The city of Columbia, South Carolina elected its first black mayor Tuesday. And less than 12 hours after polls closed giving him the victory, Steve Benjamin was in an accident en route to an early morning television news appearance.
Benjamin, a lawyer and lobbyist, defeated former Columbia City Councilman Kirkman Finlay III in Tuesday’s runoff election, getting about 55 percent of the vote to Finlay’s 45 percent.
“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.”
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, who is white, won the Shandon precincts that third-place finisher Steve Morrison carried in the April 6 general election, but mostly by modest margins. But in the north and east Columbia precincts, Benjamin dominated.
At Greenview where 701 voters went to the polls, only six did not vote for Benjamin. And on the campus of Benedict College, the voters in Ward 8, including students, showed up and represented with 439 voters with four votes going to Finlay. Just two weeks ago, only 217 voted at the precinct.
Benjamin is better known outside of Columbia as the lawyer who helped radio host Tom Joyner last year win a posthumous pardon from the state for two great-uncles who were wrongly convicted and executed of a slaying they did not commit.
The mayor’s job in Columbia is actually a part-time position. Benjamin will be paid $17,500 and will be one vote on the City Council.
“Columbia has a weak mayor system. The mayor is more of a symbolic head of the city with the city manager serving as the administrator,” said Todd Shaw, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina.
“The mayor’s power comes in his use of the bully pulpit and his ability to build coalitions,” Shaw told BlackAmericaweb.com.
Columbia faces several challenges. Like many local and state governments across the country, there is a pending financial crisis. There are also concerns about economic development and shoring up the city’s infrastructure.
Benjamin will replace Bob Coble, who was mayor for 20 years and decided not to run again.
With Coble out of the race and Benjamin geared up with a campaign mobilized like President Obama’s race for the White House, he was able to win, Shaw said.
But Columbia has lagged behind other major Southern cities in electing a black mayor.
“Blacks did not hold a majority and whites wanted to hold on to their dominance,” said Rickey Hill, who formerly headed the Political Science Department at South Carolina State University.
In other Southern cities, black mayors began being elected in the 1970s and 1980s, Hill told BlackAmericaweb.com.
“Blacks organized themselves and worked together,” Hill said.
Benjamin also had significant crossover votes. In most boxes where he did not win, the gap was not as wide as the gap in boxes where his opponent lost, according to unofficial voting results.
While Benjamin, a 40-year-old husband and father of two celebrated his victory on Tuesday, Wednesday morning was somber following the wreck.
Shortly before 6 a.m. Wednesday, Benjamin’s SUV collided with a woman in a Toyota. Benjamin did not have to go to the hospital, but the woman involved in the accident was transported to a local hospital.
Attempts by BlackAmericaweb.com to reach the new mayor for an interview were unsuccessful. …..