COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Steve Benjamin was born in Orangeburg, and spent his childhood in New York City before returning to Columbia to attend the University of South Carolina. Benjamin was elected student body president at USC, as well as president of the Student Bar Association.
Benjamin has served on the boards of several Midlands charities, and says he has worked for economic development, affordable housing and improved public education.
Below are some questions WIS sent to all candidates for Mayor of Columbia. We'll add the responses to the questions below as we receive them. Be sure to check back soon!
Name: Steve Benjamin
Education: BA Political Science, University of South Carolina, 1991; USC School of Law, 1994
Profession: Attorney/Small Business Owner
Marital status/children: I have been married to my wife, DeAndrea, for seven years. We have two little girls, Bethany (5) and Jordan Grace (2).
Political experience: I served as a member of Gov. Hodges Cabinet and ran the state's second largest law enforcement agency, the Department of Probation, Parole, and Pardon Services, for three years, served as Chairman for the Richland County Democratic Party, and ran for State Attorney General in 2002.
But I actually began getting active much earlier and worked to address local issues in college as a student leader. At USC I served as Student Body President, as well as President of the Student Bar Association in the law school. Since graduating, I have continued that service on the boards of numerous charitable organizations including the Columbia Urban League, the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce (where I was Chairman-elect), and as a founding member of Choose Children First."
Hobbies: Whether it is reading lots of books, taking trips at EdVenture, or playing at Chuck E. Cheese, I spend every spare minute with my family
Favorite food: Anything my wife cooks
QUESTIONS (word limit per answer: 300 words)
Q: Why are you running for mayor?
A) I'm running for mayor to bring A New Day to Columbia where the city has earned our trust, where downtown thrives with culture and commerce, where we make public safety a priority and create safer neighborhoods. I'm running because I have a vision of Columbia's true potential and I firmly believe that we can become the most talented, educated, and entrepreneurial city in the Southeast if not America. All we need is the willingness to think big and a mayor to lead the way.
Over the past several months, a number of people have asked me about the historical nature of this campaign. I certainly recognize that I only have this opportunity because I stand on the shoulders of giants, men and women who struggled and risked their lives so that, one day, someone like me might become the first black Mayor of Columbia.
But this election isn't about "firsts," it's about creating some "lasts": the last time a child is shot in Greenview, the last time our senior citizens are too afraid to sit on the front porch because of gang violence, the last time we're first in everything we want to be last in and last in everything we want to be first in.
This election isn't about me – it's about you, the people. It's about making sure you and your families are safe. It's about making sure your government answers to you. It's about making sure your children don't have to move to Atlanta or Charlotte or Washington D.C. to live up to their God-given potential.
This election is about building A New Day for you and all of Columbia's families.
Q: What is the most important issue facing Columbia right now? How do you intend to address it?
Action without vision is a mistake. Vision without action is a waste. Vision with action is leadership.
Early on, cities like Charlotte and Atlanta developed a comprehensive vision for the future, for who they wanted to be as a city. Columbia, on the other hand, opted for piecemeal development with no clear direction.
As mayor, I will develop that vision and I will act on it. Simply put, I will lead.
Q: What mistake in your life do you hope others, especially young people, will learn from?
A) The biggest mistakes I ever made came about because I ignored my own instincts. I didn't listen to what my gut was trying to tell me.
You can't be afraid to go with your gut. You can't be afraid to think about the big idea and then act on it. You can't be afraid to lead.
President Franklin Roosevelt famously said that "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." That's probably the best advice I can give to anyone, especially in these difficult times. Never let fear keep you from doing what you know is right.
Q: In 2009, the City of Columbia made millions of dollars in cuts to both the police and fire departments. If elected, would you work to restore those jobs or are the departments fully equipped to keep the city safe as they are staffed currently?
A) But by slashing $6 Million from police and $3 Million from fire department budgets, this city has taken away the resources our men and women in uniform need to keep us and our families safe.
The city's most fundamental duty is to protect its citizens. Right now, Columbia is failing in that duty.
I was shocked to hear that, after a rape was reported in Columbia's North Region last week, the two investigators on duty weren't allowed to respond because the city cut their overtime.
Some of my opponents disagree with me. They think I'm exaggerating. Others agree, but are still unwilling to make the tough choices necessary to make public safety a priority. They think we can't afford to re-open fire engines or hire more police officers. I say we can't afford not to.
Q: (Viewer submitted) Earlier this month, there were several reports that the City of Columbia and Richland County Unified Fire Service contract might be in jeopardy. However, an independent study conducted by the University of South Carolina titled, "The impact of improved public protection classification ratings on homeowners' insurance rates in Richland County," has shown that taxpayers save upwards of $5.5 million annually due to lower homeowner's insurance rates each and every year as a result of having the city and county fire service combined. Do you support that the city and county work to continue this public safety agreement?
A) Absolutely! Losing the Unified Fire Services Agreement would set this city back 20 years. As mayor, I would not only strengthen joint fire service, I would expand consolidation of services with Richland County to reduce taxpayer burden, increase efficiency, and develop truly regional approaches to public transportation and economic development. The fabric of this community is interwoven with neighbors like Irmo, West Columbia, Cayce, and Blythewood. It's time we started working together.
Q: What is your detailed plan to make Columbia a safer place to live? Give specifics. Where can we improve? Where are we already strong in public safety?
A) I ran the state's second largest law enforcement agency as director of South Carolina's Department of Probation, Parole, and Pardon Services and I am the only candidate in the race with law enforcement experience.
I've worn a badge, I've carried a gun, and I've put on a bulletproof vest to go out on warrant service details. I have seen firsthand the difference well-equipped and well-trained law enforcement makes in all our lives.
I can tell you that some of the most talented and dedicated police officers and firefighters I've ever met are working right here in Columbia. It's time the city backed them up.
As I've already said, we must restore the $9 Million the city slashed from Public Safety so that our police officers and firefighters have the tools they need to keep us and our families safe. But this is about more than money. Right now Columbia's police officers aren't allowed to carry back-up weapons even though it doesn't cost the city a penny. The Unified Fire Services Agreement between Columbia and Richland County is flirting with collapse because the city and the county refuse to talk to one another. Columbia's Police Chief, Tandy Carter, has put together an aggressive plan to cut violent crime in half, but Council just says "NO."
We must do better.
As mayor, I will put the hard lessons I learned in the field to work for the city and we will make Columbia a safer place to live for all together.
Q: (Viewer submitted) Over the past several years, the city has lost jobs due to several companies moving to its neighboring communities. What is your plan to retain the existing employment opportunities and expand upon them?
A) High-paying industries recognize the need for a talented workforce. So whether it's building a new knowledge economy or leveraging our history and cultural landscape to benefit tourism, we have such a wealth of talent and natural resources that our job creation potential is limitless.
As mayor, I will establish a Council of Economic Development with local business leaders to cut the red tape that drives away existing industry and keeps new small businesses from revitalizing Main St. and Downtown Columbia.
I will also partner with Midlands Technical College to train unemployed residents for high-paying jobs available right now in fields like Energy Production, Insurance Technology, and Nursing.
But when you're talking about economic development, we have to realize that regionalism is the key. So I will bring our neighbors like Blythewood, West Columbia, and Lexington together to develop a comprehensive Regional Development Plan.
It's time we stopped competing against one another and started working together
Q: What will you do to balance preservation with progress in Columbia's historic business district and neighborhoods?
A) The city's assets are plentiful. The convergence of our Saluda, Broad, and Congaree Rivers offers a bounty of natural and recreational resources. The intersection of three major Interstates provides valuable infrastructure for business. As home to many colleges and universities, Columbia enjoys a wide variety of educational experience among its citizens, a talented labor pool, and a foundation for creativity and innovation. Additionally, as the seat of South Carolina's state government, the base of Richland's County government, and home to Fort Jackson – a three billion dollar a year operation – Columbia has nearly limitless potential for economic development.
But too often development interests and community associations are pit against one another. It's time we all worked together and, instead of fighting, collaborated on development projects that benefit our local economy while preserving our historic and cultural character. All it takes is the ability speak openly and honestly with one another and a mayor willing to lead the conversation. That's the kind of mayor I will be.
Q: What commitment are you willing to make to the people of Columbia on reviewing and balancing the finances of the city under your watch?
A) Here are three quick examples of the Culture of Carelessness infecting City Hall.
Over the past five years the city has cut $6 Million from Columbia's police department while, at same time, they added $5 Million is pay raises for city executives.
Not counting public safety, the average city Columbia's size has one vehicle for every ten employees. Columbia, on the other hand, has one vehicle for every three employees. That's while police officers are being forced to work four to a car.
Finally, Columbia has lost its moral authority to raise taxes because the city government can't decide whether it's running a $5 Million deficit or a $5.3 Million surplus. It all depends on when you ask, and why you're asking.
That's no way to run a city. The people demand better.
As mayor, I will take the budget out of the back room and set a clear course for fiscal responsibility that reduces the city's fleet, maximizes technology, and eliminates waste in all departments.
As mayor, I will bring Columbia's budget back to Common Sense.
Q: Columbia's arts groups are desperate for additional city funding. Would you support increasing the hospitality tax to help these groups?
A) The arts invigorate a city and we must responsibly use hospitality and accommodations taxes to support and sustain the creativity of all Columbians. We must also address aggressive panhandling so our families can feel safe coming downtown to enjoy the wealth of artistic and cultural talent already thriving in Columbia.
Q: How do you plan to keep the CMTRA funded and solvent in the coming years? Does it include increasing ridership among young professionals?
A) Cities around the country are preparing for the next generation of public transportation with light rail, bio-diesel, even investing in electric car infrastructure. We can't settle for just "keep the busses running." Between regional cooperation and utilizing federal grants, the resources exist to move forward. We only lack leadership.
Q: Your potential successor served more than 20 years as mayor. Should there be term limits for the position? Why or why not?
A) When the voters are engaged and involved in our government, term limits are unnecessary. As mayor, I will increase citizen participation by moving Council Meetings to the afternoon when those of us who have jobs are able to attend and make sure live streaming video is available for those who cannot. I will push to hold City Elections on the traditional November date where voter participation is highest rather than April. Finally, I will institute a series of transparency initiatives and ethical reforms that dismantle the good-old-boy network and open City Hall to the people.
We deserve a city government that we all can participate in and be proud of. That is the promise of every democracy.
Q: Do you support a plan to give Columbia a strong mayor government? Should the mayor have more power and what good would it do for the city?
A) I believe the "Strong Mayor" form of government provides the accountability Columbia desperately needs and I support it. But that's not why I support the referendum. I support placing a change of government referendum on the November ballot because this decision should be in the people's hands – not the politicians. And I will be proud to serve as the Mayor of Columbia under whatever form of government they decide.
Q: What is your plan to reduce crime and increase confidence in the City of Columbia Police Department?
A) Chief Carter has put forward an excellent plan to cut violent crime in half over the next five years. Unfortunately, the city has failed to give him either the resources or the authority to put that plan into action.
As mayor, I would end that obstruction and take the politics out of police work.
Q: (Viewer submitted) How would you change the city's culture of spending and prioritize projects? How would you change this spending culture on all levels of city government?
A) Earlier this month, I released a series of Common Sense Budget Reforms that eliminate waste, reduce cost, and create a more effective and efficient city government.
Key to this proposal, and to my entire campaign, is that Columbia doesn't have a revenue problem. It has a priority problem.
As mayor, I will lead the charge to finally develop a comprehensive vision for Columbia that sets clear priorities and begins to consolidate services like Law Enforcement, Human Resources, and City Planning with Richland County.
It's time we took a serious look at any way that we can reduce taxpayer burden
Q: Do you support investing more money into the revitalization of the north main street corridor? Why or why not?
A) The city must exercise fiscal restraint, stabilize its budget, and fund public safety before making any additional financial commitments. We must find ways to invest in North Columbia and develop the riverfront, but it is a mistake for the city to undertake a tax increment financing plan without support from Richland County and the school district.
Q: What's the best thing about living in Columbia?
A) My two daughters are lucky to have both sets of grandparents living in the same neighborhood. Giving them the opportunity to learn all the lessons the generation that came before us has to teach is the greatest thing I could ask for. It is one of the truest joys in my life.