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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Steve Benjamin Elected Columbia, SC's 1st Black Mayor In History!

S.C. City chooses Benjamin: "We Made History"

Columbians (South Carolina) embraced Steve Benjamin’s vision Tuesday, overwhelmingly electing the Capital City’s first Black Mayor on a message of balancing the budget without sacrificing the city’s public-safety priorities.

Benjamin, an attorney, defeated District 4 Councilman Kirkman Finlay, whose campaign was built around his warning that the city’s budget was in crisis and that the only way to save it was to shrink local government to a more manageable size.

But Benjamin promised city voters more than a balanced budget, and some voters were clinging to that promise Tuesday.

Voters like Kim Linen, a 44-year-old Michelin employee whose home was ransacked in January when thugs kicked in her back door. Linen said Benjamin earned her vote because he promised to work to restore some of the funding cut from the police department’s budget in recent years.

“People want to feel safe when they come home,” she said. “That’s a big deal to me.”

An unexpected 2,000 more voters turned out Tuesday than the record-setting 17,137 who voted April 6. Thirty-one percent of registered voters, or 19,427 people, cast ballots.

Finlay managed to win the Shandon precincts that third-place finisher Steve Morrison carried two weeks ago in the general election, but mostly by modest margins. Benjamin dominated Finlay in the precincts in north and east Columbia that in some cases more than doubled their turnout from the election two weeks ago.

Those precincts included Greenview, which once again showed its muscle with 701 voters — all but six for Benjamin. Ward 8, on the campus of Benedict College, which had just 217 voters two weeks ago, showed up with 439 voters — all but four for Benjamin.

“The people of Columbia spoke, and together we made history,” Benjamin said to a crowd of thousands at nearly 9:30 p.m. at Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. “We made history today, not because of race. We made history because people responded to a message of unity, hope and promise. We are one city. One Columbia.”

Benjamin announced his candidacy in August. He, Finlay and Morrison together spent more than $750,000 for a part-time job that pays $17,500 annually.

Benjamin’s victory, at 8:07 p.m., was an emotional, private moment with a smaller group at his Washington Street campaign headquarters.

Tears welled in Benjamin’s eyes as he stared at voting returns on a computer.

“Take your time, man,” said Carl Solomon, a law school friend and campaign volunteer.

Benjamin, 40, shared a long embrace with his father, Sam Benjamin. Then, someone told him to go to his mother, who was in a back room having an emotional moment.

Benjamin found Maggie Benjamin clutching a handful of tissue. They hugged while friends and campaign workers patted their backs.

Nearby, Ed Givens, one of Steve Benjamin’s closest classmates in law school, also shed tears. The two men sat next to each other as they took the S.C. Bar exam in 1994, and they stood together Tuesday as Benjamin was elected the city’s first black mayor.

Later, at Benjamin’s victory party, he made his way through a packed ballroom at the convention center as the hip-hop song “All About the Benjamins” blared over the sound system.

“Well, hello, Columbia!” he shouted to the cheering crowd. “We are one Columbia.”

Across the city, Finlay supporters spilled out onto the deck of Pawley’s Front Porch in Five Points. Campaign workers were set up in a back corner with spreadsheets, computers and cell phones.

Every few minutes, Finlay pulled advisor Steve Fooshe aside to compare notes.

At 8:10 p.m., Finlay’s mother, Rab Finlay, walked through the restaurant. “No luck,” she said.

Ten minutes later, Finlay stepped into the room with his wife, Kathleen, to thank supporters. He said he had just called Benjamin to concede.

“It didn’t break our way tonight,” he said. “We ran a good race. It just wasn’t good enough.”

He asked the crowd to “celebrate a race well run” before ducking out the back door, into rain.

Reached at home later, Finlay said he was “terribly disappointed.”

“I’ve got a few more council meetings, and we will go from there,” he said. “The best thing that can happen is the majority of council can figure out how to transition from here.”

Finlay, 40, whose father was mayor of Columbia from 1978-86, owns two restaurants in the area and is married with three young daughters. He took over the family’s real estate holdings at 23 when his father fell ill.

From the beginning, Finlay preached a message of reining in wasteful spending by a City Council he said had its head in the sand. It was the kind of message that resonated with people like Andrew Marion, who viewed Benjamin’s policies as unrealistic, catch-all promises.

“We can’t be everything, everywhere,” Marion said before casting his vote at A.C. Moore Elementary School shortly before the polls closed at 7 p.m.

But Benjamin’s vision of a hopeful future in which the city would establish itself as a regional leader in the arts, the environment and public transportation, while keeping its focus on basic services such as public safety, connected with voters who were looking ahead.

Judy Bryant, a 56-year-old housewife, made up her mind to vote for Benjamin after seeing him talk about his vision on television.

“Finlay just wants to balance the budget, and that’s all,” she said. “Benjamin not only wants to balance the budget but he has more of a plan for the future. I don’t think Finlay looks to the future at all.”

Benjamin and Finlay spent the past two weeks courting Morrison supporters, who made up about 30 percent of the vote in the April 6 election. Morrison’s top five precincts were in Shandon, off Millwood Avenue and in the area behind the VA Hospital.

Finlay won those areas by about 1,000 votes, but Benjamin had a strong showing as well, taking 34 percent of ballots cast.

Marilyn Gartley, a 28-year-old attorney who voted at Hand Middle School in Ward 12, stepped up to the voting machine at about lunchtime Tuesday but couldn’t bring herself to cast her ballot. She turned around and walked out.

“I just had a moment,” Gartley said. “Those last-minute doubts and questions got to me.”

On the sidewalk in front of the school, Gartley ran into Benjamin and began to interview him on the issues most important to her: the environment, urban sprawl and homelessness.

Benjamin told her he would support the city’s investment to upgrade its water and sewer system to protect area rivers from sewer overflows. He told her he already has started meeting with mayors from nearby local governments to forge partnerships that could lead to smarter growth. And he told her a story of how he had helped a homeless person get off the street and into transitional housing “because you can’t wait until you get elected to a leadership position before you start to lead.”

After their conversation, Gartley shook his hand and turned to walk back inside to cast her vote.

“He did a good job convincing me,” she said.

As Benjamin took the microphone Tuesday night to address his supporters, he carried an envelope in his pocket. It held a $100 campaign donation from his grandmother, Rebecca Benjamin, who made her contribution just before she died last month.

“She wanted to be here with us, and I know that she is,” he said later.

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Sources: The State, Youtube, Google Maps

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