I found Howard Duvall Thursday on the sidewalk in front of the Vista Starbucks, talking on his cell phone.
Afterwards, he tells me there’s been a change since he was the top vote-getter in his bid for the at-large seat on Columbia City Council Tuesday. He still spends much of the day trying to raise money, but he doesn’t have to call them so much as “People are calling me now.” He has no illusions as to the source of his new popularity: “They want my ear later on.”
Some of those donors may assume he’ll win the runoff on Nov. 17, but he’s being careful not to jinx himself. “It’s a brand new election,” he said. “If they’d let you bank that 15 percent” he’d feel more like the winner, a reference to the fact that he received just under 40 percent of the meager vote Tuesday, while his runoff opponent got 25 percent.
I saw evidence that he’s picking up at least some support from third-place finisher Cameron Runyan, who lost his seat on Tuesday: Hal Stevenson, who recently had a fund-raiser at his home for Runyan, plans to back Duvall now. Hal owns the building in which the Starbucks is located, and the offices of his Grace Outdoor billboard company are right upstairs, so you can find him there with coffee in hand a lot. And before Mr. Duvall and I sit down for an interview, Hal promises to send him a check.
Then we sit down to talk — me with a tall, black Gold Coast, him with one of the fancier drinks — and the first thing I ask him about is his alliance with District 2 candidate Ed McDowell against Mayor Steve Benjamin’s preferred candidates, Andy Smith and Aaron Bishop.
Duvall sort of downplays that, saying that he’s become friends with McDowell after meeting him at the kickoff for National Night Out at the end of July. For that matter, he says he’s even gotten to be friendly with his opponent Andy Smith, from running into him on the campaign trail.
And he doesn’t like to be described as anti-Steve Benjamin: “I like Steve Benjamin. We’ve been friends for years. We have a long and pleasant history.”
“I’m not anti Benjamin; I’m just pro fiscal responsibility” — the implication, of course, being that he doesn’t think the mayor always is.
As for McDowell’s connection to E.W. Cromartie, which the mayor loves to mention, “Cromartie has served his time,” and “is well respected” by a lot of people in the community. For those who forget Mr. Cromartie, The State provided this primer:
But McDowell has said previously that he has accepted campaign contributions and political advice from E.W. Cromartie. The controversial former District 2 political powerhouse is more of an adviser than a contributor, McDowell said in a previous interview. Cromartie lost his seat after a federal conviction for tax evasion and for trying to hide what he was doing from the Internal Revenue Service. He served about a year in prison and is back home….
Here are some other things we talked about:
- I forget how it came up — it may have been a segue from Duvall’s conversation with Hal Stevenson and his support for Runyan — but the candidate urged me to check out this clip from the GOP-sponsored debate at Doc’s Barbecue, in which Duvall told voters “I’m not running to be your priest.”
- He hasn’t spoken to incumbent Runyan since he and Smith outpolled him Tuesday, although he tried: “I called him; he didn’t answer his cell phone.” He says he left a message in which “I thanked him for his service.”
- I asked what he was hearing from voters as he knocked on doors across the city. He said the thing that has struck him the most is that crime is seen as a problem in every neighborhood in the city. He was surprised to learn that there had been three recent drive-by shootings in the Melrose area.
- When he spoke about his opposition to a development that he feared would be harmful to the Gills Creek watershed, I noted that between that and his opposition to the ballpark, some might think of him as anti-development. I asked whether that bothered him, and he said “I love to build things,” but again, “My main concern is the financial management.” He’s worried that Columbia has maxed out its capacity for general obligation bond, and has turned to the “payday lender” of municipal financing — installment purchase bonds. This was followed by an explanation of how such bonds work that was over my head. The upshot was that they are expensive, risky instruments. If y’all must know how they work and why they concern him in detail, I’ll track him down and get the explanation on video or something. I am not a good vessel for relaying such information.
- And his problems with the Bull Street project extend beyond the financing. He says the project has morphed from a good plan for a mixed-use urban village to an “entertainment district that will cannibalize the Vista and Five Points.
- He said he’s raised about $80,000 for his campaign and has about $9,000 left. By the time the runoff is over, he expects to have spent $100,000, which is what he had planned to spend.
I then asked him whether there was anything he thought the mayor and present council had done that was good. And he didn’t have to think hard to come up with examples:
- The ongoing redevelopment of Main Street. The Nickelodeon and Mast General, to be more specific.
- The hiring of Police Chief Skip Holbrook after a nightmarish period of instability. “They hired a pro” who has done a lot of good for the city.
- A reduction in transfers from water and sewer to use as general funding.
He said they’ve done good on “a lot of basic things.” So he’s not against everything that’s happened during Steve Benjamin’s tenure. But he does think the city needs him as a check on some of the “undebated projects that the mayor brings up.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: I have an interview with Andy Smith set up for Saturday afternoon, so I should have a post from that sometime over the weekend.
So he’s not the guy to get the billboard out of the middle of the Congaree River. Wouldn’t be fiscally prudent. Or something.
Last, if I were a want to be “good government” politician in Columbia, drawing a link to Cromartie would probably be the thing I would not want to do. Cromartie got along by playing factions and balkanizing the Council. He was malfeasance in office; and was convicted for it. A striking odd bit of contortion from Duvall. Not good when one can’t call it as it is.
What billboard in the middle of the Congaree River?
The two on the tip of the Columbia Canal at the Gervais St Bridge.
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