What I said about Benjamin in the Free Times

Eva Moore called to interview me about Steve Benjamin the other day, which was a bit awkward for me, because as I told her, she’s followed his mayoralty a lot more closely than I have, so what could I tell her?

But we chatted anyway, and she used some of it.

I learned this from Leon Lott this morning when we were wishing each other happy birthday via phone. He said he was reading the Free Times last night, and saw my name “about 100 times” in Eva’s story.

Well, slight exaggeration. It was in there — let’s see — four times. Here are the passages in question, from Eva’s “The Benjamin Doctrine“:

For many years, Columbia was perceived as a city in which neighborhoods, not businesses, held the power. Neighborhood association presidents have the ear of their council members, who make sure various projects or developments do and don’t happen. But lately, that’s been changing.100213-cover

Brad Warthen, former editorial page editor of The State, describes the shift:

“What you tended to see under Coble and that City Council was things could not happen ‘because,’” Warthen says. “There was always some factor considered an enemy of this neighborhood; some neighborhood would be against it — just a sense that there were issues you couldn’t move forward on.” …

Despite the contentious mood on Council, and the city’s shifting power structures, Benjamin is not necessarily a polarizing figure. Unlike many public officials, he can’t be described as “a study in contrasts,” or “a larger-than-life character” or similar clichés. He’s more of a blank slate.

“There’s an ecumenical appeal to him — I think people can project whatever they want onto Steve,” says Warthen, who’s seen politicians in Columbia come and go. “He kind of tries to be all things to all people.”

Benjamin is the first black mayor of Columbia. He’s a Democrat, but his campaigns have been run by Richard Quinn & Associates, a storied Republican firm. He has close ties to the business community. As a former lobbyist, he’s well known at the State House. And his wife, a circuit court judge, joins him to the legal community. In the densely knit world of Columbia, he’s crossed by a lot of threads.

“A piece of it is he’s not from around here,” Warthen adds. “He has an accent that is plain American. Not regional. That’s a small piece of why I think people can look at him and think, ‘He’s like me.’”

Benjamin’s parents were from South Carolina, but he was born and raised in New York City. He moved to Columbia to attend the University of South Carolina — first the political science program, and later the law school….

I’m not sure I was being completely clear with that last bit. Let me elaborate…

Steve doesn’t sound black or white, or like he’s from any particular place. He sounds, essentially, the way I did as a young man, although the last 26 years back in South Carolina have caused me to sound vaguely Southern (I think). We both had SC roots, but grew up elsewhere.

So it may sound odd when I say that folks in Columbia can listen to him and think, “He’s like me” — particularly if they’ve lived here their whole lives and sound like it.

I just mean he sounds like, as Eva put it, a sort of blank slate. Since his accent, and the rest of him, don’t suggest that he is definitely this and therefore definitely not that, you can project what you want onto him. You can fill in the blanks with your own wishes and expectations.

That’s what I meant. If that makes sense to you. And even if it doesn’t, that’s what I meant.



32 thoughts on “What I said about Benjamin in the Free Times

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    and how terrible it is that neighborhoods, as in the people who actually live here, get such a say in city affairs. We need to step aside and let the carpetbaggers from elsewhere do their thing, before they retreat behind the gates of their covenanted communities to count their profits and stroke another check to the strong Mayor….

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Everyone should get a say, just not a veto.

      It’s a trees-versus-forest thing. Trees are great, and you can’t have a forest without them. But one tree shouldn’t determine the nature of the whole forest.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        The trees that live in the forest should count a whole lot more than the clearcutting developer who wants to make a quick buck.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Really? Because I was thinking that a lot of folks would think that being a blank slate, upon whom anyone can project what they want to see, would be a bad thing.

      I don’t think that — to me it’s kind of neutral. But a lot of people would hate to be described that way. As though they are lacking in any real character…

  2. Doug Ross

    First Obama was like you. Now Benjamin. I’m beginning to think your real name is Navin Johnson.

    1. FParkerr

      Aren’t Obama and Benjamin both Democrats? Would anyone mistake Brad for a black man? I mean besides the loud gangsta rap music coming from his car as he rolls up to you at a stop light.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Yes, because in your world, race, skin color actually, trumps everything, eh, Steven? Oops, I mean, F

        1. FParker

          Kathryn – Are you calling me a racist? Is this considered a personal attack on the blog? I know it would be on other forums I participate in.

          Brad do you put up with this type of post? If so I’m sure I can come back something to call Kathryn.

        2. Kathryn Fenner

          Read what you wrote and see how you appear to be baffled that anyone would “mistake Brad for a black man” — as if that were the top distinguishing factor between Brad and Benjamin or Obama. I did not call you any names. I called your comments on what they clearly implied!

  3. Phillip

    I thought Eva’s was a pretty good journalistic piece. It definitely laid out both the pros and the cons of Benjamin’s philosophy and style of leadership. I sort of “get” his whole point about the tax base, etc., and Columbia needs to “grow or die,” but then, still, at the end of the day, I don’t quite buy it entirely. Sure some things need to improve and certain amenities are nice to have, but part of any city’s identity is its livability, and one of Columbia’s charms is that it is not Charlotte, for example…Isn’t it enough to manage a city well, improve infrastructure, but retain the charms and the non-inevitability of “growth” of a small-to-mid-size city?

  4. Mark Stewart

    The rest of the world around us is growing and improving. What makes South Carolinians so resistant to change; no matter how positive?

    Surprised no one mentioned Bolton’s editorial in The State.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Because all change is not positive. All growth is not good! Rising tides swamp a lot of boats, and flood those without boats….

      1. Mark Stewart

        But when the tide goes out, everyone’s stuck in the pluff mud.

        Of course all growth is not good. But please don’t take my statement as one about real estate development only. Growth is cultural, educational, aspirational, economic, and social before it is about changing the structural environment. All of these kinds of growth – and many more – are truly essential to enhancing a community and it’s standing among its peers. These are the areas where growth is essential to a vibrant community. Real estate development, at its best, is merely reflective of these far more substantial areas of progress.

        1. Norm Ivey

          Holy City Brewery makes a great Pluff Mud Porter. Doesn’t taste much like pluff mud, though.

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            Except Steve seems to be very pro-real estate developer, as in Bob Hughes, while hiding important legal advice from us…..

    2. Juan Caruso

      Mark, are you from SC? SC is NOT on the list of The 10 Worst States to Be Unemployed (according to a source cite very recently by Brad warthen, the editor of 24/7 wall ST). Here’s the list, and Sheheen supporters may start altering their strategy now, or when too late: http://247wallst.com/special-report/2013/07/26/the-worst-states-to-be-unemployed/3/

      See, SC is getting better! What has also gotten much better (too slowly, however) is the good ol’ boy politics from the last time elected lawyers were SC governor, and both US senators simultaneously.
      Do you know how long that has been? Check out SC history like the good natives you despise.

      1. Mark Stewart

        I am not from SC. However, If I care about the state, by definition I do not “despise” SC natives.

        On the other hand, Nikki Haley has fully earned my political contempt. I have never made any bones about that.

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