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…