That 2010 picture was an expression of something good, and rare, in our politics

My original caption on this picture was, "Dogs and cats, living together -- Republican Rick Quinn and Democrat James Smith at the Benjamin victory party."

My original caption on this picture was, “Dogs and cats, living together — Republican Rick Quinn and Democrat James Smith at the Benjamin victory party.”

Remember the night Steve Benjamin was elected mayor back in 2010? It was a heady evening, and a lot of people, including people you might not expect, were excited about it.

There were the usual suspects, of course. A lot of black voters were thrilled to have had the chance to elect the first black mayor of a major South Carolina city, only 15 months after seeing Barack Obama become president. And even though this was a nonpartisan election (as all elections should be), it was quite natural that white Democrats would be happy, too. Steve had been their party’s nominee for attorney general several years earlier, and had also served as an agency head in Gov. Jim Hodges’ administration.

But Benjamin’s appeal was much broader than that. There were some very prominent Republicans at his celebration, and they were as happy as anybody. In all my years in South Carolina, I had never seen these people at the same victory celebration:

But the best part of all? Seeing the happy Democrats (James Smith, Anton Gunn, Boyd Summers, etc.) and Republicans (Rick Quinn, Butch Bowers, Kevin Hall — at least, I heard Kevin was there) together there, and hearing the chant, begun by the mayor-elect, of “ONE Columbia.”

Reminds me of that awesome night in that same building when the people chanted “Race Doesn’t Matter!” in celebrating the Obama victory in the SC primary…

(By the way, if you’re not all that involved in politics, you might not know just how Republican Butch Bowers and Kevin Hall are. They were law partners at the time, and their clients included pretty much every statewide elected official in the state — all Republicans, of course — as well as much of the congressional delegation. We’re talking big-time GOP lawyers and movers and shakers behind the scenes.)

What I meant by that observation about Obama’s SC victory was, it was almost like people at the Benjamin thing were chanting, “Party doesn’t matter.” And you know what music that would be to my ears, feeling as I do about parties. I definitely got caught up in it myself, in a way I wouldn’t have back when I was at the paper:

It was pretty awesome being in the room when Steve made his victory speech. I was right up front, and when I congratulated him, I got one of those regular-guy combination handshake-hugs — which was also embarrassing for a serious journalist, but I was happy for him. In fact, I was caught up enough in the moment to Tweet this, which DID actually post, during his speech:

This is awesome. I’m happy for Steve, for everybody in this room, and for Columbia…

And I meant it. It was a big moment. I mean, the man had tears coursing down his face as I sent that out. And if you didn’t get a contact high from being in that crowd, you’ve got ice water in your veins….

So, in that atmosphere, with everyone enjoying the moment, I ran into James Smith and Rick Quinn at the same time and said something to them like, “This is not a sight you see every day. I’ve got to get a picture of this!”

So that political Odd Couple, in the spirit of the moment, gladly posed for me, and then went back to the celebration.

Why were so many different kinds of people happy about this result? Well, Rick’s motive was pretty clear — his Dad’s political consulting business had worked to get Benjamin elected. But the next question is, Why would the Quinn’s — as solidly identified with Republican candidates as anyone in South Carolina — work for this Democrat, even in a nonpartisan election?

I can’t answer that precisely because I don’t think I ever asked. But it seemed natural to me that such lines were crossed. My impression at the time as to why his support was so broad was because his message had been so unifying. Check out my shaky video from his victory speech, which he started out by repeating his campaign slogan: “We are ONE Columbia.”

His campaign had been about pulling together a fragmented community — not just split by party and race and class, or by town and gown or government and private sector, but by the fact that government itself here is the most fragmented I’d ever seen in my career when I arrived at The State to become governmental affairs editor in 1987. I came here from Wichita, Kansas — a city of about the same size at the confluence of two rivers, with a deep cultural split between the east and west sides of the water. Sound familiar? But it was easy for Wichita to move forward together because it was one city in one county with one school board and so on.

The economic community of Columbia is split not only between two politically incompatible counties, but into about 10 municipalities, seven school districts, and a confusing array of little special purpose districts that provide services cities and counties should provide (Richland County Recreation Commission, anyone?).

Benjamin had spoken of all of that as ONE Columbia, with optimism about what we could do together, with eloquence and Kennedyesque vigor (vigah?), and people were pumped about it.

So it was a night when it looked like it was possible to sweep aside all the usual garbage that divides us and causes so many of us to become depressed at the mere mention of the word, “politics.”

Speaking of all that garbage — that’s what causes me to bring up the subject of that night eight years ago.

I hear that someone is about to use MY photograph of James with Rick Quinn — without my permission, of course — to attack, to smear, to malign James Smith, to damage his chances of becoming governor, or even of getting his party’s nomination in the June 12 primary.

The photo couldn’t possibly damage him among people who know him or his record or his character. No, this would be a smear based on exploiting and manipulating voter ignorance, an attempt to generate this sort of reaction: I don’t know that James Smith, but he sure seems to be buddy-buddy with that Rick Quinn, and while I don’t recall exactly what Quinn DID, I’ve heard he’s some kinda crook or something! I better find somebody else to vote for…

Or, the hoped-for reaction could be as simple and stupid as this: That Rick Quinn’s a Republican! That James Smith must be one, too…

If this attack emerges, and it’s anything like what I’m hearing (I hope the rumors are wrong) it will be an expression of the things that make our politics ugly, relying on such things as blind partisanship, mistaken impression, damning a person for incidental association rather than for anything he ever did….

Will Folks predicted something like this would happen several months ago, having gotten wind of a group that was prepared to spend a lot to try to take down James Smith’s candidacy, by trying to make him appear to be something he’s not. I don’t know if what I’m hearing about now is the same thing. We’ll have to see when it emerges.

The thing is, James Smith is that rare thing in politics — a guy who not only looks like a Boy Scout, but really is one. He’s always been a clean, honest, diligent public servant. To try to suggest he is something else would be disgusting. And it would be especially appalling if a photo of mine was misleadingly used to do that.

I just hope what I’ve been hearing is wrong…

Steve Benjamin on that heady night in 2010 when he was elected mayor.

Steve Benjamin on that heady night in 2010 when he was elected mayor.

9 thoughts on “That 2010 picture was an expression of something good, and rare, in our politics

  1. bud

    I’ll concede that working toward certain common, shared goals for the common good, and, doing so in a spirit of compromise is a worthy objective of political discourse. In a perfect world the two major parties would each lay out their preferred method for achieving a specified objective and then proceed to debate the merits of those methods and then ultimately vote on a bill or bills that hopefully achieve the objective. The voters would choose between the two (or more likely several) competing visions and at times one side or the other would get very little of their chosen method. At times a compromise would be reached that completely satisfies no one. At the end of the day the final solution would be accepted and everyone would embrace it and try to make it work. In a perfect world that is how politics should work.

    But alas that is never going to happen. Once upon a time government did work more or less that way. I think everyone on this blog pretty much agrees we are far too polarized for that approach to see the light of day any time soon. What we have now is a winner take all government. The out party is completely shut out of any relevant role in the process.

    Ok, so we probably all agree, more or less, that this is where we are. Now comes the part where we will not agree. My reading of Brad and the false equivalency crowd is that the ideal model can still work within the existing ideological construct if only BOTH sides would throw away their partisan blinders and come together in a spirit of cooperation. I maintain that in many respects the Democrats HAVE tried to use the ideal political model only to get savagely rebuffed at every turn. (I have offered up many examples of that obstructionist behavior but will refrain here.) The Democrats are left with two unattractive options. Either they can continue to offer solutions that are in keeping with the party’s world view and hope to work with the Republicans. Or they can recognize the reality that the GOP has been taken over by the ultra right wing ideologues of Trump and his minions and just not even pretend any longer that cooperation is an option. As distasteful as that is it the only real option. For now the only thing to do is call out the false equivalency warrior for the enablers that they are and work toward winning elections.

    Hopefully at some point in time more sensible heads will prevail among conservative thinking folks and the GOP can become a reasonable organization once more. But until that time liberals must consider this a no holds barred fight to the finish. It is distasteful to think this way and the opposition is far more ruthless and skilled at this but fight we must. It is the only way forward at this time.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    By the way, y’all, I thought I’d share a couple of the comments on that original 2010 post, which reflect the giddiness of the moment. Our own Karen McLeod wrote:

    A Democrat and a Republican working together?! They’ll BOTH be anathema to their respective parties! But that sounds wonderful to me! It’s the most redemptive thing/event I’ve seen or heard tell of in SC in years!

    And then there was this from Kathryn Fenner:

    I’m kinda teary reading this post. Good job, Brad.

    And while she hasn’t commented here recently, some of you will recall that Kathryn isn’t normally the sort to get all teary.

    Of course, there were some of the usual cynical comments, which you are free to read. But I share the above to show you that I wasn’t the only one going all Pollyanna on bipartisanship and the excitement of the moment…

  3. Phillip

    So the obvious question is (aside from the Smith-Quinn photo issue), was the headiness of that evening justified in retrospect by what has happened in the city in the intervening 8 years, in your opinion?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, that’s a whole other subject.

      Has the promise been achieved? Probably not. Has Benjamin put in a decent effort? Maybe…

      I’d have to think hard about that one to give a definitive answer. After doing a heap of research to remind me of issues that have come and gone over the years. Maybe y’all can help me remember.

      And some of the biggest things I’d need to look at are things I’ve never fully made up my mind about (but about which others have PASSIONATE opinions) — like the Bull Street development.

      What do YOU think?

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Anyway, the one fact not in doubt is that a lot of people had high hopes that night, and James and Rick posed for that picture — at my instigation — in that mood…

  4. bud

    Until RR tracks are removed from street leve city of Columbia government gets a failing grade from me.

    1. Richard

      Yeah, but Benjamin makes up for it by having rap concerts and skating rinks up… both of which are money losers.

      1. Richard

        Yeah, I remember Bob “Rubber Stamp” Coble. That guy would approve everything that crossed his desk. One of the many reasons I moved across the river.


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