudge his home state’s politics in a different direction, either at the state level or among members of the congressional delegation. He has, however, reached the pinnacles of power in the U.S. House and used that position to better his state in every way he can. He’s also a key person for Democratic presidential candidates to get to know.

12. Terry Brown NEW

How many local business executives are profiled by The New York Times or show up as guests on Bloomberg business shows? Hint: not many. As CEO of Edens, Terry Brown runs one of the largest commercial real estate firms in the country — which is based right here in Columbia. But he’s on our list not because of his company’s national reach, but because Edens has fundamentally changed Columbia with its developments, particularly Cross Hill Market with its anchor tenant, Whole Foods. Earlier this year, Brown attracted attention with comments criticizing the location of the city’s forthcoming baseball stadium; he also stirred things up by pointing out the obvious about the Confederate flag on the State House grounds, which is that it is a serious roadblock to business investment in South Carolina.

13. Harris Pastides ↓8

University of South Carolina President Harris 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. Those figures help explain why USC always seems to win when there’s town-and-gown friction. When it comes to USC-state relations, however, Pastides has been less successful, failing to win either significant new funding from the General Assembly or a free hand in the realm of academics. Nonetheless, he has presided over major growth at the university, a rise in national rankings and a particularly fertile time for the university’s football and baseball programs.

14. Darrell Jackson ↓11

When you’re a state senator, head of a major political/public relations firm and the pastor of Bible Way Church, the Midlands’ largest megachurch, let’s just say you hold power along several axes. Just because you don’t hear a lot from Darrell Jackson doesn’t mean he’s not pulling some strings.

15. Tony Keck NEW

A rarity among Haley administration appointees, Tony Keck has earned bipartisan respect at the state Department of Health and Human Services because of his thorough command of the health care landscape and his commitment to improving it, at least to the extent possible within the confines of the policies set forth by the governor. Instead of taking South Carolina’s refusal not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act as an excuse to do nothing, Keck has worked on what he can do — launching a Birth Outcomes Initiative and signing up thousands of people for Medicaid who are eligible regardless of the state’s rejection of the ACA, among other efforts. Keck was given the 2014 Early Childhood Champion award for his dedication to these issues.

16. Kevin Marsh ↓5

Who is Kevin Marsh? As CEO of SCANA, he’s the guy who has the power to reach directly into your pocket and charge you more for your electricity and gas in order to finance his company’s construction of two new nuclear plants at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station just 20 miles northwest of Columbia. SCANA argues that the plants are needed to diversify the state’s energy portfolio and reduce its reliance on coal — and, in fact, SCANA has been shuttering several of its older coal-fired plants. Will the plan work? South Carolina is an outlier in its continued dedication to nuclear energy — and many people question its continued commitment as the economics have changed due to fracking — but for now, SCANA is holding firm and construction at V.C. Summer is running $765 million under budget. Plus, new EPA rules requiring states to reduce carbon emissions play into the arguments SCANA has been making all along.

17. The Quinns ↓4

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, has done work for Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Glenn McConnell, Alan Wilson and the University of South Carolina, among others. These Republicans also get involved in local affairs and cross party lines; Mayor Steve Benjamin owes his political career in part to the Quinns. Despite a general fondness for conservative Republican candidates, they also have scores of clients, associates and relatives thereof throughout state government — showing they know how to make money off the taxpayer-funded gravy train, too.

18. Katrina Shealy ↓4

When Katrina Shealy defeated longtime state senator Jake Knotts in a 2012 write-in campaign, she was pegged by many as a tea party ideologue — including Free Times, which called her “a member of the emerging William Wallace Caucus ... bringing a more strident brand of conservatism to that typically more moderate body.” In some respects, Shealy has lived up to that billing, pushing for the elimination of the state income tax, for example. But on the ongoing crisis at the state Department of Social Services, Shealy has proven to be a vigorous defender of children’s well-being, unswayed by partisan calls for her to look the other way at the failings of a GOP cabinet head. Whether she can blossom into the type of legislator who can successfully build coalitions to achieve her goals remains to be seen, but Shealy has already earned respect as a fiercely independent senator — and her hold on her Senate seat seems secure.

19. Bill Nettles NEW

U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles has taken on embezzlers and white-collar criminals. He’s taken on environmental polluters. He’s rolling out a plan called the Drug Market Intervention Initiative to redirect low-level drug dealers into legitimate jobs instead of locking them up; he’s already implemented it in cities like Conway, Aiken and North Charleston. All this is unusual in a conservative state like South Carolina. Still more unusual is the fact that he’s pretty well respected despite his lefty tendencies. Maybe that’s because he also makes sure to take on plenty of child pornographers, welfare cheats, gang members and illegal immigrants — covering all political bases. His latest coup? The indictment on bribery charges of James Metts, Lexington County sheriff.

20. Perry Simpson NEW

Although he heads up an agency called the Legislative Audit Council, Perry Simpson is no pencil pusher. Lawmakers call on Simpson to dig into the guts of various state agencies and programs, making sure state government is really doing whatever it says it’s doing. Simpson has to balance politics — because make no mistake, many of these calls for investigation are politically motivated — and reality. Currently, the LAC is working on a report on problems at the Department of Social Services. His council’s research is well respected on both sides of the aisle and among the media — and sometimes even acted upon.

21. Tameika Isaac Devine ↑13

Even people who don’t particularly like At-Large Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine will tell you she’s Columbia City Council’s most accessible and communicative member, always ready to answer phone calls and explain her positions on contentious issues. Over the past two years, she’s moved further away from her longtime friend Mayor Steve Benjamin, voting against him on issues from Bull Street baseball to strong mayor — and yet her political capital has, if anything, improved. Need proof? After nearly being knocked off in 2010 by an outsider candidate, Devine coasted to re-election in 2013 with 62 percent of the vote — a higher percentage than Benjamin got in his race on the same ballot.

22. Larry Hembree ↑15

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. As further evidence of Hembree’s ability to move easily between power centers of the city, he’s now chair of the Congaree Vista Guild, which represents the key district’s interests.

23. Mike Dawson ↑1

Two decades ago, the river was just something people drove across on their way between Richland and Lexington counties. Now, it’s slowly becoming a key tourist attraction and contributor to quality of life in Columbia. That’s in large part because of Mike Dawson, head of the River Alliance, who’s doggedly worked to create the Three Rivers Greenway, securing funding and the buy-in of local governments. Sometimes, single-mindedness is a very good thing.

24. Ann Timberlake ↓6

Just a decade or so ago, environmental advocates at the State House were usually pretty easy to identify. They were the meek ones, whose voices quavered when they testified before legislative committees while their opponents snickered, knowing the fix was in. Today, environmental lobbyists arrive at Gervais and Main bearing political muscle, with their sleeves rolled up and ready to brawl for the sake of South Carolina’s natural heritage. Ann Timberlake, now president of Conservation Voters of South Carolina, led the way.

25. Teresa Wilson ↓5

When Teresa Wilson was first hired as Columbia’s city manager in early 2013, she laid out some ambitious goals to make the city more customer-friendly and transparent. Nobody expected her to stay around for long, as Mayor Steve Benjamin and his allies were urging voters to switch the city to a strong-mayor system — under which Benjamin, not Wilson, would run the city. The mayor failed, and Wilson is now our permanent city manager. Since then, her star has fallen a bit, with some council members criticizing her handling of the police chief search, and Benjamin picking a public fight with her over her visit to the arrest scene of SC NAACP president Lonnie Randolph. (Right before the strong mayor vote — which was probably no accident.) But she’s still the boss of some 3,000 city workers, and still firmly in the political spotlight.

26. Curtis Loftis ↓16

At one point, it looked like State Treasurer Curtis Loftis might have his eyes on the governor’s mansion; instead, he’s seeking a second term this fall — and just handily defeated a primary challenger. From his tough talk on the management of South Carolina’s retirement system to his Palmetto Payback program — in which he returns money to people who didn’t know they were missing it — Loftis retains the touch of a populist. But where he once had the public relations game down — generally winning the news cycle during his numerous high-profile disputes over management of the state’s $30 billion pension system — in recent months, that old routine has worn thin. Lately, Loftis looks less like a crusading do-gooder and more like the guy who can’t move on to fight another battle. Loftis’ populist instincts will serve him well should he seek higher office in the future, but he’ll also need to learn how and when to change gears and switch up his message.

27. Satch Krantz ↑16

As Riverbanks Zoo celebrates its 40th anniversary, it’s in the midst of a $40 million expansion and renovation project. How does it pull down that kind of money? Under the leadership of Satch Krantz, the zoo has basically carved itself a spot above the fray. As the largest tourist attraction in the city and the state, the zoo — funded in part by your property taxes — is basically untouchable politically, thanks to the 1 million visitors it attracts each year. 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; just a few weeks ago, he was given the inaugural Stephen G. Morrison Visionary Award.

28. JoAnn Turnquist NEW

What is power? It’s the ability to get things done. As CEO of the Central Carolina Community Foundation, JoAnn Turnquist manages millions of dollars in philanthropic gifts and disburses funds in grants to more than 100 local organizations. That’s no small feat in any given year, but this year Turnquist did something else: With the Midlands Gives online giving initiative, Turnquist helped raise more than $700,000 for local nonprofits in just one day. That’s a lot of money, and it took a lot of support in the media and the broader community to make it happen.

29. Mary Anne Fitzpatrick NEW

As dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and the University of South Carolina, Mary Anne Fitzpatrick wields power over thousands of young minds — tuition-paying young minds, at that. The college is made up of more than 13,000 students in more than 50 academic departments, centers and institutes, and Fitzpatrick has kept it strong through an era of budget cuts and a bad economy. Rumors of her outsize influence over funding matters abound, and though they haven’t been confirmed, sometimes rumors of power are enough to create an aura of power.

30. Leona Plaugh NEW

Effective politicians make people feel like they have a real voice, whether it’s in Washington or at City Hall — and therein lies Plaugh’s skill as a leader. A former city manager, Plaugh revels in the gory details of city contracts and policies, and she’ll discuss them with anyone, often alerting citizens to important votes through her newsletter. Her questions sometimes exasperate her fellow council members — especially the mayor — not to mention the city staff who have to run down numbers for her, but there’s no denying that she makes her constituents feel like someone is asking the important questions.

31. Gary Watts NEW

Richland County Coroner Gary Watts belongs to the most rare of political species — the elected official who manages to stay above the fray and the fuss. His power comes not from his office but his bearing. When you deal with death on a daily basis in a professional and dignified manner, you earn respect. So when Watts testified before a Senate subcommittee investigating child fatalities associated with the Department of Social Services, the agency couldn’t dismiss him the way it had scores of former employees hollering about misconduct and mismanagement. For many observers, when Watts testified, the DSS scandal got real.

32. Todd Rutherford ↓6

S.C. Rep. Todd Rutherford’s penchant for grandstanding has served him well as the Democrats’ minority leader in the state House of Representatives, a role with little power aside from its elevated platform. But Rutherford has wielded the bullhorn ably, reminding Gov. Haley and Republican lawmakers at every turn that, like it or not, the 21st century has arrived — even in South Carolina. While it’s too early to tell whether a broad weed-freeing measure championed by Rutherford might have any chance of passing, Rutherford’s voice makes Democrats relevant in South Carolina politics. Without Rutherford leading the way, there might not even be a credible medical marijuana debate in South Carolina.

33. Bobby Hitt NEW

If and when Nikki Haley wins re-election this fall — and most early polling indicates she will do so with room to spare — state Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt should get a good chunk of the credit. With Haley’s enthusiastic backing, Hitt has ramped up business recruitment efforts in South Carolina, embraced the development of key clusters such as aviation, pushed for the transportation infrastructure needed to support growth and, in the process, been a significant factor in the state’s falling unemployment rate — which now sits at a 13-year low. Hitt’s deep well of experience in South Carolina — as a former managing editor of The State, planning director at Nelson Mullins and media manager at BMW — has helped him get deals done.

34. Elise Partin NEW

In 2008, the City of Cayce elected Elise Partin as the first female mayor in its history. The issue that crystallized voters around her candidacy was a massive proposed development called Vista Farms, the building of which would have had Cayce annexing land from Richland County to build a project in a floodplain that had already been rejected by both the county and the City of Columbia. Voters didn’t want it, and they saw Cayce City Council’s acquiescence in the deal as a rallying cry for change. They got it. Partin has been a breath of fresh air, supporting open, responsive government; an emphasis on quality-of-life issues such as riverfront development; business-friendly policies; and the multifaceted cooperation needed to make it all happen.

35. Kit Smith NEW

When Kit Smith retired from Richland County Council in 2010, people expected her to get out of politics. But she came surging back last year when she led the battle to defeat the push for a strong mayor in the City of Columbia. She also campaigned hard against the city funding a baseball stadium at Bull Street — a debate she lost, but one which ended up happening very much on her terms.



36. Dawn Staley NEW

Gamecocks basketball coach Dawn Staley is as beloved a local figure as Columbia has had in a long time. A former WNBA star and three-time Olympian, Staley came to Columbia with plenty of hype — and she’s living up to it, with her women’s basketball team steadily climbing through the ranks of the sport over the last few years; in 2014, the Gamecocks made it to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. Her Dawn Staley Foundation raises money and holds after-school programs for inner-city kids. As sports figures go, she’s a pretty good one to look up to.



37. Bill Stangler NEW

He may fight his battles in a baseball cap and river sandals rather than a lawyer’s suit, but Bill Stangler puts some serious pressure on local governments and utilities when it comes to cleaning up our rivers. As Congaree Riverkeeper for the past two and a half years, Stangler has worked to build relationships with everyone from kayakers to utility companies, and to bring attention to water quality issues like the EPA’s lawsuit against the City of Columbia for its poor sewer management infrastructure. You’ll often see him at Columbia City Council meetings — anytime water quality, wastewater or stormwater is on the agenda — and he works to keep local media and stakeholders aware of what’s going on in the water.

38. Bobby Donaldson NEW

Generally speaking, history professors don’t wield a lot of power. But getting an entire community to dig into its own history and emerge with a new understanding of itself is a big deal — and that’s exactly what Bobby Donaldson, associate professor of history and African-American studies at the University of South Carolina, did in his role leading the historical research efforts of the Columbia SC 63 project. The project explored and publicized Columbia’s long-overlooked civil rights history, which includes three significant court cases that went to the U.S. Supreme Court and established precedents important for the movement nationally. Before Donaldson was on the case, Columbia had little sense of its own civil rights history. Now it does.

39. Don Tomlin ↑7

There are plenty of wealthy developers in the Midlands. What sets Don Tomlin apart is his political involvement — he really spreads the campaign donations around, funding everyone from County Council to gubernatorial candidates. He’s also a key force behind the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator, where entrepreneurs are helping to build a strong knowledge economy base right here in the Capital City.

40. Bill Kirkland NEW

You might have noticed an uptick in entrepreneurial initiatives at the University of South Carolina over the past few years. And if you haven’t, well, here’s a thumbnail sketch: There’s been a major increase in the number of companies in the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator; the Tminus6 start-up accelerator launched; the Proving Ground pitch competition started; and much more. As head of USC’s Office of Economic Engagement, Bill Kirkland is remaking the university’s relationship with business in general and with start-ups in particular. The office — working with Innovista, the Faber Entrepreneurship Center, the McNair Center and more — serves as both an instigator helping to commercialize ideas born in academia and a hub connecting all of the university’s related entities.

41. Steve Spurrier NEW

Unlike pretty much everybody else on this list, Steve Spurrier’s not the kind of guy you see out lunching in the Vista (yes, even the governor does that), and he’s not the kind of guy you’re going to run into at the Piggly Wiggly. He’s sort of in a class by himself: One of the most irascible but respected names in college football — hell, in sports, period — who over the past decade has boosted the Gamecocks from the bottom of the Southeastern Conference to near the top. In South Carolina, that puts him in a power sphere just below, like, Jesus. He’s basically a force of nature.  

42. Forrest Alton NEW

Forrest Alton has led the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy for nearly a decade and, over roughly that same time span, teen birth rates in South Carolina have decreased by 26 percent. Looking back over a 20-year period, teen birth rates are down 47 percent. Given the socially conservative landscape — in which a lot of us still aren’t comfortable discussing our “special purpose” and lawmakers fight medically accurate sex education in schools — such a behavioral shift is tectonic in scale. Alton surely doesn’t deserve all the credit, and there’s still a lot of work to be done — South Carolina still ranks No. 11 in the country on teen births — but damned if he hasn’t made a difference.

43. Steve Wiggins ↓2

BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina is much more than an insurance company — it’s basically the state’s largest information technology company, employing thousands of people in the Midlands and processing billions of health care transactions for Medicare and Medicaid, the Department of Defense and others. Steve Wiggins was one of the key architects behind BlueCross’ competitive dominance in the health insurance and government contracting technology markets, and as chief information officer for the company, he’s a powerful dude. He also chairs the board of local tech consortium IT-oLogy.

44. Mike Brenan ↑3

There’s flashy power and there’s low-key power, and Brenan’s style is more the latter. Nonetheless, he’s involved in a lot of what goes on around here as the regional group president of BB&T. He’s served on more local boards than we could possibly list here, among them the South Carolina Bankers Association, Midlands Housing Alliance, the United Way of the Midlands, the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce. He’s also on the board of the Palmetto Policy Forum, a nonprofit dedicated to free-market, limited-government principles whose honorary chairman is former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, now president of the Heritage Foundation.

45. Mark Plessinger NEW

As the owner of Frame of Mind, an eyeglass store, Mark Plessinger was an early member of the wave of new merchants on Main Street. He’s the founder of First Thursdays on Main, which has brought thousands of people downtown over the past several years, joining together artists and merchants and created a lot of citywide goodwill for the burgeoning district. Now, he’s forming a downtown merchants’ association to promote the interests of downtown businesses. It’s that kind of hard work and self sacrifice that make Plessinger a powerful force in Columbia.

46. Sean McCrossin NEW

A coffee shop owner might seem like an odd addition to a list dominated by CEOs and politicians. But Sean McCrossin is a really good businessman in a city where that savviness is harder to come by than it should be. He opened Drip in Five Points three years ago; a year later, Main Street’s City Center Partnership persuaded him to open a second Drip on Main Street, where it’s become a hub of downtown Columbia’s revitalization. You’ll see plenty of the powerful people on this list at Drip (Bill Nettles, Tony Keck and Dick Harpootlian, we’re looking at you), but you’ll also see crust punks and grad students. Therein lies Drip’s charm — and McCrossin’s success.

47. Bob Coble ↓2

After being Columbia’s mayor for 20 years, Bob Coble turned to lobbying — a pursuit at which he’s excelled, bringing on board such major clients as Google, Boeing, General Motors and garbage juggernaut Waste Management, not to mention sweepstakes machine company Pace-O-Matic.

48. Kristian Niemi NEW

Restaurateur Kristian Niemi managed to get an ungodly amount of publicity for his new restaurant, Bourbon, before it even opened. And now that it is open, Bourbon’s setting the tone for Main Street, with lines out the door as early as 6 p.m. and a must-try cocktail list. He still runs Rosso Trattoria in Forest Acres, too.

49. Cindi Boiter NEW
As the editor of Jasper magazine, Cindi Boiter has delved deep into Columbia’s arts culture, not only profiling artists in all genres anines, but also commissioning and producing new work, especially literature. For her unwavering dedication, she won the 2014 Verner Award, the highest statewide arts honor.

50. Kim Jamieson NEW

While some of our city’s and state’s politicians do their utmost to sully South Carolina’s reputation on a national stage, Kim Jamieson — as former director of communications for the Columbia Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau — has consistently done the opposite. When Southern Living and other major magazines publish positive profiles of Columbia, you usually have Jamieson to thank, as she has enthusiastically, professionally and tirelessly promoted all this city has to offer. Now that she’s taken a position with the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, we can only hope she’ll have similar success at the state level.


The Next 50


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.

Michael Amiridis — provost, University of South Carolina

Jim Apple — chairman and CEO, First Citizens Bank

Ben Arnold — owner, Arnold Construction Company

Luther Battiste — attorney, Johnson, Toal & Battiste

Chuck Beaman Jr. — CEO, Palmetto Health

Mac Bennett — president, United Way of the Midlands

Sue Berkowitz — director, South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center

Michael Biediger — CEO, Lexington Medical Center

Phill Blair — owner, The Whig

Natalie Britt — director, Palmetto Conservation Foundation

Tracie Broom & Debi Schadel — Flock + Rally, public relations firm

Karen Brosius — director, Columbia Museum of Art

Richard Burts — developer, 701 Whaley

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

Richard Davis — president, Capitol Consultants

Lonnie Emard — president of IT-oLogy

Bud Ferillo — communications specialist, USC Children’s Law Center

Vince Ford — senior vice president of community services, Palmetto Health

Tayloe Harding — dean, USC School of Music

Don Herriott — director, Innovista

Greg Hilton — director, Center for Entrepreneurial and Technological Innovation

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

Norman Jackson — councilman, Richland County

Dan Johnson — solicitor, Richland County

Rev. Jimmy Jones – founder and CEO, Christ Central Ministries

Nick Kremydas — CEO, SC Association of Realtors

James K. Lehman — managing partner, Nelson Mullins

Joel Lourie — Democratic senator, S.C. Senate

Jay Matheson — director, Jam Room Music Festival and owner, Jam Room Recording Studio

Joe McCulloch — attorney

Earl McLeod — director, Home Builders Association of Greater Columbia

James Metts — former sheriff, Lexington County

Mia McLeod — representative, S.C. House

Stewart Mungo — Chairman [online copy corrected], Mungo Homes

Morihiko Nakahara — music director, South Carolina Philharmonic

Ryan Nevius — director, Sustainable Midlands

David Pankau — CEO, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina

Anne Postic — The Shop Tart, blogger

Wim Roefs — board chair, 701 Center for Contemporary Art

Ed Sellers — retired CEO of BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina

Carey Shealy — CEO, Statewide Security Systems

Andy Smith — director, Nickelodeon Theatre

Heather Spires — director of retail recruitment, City Center Partnership

Jack Swerling — criminal defense lawyer

David Swinton — president, Benedict College

Ray Tanner — athletics director, USC

Joe Taylor — venture capitalist, Southland Capital Partners; former S.C Commerce Secretary

Catherine Templeton — director, S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control

Michelle Wang — owner, Miyo’s restaurant group

Bobby Williams — CEO, Lizard’s Thicket


The Power Issue 2013
The Power Issue 2012

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

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