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.
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.