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Top Five Reasons Why Strong-Mayor Was So Weak

By Kevin Fisher
Wednesday, December 18, 2013 |
While backers of the strong-mayor initiative pin their landslide defeat on the election being held in December rather than November, that is pure conjecture. Of course, having spent all that money, they have to tell themselves something.

But the fact is the difference in turnout between the two elections was minor (20 percent in November vs. 16 percent in December), undercutting that as the culprit for failure. Though Mayor Steve Benjamin may have thought support for him and support for strong-mayor were one in the same, his 65-35 percent personal re-election triumph turned into a 57-43 percent drubbing of his signature political initiative.

While (too) much has been made of the drop-off in support for strong-mayor versus support for Benjamin in black precincts, the same was true in white precincts. Looking at precinct results, it seems likely the outcome would have been the same (though closer) if the question had been on the ballot with the municipal elections. A clear and blessedly diverse majority simply didn’t buy it.

Benjamin’s somewhat bitter assessment that the referendum lost because, “Americans vote in November, not during the holidays,” was not his best moment. It also ignored local history, as 2013 marked the first time Columbia held its municipal election in November, having previously elected its mayors, including Benjamin, in April. No word from the mayor on what the outcome would have been in the spring.

The problem for the strong-mayor forces wasn’t election day, but election strategy. With a smart campaign, the effort to change Columbia’s form of government might well have succeeded. But those pushing the change ran a campaign that played right into the hands of its opponents.

And with unsubstantiated reports suggesting that some $500,000 was raised and spent by the Chamber of Commerce crowd in promoting the strong-mayor effort, it seems that money hasn’t been wasted like that in a political campaign since I ran for mayor in 2006.

Actually, while spending only one-fifth of that amount, my tilting-at-windmills campaign did what it set out to do: put Columbia on the path to change. By the next election both the mayor and city manager had announced their retirements, with Columbia ready to start a new chapter.

Enter Steve Benjamin, a young man in a hurry. While that was and is a good thing in many ways — Columbia needs to be in a hurry to recover from the lost decades of the post-Kirk Finlay era — the new mayor and his backers were in too much of a hurry when it came to changing the city’s form of government. Their heavy-handed approach backfired.

Herewith, the Top Five Reasons Why Strong-Mayor Was So Weak:

(1) It Was All About Benjamin
Instead of promoting their preferred form of government, backers simply promoted their preferred politician. It came off as little more than an extension of the mayor’s campaign, featuring him in TV spots, direct mail and email blasts, ad nauseam.

(2) Questionable Ballot Tactics
Paying an out-of-state firm to gather petition signatures may have gotten the measure on the ballot, but it put a “bought and paid for” stigma on the strong-mayor campaign right from the start.

(3) Questionable Campaign Tactics
The repeated misuse of the words and image of Sheriff Leon Lott in campaign materials, implying that he was supporting strong-mayor when in fact he had not taken a position, portrayed a campaign that was simply not being honest. The deception was highlighted when Lott announced he was neutral on the issue.

(4) Questionable Spokespersons and Endorsements
The lead spokesman for the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce was past president Lee Bussell, who lives some 30 miles outside Columbia. Similarly, the strong-mayor forces proudly issued endorsements from former city councilwoman Belinda Gergel, who fled Columbia for Charleston, and Gov. Nikki Haley, a noted Lexington resident temporarily living in Columbia. Fine folks all, but outsiders should not be outspoken.

(5) The State’s In-the-Tank Editorial Support
Someone needs to tell The State’s editorial board they’re not helping when they overdo it. Voters don’t want to read editorial after editorial, column after column, sermon after sermon telling them why they’re ignorant if they don’t agree with the paper’s position. People are willing to be persuaded, but reject being browbeaten.

And now we go back to the future at City Hall.

Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.

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