Right or effective?

Which will it be, Columbia
voters: ‘right’ or ‘effective’?

By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
CHALLENGER Kevin Fisher talks a lot about Columbia Mayor Bob Coble. He criticizes, in great detail, a long litany of actions and inactions by the mayor. He talks about how he would have done things differently.
    The ad and PR man says that rather than lead, “Mayor Bob” sits around waiting for consensus to emerge. “He is a very nice man who makes no decision, or who makes the wrong decision, which amounts to the same thing.”
    “His main concern is, never offend anyone.” By contrast, says Mr. Fisher, “I will be looking to set the agenda and the tone.”
    “With or without a strong-mayor system,” he asserts, “I would be a strong mayor.”
    That, boiled down, is Kevin Fisher’s position as candidate for mayor in the April 4 election.
    For his part, Mayor Coble agrees that he values diplomacy. That’s because you don’t get much done “if you tell people what you think about them every single time.”
   I was once told that someday I would have to decide whether I wanted to be right or effective. There is no doubt which paths these two have chosen. Mr. Fisher is a passionate and articulate advocate of what he believes is right. He seems to have given much less thought as to how, going forward, to get things done.
    Mayor Coble is far less concerned about getting everyone to see things his way. He claims to be effective.
    The mayor has his own litanies. There is his list of “strategic accomplishments.” He says that during his 16-year tenure, the city reversed a long decline in home ownership, population and property values; became “far safer”; experienced a “renaissance” from the Vista to a transformed stretch of Two Notch Road, and much more; embraced the “knowledge economy,” building on a much-improved relationship with the University of South Carolina; and did it all with only two property tax increases, of two mils each, both for more police.
    His main goals for the future:

  • Build upon existing economic pillars, such as Fort Jackson.
  • Follow through on the “innovation economy.”
  • Keep improving “livability,” so “people will want to stay here and come here.”
  • Change the city’s form of government to make it more effective and accountable.

    In an interview last week, Mr. Fisher did not present a list of specific proposals for the future, beyond saying he would not repeat such past mistakes as:

  • An “attempted waste of 41 million tax dollars” on a city-owned hotel. It would take “unmitigated gall” to seek re-election “if I had presided over that,” he said.
  • The plan to block the view of the river with a development at the corner of Gervais and Huger. “If you put a nine-story building on Huger, you don’t have a Vista.”
  • Deciding to back Marvin Chernoff’s vision for an arts festival. “Where is that money going to come from? And what else could it have gone to pay for?”

    “Of course, the mayor is for it,” he says of one thing after another he criticizes. “Being for everything is not leadership, and the mayor is absolutely for everything.”
    Mr. Coble, in the context of talking about candidates for City Council, said, “At the debates, they at least have said what they would do if elected. I don’t think Kevin has done that…. It’s one thing to say, ‘I wouldn’t do Air South,’ et cetera. What would you do? I think that’s essential to govern.”
    (The third candidate on the ballot, Five Points businessman Joe Azar, agrees with the mayor on that, if on nothing else.)
    Indeed, Mr. Fisher’s eloquence tends to falter if you ask, “What would you do now?” An example:
He says a “compliant mayor” gave SCE&G a cheap way out of its century-old promise to provide public transit in exchange for rights to the Columbia market.
    “We let them out of that deal for what — for a few million dollars, which is already gone,” he complains. “They still have the monopoly, but we don’t have the mass transit.”
    He says the utility fobbed old equipment and a “brownfield” bus barn onto the city. Since then, “Routes have been cut back; fares have been raised. We’re getting less service for more money, and it’s still going out of business.” And how is the mayor proposing to keep it going? A new tax.
    After Mr. Fisher had gone on a while about that “horrendous deal,” Associate Editor Warren Bolton asked what, given the current situation, he would do. He seemed less certain about that. He said he would “allocate funds better,” and pursue federal money. “Finally, I would go back to SCE&G and try to cajole them, shame them, whatever word you want to use, into making an annual contribution.”
    If the utility declined such a do-over, Mr. Fisher says, he would turn to a dedicated tax source. But “that would be the legacy of Mayor Coble and the council.”
    Mayor Coble seems to accept that ultimately, the public will have to pay to have a public transit system, just like in every other city in the country. His own ruminations on the subject center around strategies for passing the necessary referendum to do that.
    Another example: Regarding the former state prison property that has stood vacant for more than a decade, the mayor is pleased that — thanks in part to the Vista and riverfront having become so much more desirable — the private sector was finally willing to take it off the city’s hands. He sees that as best.
    For his part, Mr. Fisher says it was a “tremendous missed opportunity” not to have left part of the prison standing. “Cellblock One was our Alcatraz,” a potentially huge attraction for tourists from all over who would come to be regaled with “the legends of Pee Wee Gaskins and the rest.”
    The mayor just marvels at an idea “so far out of left field. A Pee Wee Gaskins museum would never have made it.”
    So, Mr., Mrs. and Ms. Columbia Voter, which will it be — the guy who says he’s right, or the guy who says he’s effective? You’ve got 16 days to decide.

6 thoughts on “Right or effective?

  1. Debbie McDaniel

    We have three candidates for mayor, not just two. Why was Mr. Azar only given one sentence? Couldn’t his views on all the subjects listed be mentioned? This would only be fair, not only to the voters, but to all the candidates.

  2. Brad Warthen

    The column was about an interesting dichotomy I saw between Bob Coble and Kevin Fisher. Joe Azar didn’t fit into it at all, and originally wasn’t mentioned. Then, in the editing process, it hit me that I could insert him parenthetically where I did. I could have added a sentence there, saying essentially, “Neither Mr. Coble nor Mr. Fisher had anything to say about Mr. Azar.” Since the column was about the head-to-head comparison between the two — a comparison they make themselves, and bring up themselves — that would help explain to any reader why the third candidate wasn’t a part of the discussion.
    But you might have thought that sounded more dismissive than leaving it as I did. One of my colleagues certainly thought that, when I mentioned the possibility of adding that language.
    Speaking of adding language — what would you have cut out of this piece to get what you would regard as a satisfactory number of words about Joe Azar in there? I had a really tough time summarizing these two men’s positions on these few issues even enough to illustrate my point. Thank goodness I wasn’t writing a news story, in which I would have felt obligated to explain each position far more fully. I simply didn’t have the room. I barely wedged this piece onto the page as it was. So what would you have cut in order to jam in a bunch of irrelevant stuff about Mr. Azar?
    And it would have been irrelevant. Mr. Azar is sort of having his own conversation off to the side about a different set of issues. He wouldn’t have fit into this at all; I would have been changing the subject to discuss him.
    And what do you mean by “fair?” Once again, this isn’t a news story. In a personal opinion column on the editorial page, I am in no way obliged to pretend — as news people are often forced to pretend, against their better judgment — that all campaigns have equal weight, and are deserving of the same attention.
    Mr. Fisher going after the mayor, and the mayor’s response to that, are what is new and interesting about this election, and therefore most worthy of writing about. So I write about all that as fairly and honestly as I possibly can, taking great care with my choice of words. Mr. Azar running against the mayor is very old news. Like the Olympics happening every four years, it’s sort of like clockwork — even though he did, briefly, break the pattern by running for a council seat last time. Of course, he always loses.
    Are you a supporter of Mr. Azar, or did you just raise the point academically? I ask that because if you’re a supporter, I might want to talk to you to get your thoughts. I’m toying with the idea of doing a column about him. But that column wouldn’t really have much, if anything, to do with what I was writing about today.

  3. Illiterate One

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to run a column on all candidates for mayor. Each could list each candidates pros and cons. Just thinking out loud. To add spice to the column, don’t mention the candidates parties… what a novel idea!

  4. Susan

    Brad the problem with your column this morning is that Kevin is neither right nor effective. Your article made very little sense. You ask rhetorically, would you rather someone who is right or someone who is effective. But before asking that stupid question, you go through this litany of how Fisher has no ideas, just complaints about Coble. How does that leave one to decide whether or not they want someone who is right or effective?
    I think Columbia will re-elect Coble because he’s both, right and effective. He’s right to say that home ownership is up for the first time in decades. He’s right to say that crime is at historic lows. He’s right to say Columbia needs a bus system. He’s right to say that having a memorial/museum to a man who murdered people is a bad idea. And Brad, Coble has been an effective Mayor. He has worked to move Columbia forward every day that he has been Mayor. Yeah there have been bumps along the road. But to suggest to your readers that we’re choosing between someone who is right and who is effective is just plain dumb! Fisher isn’t anything. He’s a loud-mouth complainer who is self-financing a campaign for Mayor with zero support.
    A few weeks back you asked for there to be a debate about the issues that face Columbia. Fisher has done nothing to advance that debate. He has done nothing but bad mouth a man who has tirelessly served this city proudly.

  5. Lee

    What’s the truth about Bob Coble speaking to various groups, especially blacks, and telling them that it was supposed to be a debate, but Fisher and Azar failed to show up?
    The State is doing its typical lousy job of covering the local elections.

  6. Brad Warthen

    To “Illiterate,” two points:
    1. A piece “on all candidates for mayor” that “listed each candidate’s pros and cons” is more akin to what our newsroom provides. What I did was give you “pros and cons” between the two candidates who are, in my opinion (and this is an opinion column), the real contenders.
    2. Nobody mentions party in connection with the city elections, because there is no party. The elections are nonpartisan.
    Susan, two more points:
    1. I didn’t say that Kevin was either right or effective, and I didn’t say the mayor wasn’t both. I said that there is no doubt which of those approaches these men have chosen in presenting themselves to the public. Kevin is very sure he’s right, but doesn’t bother talking about what he would DO, much less whether he’d be effective at it. The mayor touts his effectiveness and insists that you have to accommodate what others think, rather than insisting you are right and it has to be done your way. I did not say the choice was between someone who WAS right and someone who WAS effective. I said the choice was either “the guy who SAYS he’s right, or the guy who SAYS he’s effective.”
    2. I can’t agree with you that “Fisher has done nothing to advance that debate,” or that he “has done nothing but bad-mouth a man who has tirelessly served this city.” First, he has enunciated articulate positions on a host of issues that people gripe a lot about, but which tend not to get aired in races when the mayor doesn’t have serious opposition. Second, Mr. Fisher says over and over that the mayor is a really nice guy — nicer than he is, he admits. He just doesn’t like the way Mr. Coble leads the city.

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