When Belinda Gergel was an 18-year-old freshman at Columbia College, she first saw a house that she decided she must live in one day. Now, retired from chairing the history and political science departments at that college, she does. And her experience as a vocal community leader in the University Hill neighborhood shapes her campaign to represent it on Columbia City Council.
As president of the Historic Columbia Foundation, she led the fight to keep USC from demolishing the historic Black House and Kirkland Apartments, and sponsored some remarkably well-attended symposiums (symposia?) on the burning of Columbia and the assassination of N.G. Gonzales by the coward James Tillman. She’s currently a member of the board of Columbia Green, and is helping lead an effort to create a 22-acre Garden District in downtown Columbia.
But her interests hardly stop there. She is intensely interested in public safety — her home was burglarized the first night she was in it (not for the last time, either), and gang members shot a federal prosecutor on the same block within a month of that. "If our neighborhoods are not safe, nothing else matters," she said in our editorial board endorsement interview on March 5.
She has also reached out beyond residential concerns to form alliances with business people. She’s been endorsed by Five Points leader Jack Van Loan, who had not known her previously. (Full disclosure: Jack asked me to join him and Ms. Gergel for lunch one day in February, and I took Warren Bolton along — but all of our substantive discussion of her candidacy took place in our formal interview.)
As a member of the commission that studied Columbia’s form of government, she went in as an advocate of switching to a strong-mayor form. But she came out of that outrageously strung-out experienced convinced that such a change is not politically viable, and that we "need to fix the system we have now." A key element of that is developing a far more professional relationship between the city manager and the council. That would happen within the context of strategic planning — she says the council must set a vision, and the manager must be held accountable for implementing it, two things that have utterly failed to happen up to now.
She served on the metro-area committee that drafted a plan for a comprehensive approach to homelessness, and was "very disappointed" at the way the city went off on its own and essentially demolished the regional process. She would be determined as a council member to pick up the pieces, involve faith-based providers and all local governments in resurrecting the comprehensive approach.
She and Columbia College President Caroline Whitson rode the metro area buses last fall, and learned how hard it was to find out how to get where you want to go on that system. "When I was a student, the bus was how you got around," she said. Now, it was hard to figure out the schedule. She believes the city ought to be doing all it could to encourage people to take the bus, and get them the information to make that practical.
Probably the most interesting part of our interview was when Ms. Gergel directly confronted (she is direct and to-the-point on all issues) the talk about opponent Brian Boyer and her representing different factions in the city, despite the election being nonpartisan (the short version of that "conventional wisdom" — she is allegedly aligned with Mayor Bob Coble and other Democrats, and Mr. Boyer with his brother-in-law Don Tomlin, Daniel Rickenmann, Kirkman Finley III et al.).
"I am not in a camp," she said. "I believe in the nonpartisanship of this election, and I will not be seeking the endorsement of the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. I think that there’s a good reason for council membership to be nonpartisan."
"As far as this camps thing — I don’t know where this is coming from, and I have no idea why someone would focus on what camp Belinda would be in. I am a strong, independent woman; that is what Columbia College did for me as a student, and what we worked on as faculty to encourage in our students. I have no permanent enemies and no personal friends on council, that’s how I see it, but issues that need to be addressed, and I will work with each member of council to address those issues."
"And I know that’s what the residents of District 3 expect. They don’t want a factionalized, ‘camped,’ partisan city council. They want us working together, and moving the city ahead."
When asked at the end if there were any issues we had failed to cover, she brought up the fact that she had "sensed" that some people assumed that, because of her work in historic preservation, she was "anti-development." She said nothing could be further from the truth. As the daughter of a developer, "I have great appreciation of what development, and developers and homebuilders are all about" — a growing and vibrant economy. "That’s how we were brought up."
"We want great development," the sort that enhances a community, "and expect nothing less."
I don’t know what I just typed out all those quotes when I have those parts on video (which is how I checked the quotes). Here’s the video:
…I am a strong, independent woman…”
Those very few words say everything; she may be the greatest person since Jesus, but those are not words that a Southern woman would use to describe herself.
I hope we all want strong and independent people serving on our City Council, and not those who are beholding to special interests. Belinda Gergel is every bit a southern woman, and we should be grateful to have someone with her long experience in Columbia willing to offer herself as a public servant.