Steve Benjamin wins re-election in Columbia mayoral race
With 64 percent of the vote, Steve Benjamin reclaimed his seat as mayor of City of Columbia. Benjamin beat out city councilman and local businessman Moe Baddourah in a contentious battle that pit a well-oiled campaign machine against a grassroots effort.
“We’re going to focus on creating jobs, creating economic opportunities for the people of Columbia. We’re going to focus on fighting crime, and we’re going to focus intently: I want to stress this, we’re going to focus intently on creating opportunities for our young people to live up to their God-given potential,” Benjamin said at a Tuesday night election party at the Sheraton Convention Center on Washington Street.
With 95 percent of precincts reporting, Benjamin earned 9,664 votes over Baddourah’s 5,348, which earned the challenger 36 percent of the vote.
Benjamin was highly favored to keep his seat,— which he won in 2010 — especially after his other challenger former Richland County sheriff deputy Larry Sypolt dropped out a week before the vote. Sypolt stepped aside last week after declaring, “I believe it would be a disservice to the community for Steve and I to run against each other.”
Public safety will be a major priority for Benjamin, especially after heightened concerns in light of the recent shooting of USC student Martha Childress in October. Benjamin said in previous conversations that hiring a city police chief, giving Columbia police officers raises and focusing on gang activity would reduce criminal activity drastically in the downtown area.
Benjamin’s old job as mayor comes with a new perk — a higher salary. City council approved an increase in the mayor’s salary from $17,500 to $75,000. During council negotiations, Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine said the mayor’s salary had not changed in years under Benjamin or former Mayor Bob Coble. Council members received two increases in their pay in the past 13 years to bring them to a total compensation of $13,500.
If Columbia residents approve the strong-mayor form of government in December, Benjamin would take over City Manager Teresa Wilson’s duties and see his salary increase further to $160,000.
With the election behind him, the next step is for Benjamin is to drum up support for the mayor-council form of government. A special election will be held Dec. 3 to determine if the city should switch from its current council-manager form of government to the new mayor-council form, better known as “strong-mayor” government.
“One candidate in this race strongly supported the strong mayor form of government and one strongly opposed it, and we won by almost 30 percent. I think it’s a sign of strong support from the electorate,” Benjamin said.
The referendum already has garnered strong support. The Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce fully supported the referendum and pushed for the issue to go to a vote. Chairman Holt Chetwood has worked behind the scenes with others in the Chamber, such as Lee Bussell, to urge voters to back the strong-mayor referendum.
“We owe it to the people of Columbia to make sure they understand not just that we support the strong mayor form of government, but fully understand why it’s important to have a mayor who wakes up in the morning thinking about how he can make this a better city and goes to bed at night reflecting on how in fact he did just that,” Benjamin said.