Category Archives: 2010 Columbia

Praying for some leadership in Columbia

We had various speakers today at Columbia Rotary talking about homelessness in our community, including Amos Disasa from Eastminster Presbyterian, speaking on behalf of the Midlands Interfaith Homelessness Action Council (which he acknowledged that, as organization names go, is a mouthful).

Saving me from taking a heap of notes, Rev. Disasa mentioned the group's Web site, at which you can read the following:

More than $9 million has been raised to build a Homeless Transition Center in downtown Columbia.  Yet this badly-needed facility is facing opposition from near downtown neighborhoods as well as some political leaders.

It is our prayer that the faith community will rally behind the Transition Center.  The starting point is to educate yourself on the need for the Center.  You will find valuable information and perspective in the slide show above.

Then we hope you will sign the petition below and that you will get others to sign it, as well.  We want our city leaders to understand that there are many more of us who support the center than those who oppose it.

When the MIHAC was formed 18 months ago, who could have dreamed that our community could have made so much progress?  But we are not there yet, which is why this petition campaign and your help are so crucial.  Read the petition that follows, please download it, sign it and encourage others to sign it.  With your help we can light the way to end homelessness.

By the way, as I mentioned in a comment a little while ago on my Sunday column post — after Rotary, Jack Van Loan mentioned that he'd received word that the mayor is mad at him over the subject of my column. Jack said his reaction was to tell the person who told him that to give the mayor his phone number…

The blessing of a potential candidate

Editorial Page Editor
On a brilliant, warm February afternoon, I was holed up in a darkened booth in an Irish-themed pub talking local politics. Not exactly James Joyce’s “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” but a reasonable Columbia facsimile.
    Jack Van Loan was holding court at his “office” in a booth at Delaney’s in Five Points — files and organizer on the table before him next to his coffee, his briefcase opened on a nearby bench. From such locations Jack makes and takes his multiple calls getting ready for the big St. Patrick’s Day event March 14, and talks Five Points politics.
    Last year, he was blessing Belinda Gergel for the 3rd district City Council contest that she eventually won. This time, he was pushing someone for mayor.
    It was Steve Benjamin, whom I’ve known for years; we endorsed him for state attorney general in 2002. But Jack wanted to “introduce” him as his candidate for mayor, and I wanted to hear what Jack — a force in the Five Points Association since 1991 — had to say about him.
    Jack says the necessary ingredient in leadership is courage — something he knows about, having been imprisoned at the “Hanoi Hilton” with John McCain. He says Steve Benjamin’s got it. “He’s not a Goldwater conservative,” which would be more to Jack’s liking. But “This is my guy.” If he runs.
    Mr. Benjamin says he’ll decide whether to take on Mayor Bob Coble “in the next couple of months.” No later, because he will need the full year running up to the April 2010 election. Jack agrees: “A year’s nothing.”
    What this would mean is that Bob Coble would face something other than the “usual suspects” opposition that has tended to characterize his re-elections. Last election, Kevin Fisher mounted the most serious race in a while, but that was weak compared to what Steve Benjamin would do. He wouldn’t just be a focal point for the discontented. He has the name, connections and credibility to challenge the mayor in the very heart of his political support.
    And now, confidence in Columbia’s leadership is at a low ebb. City finances are an inexcusable mess; the police department is reeling from a string of problems. The city manager has quit, after the council couldn’t get its act together to evaluate him. The seven elected political leaders seem incapable of summoning the will to cope with anything, from homelessness to closing a deal to provide more parking spaces in Five Points (a very sore point for Jack).
    “I have a great relationship with Bob Coble,” says Mr. Benjamin. “On my worst day, he’s been a great acquaintance.” Further, he says he doesn’t doubt the mayor’s dedication to the city.
    So, as he says the mayor himself asked him, why consider running against his friend Bob? While he still hasn’t made up his mind, “reasons become clearer every day — every morning after I read your paper.”
    If he runs, the campaign will be positive, and “aspirational.” He wants to grow old here. He wants his children to raise their children here.
    To hear his wife or law partners tell it, he’s already involved in “too many things:” Among them, he’s chairman-elect of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, and vice chairman of the Columbia City Center Partnership. I don’t find it unusual to run into him twice in the same day, at unrelated community events.
    “I think we lack a clear and cohesive vision about where this city needs to go,” he says. More than that, he understands that the city lacks the means for translating any such vision into effective action.
    In other words, he advocates replacing Columbia’s unaccountable, failed council-manager government with a strong-mayor system. A full-time mayor with responsibility for, rather than politically diffused detachment from, the day-to-day executive functions of the government is necessary “for a city trying to make the next leap — from good to great,” he says. “Some say it’s a third rail,” but “it’s hard to look somebody in the eye and say I want to run the city, and then say you don’t really want to run the city.” Under the current setup, not a lot of people would want the job — at least, not a lot of people a reasonable person would want to want the job.
    He mentions several important issues the city has yet to cope with — transportation, clean air and water. But it is on homelessness that he draws a sharp contrast. He says the proposal of the Midlands Housing Alliance to establish a multi-purpose center to fight homelessness at the Salvation Army site “is sound, is 95 percent of the way towards being funded, looks like a certainty and certainly fills a void.” As a former resident of the Elmwood neighborhood, he understands concerns, but believes “some strong, good neighborhood agreements” could reassure folks such a center would not be a detriment.
    Mr. Benjamin is a veteran of the last failed effort to establish such a center, which was undermined by the City Council. That experience “put us on notice that if something’s going to happen, it may have to happen in spite of elected city leadership.” Various stakeholders, from business leaders to service providers, came together in the Housing Alliance to provide that missing direction, and now Mr. Benjamin says the city should step up and do its part, which would include providing operating funds.
    “I don’t get the impression that the city leadership thinks it’s a problem,” says Jack Van Loan. Referring to Cathy Novinger of the Housing Alliance, he adds, “That gal would have made a damned fine general officer in the Air Force. She can make a decision without stuttering.”
    It’s a quality that the former fighter pilot values, and one he suggests that he sees in Steve Benjamin.
And while it’s far too soon to say wh
o should win, if Mr. Benjamin gets into the race, Columbia will have its clearest chance in a long while to pick a new direction.

For links and more, please go to

Sunday preview: Ivy Day in the Committee Room (5 Points version)

    Old Jack raked the cinders together with a piece of cardboard and spread them judiciously over the whitening dome of coals. When the dome was thinly covered his face lapsed into darkness but, as he set himself to fan the fire again, his crouching shadow ascended the opposite wall and his face slowly re-emerged into light….

        — from "Ivy Day in the Committee Room," by James Joyce

In the middle of a brilliant, unusually warm February afternoon (Thursday), I was holed up in an Irish-themed pub talking local politics. Jack Van Loan was holding court at his "office" in a booth at Delaney's pub in Five Points. And when I say office, I mean "office," with his files and organizers on the table before him next to his coffee, and his briefcase opened on a bench close at hand. From such locations Jack makes and takes his multiple calls getting ready for the big St. Paddy's Day event (March 14) and talks Five Points politics.

Last year, he was pushing Belinda Gergel for the 3rd district council contest that she eventually won. Today, he was conveying his blessing upon another (potential) candidate — this one for mayor.

The candidate, or potential candidate, sat in the dark with the bright light coming in the window behind him so that I was talking to a silhouette — a little like the effect when you talk to Joe Riley in his office down there at the Four Corners of the Law, with that huge cathedral-like array of windows behind him, and the fluid light of the Holy City radiating all about him. This was a little more prosaic than that, but then this wasn't the mayor yet, just a potential candidate.

Who was the candidate? Well, that's him in the very bad phone picture above, with Jack at his right. Shouldn't be hard to figure out. The thing about this candidate was, I needed no introduction. We've endorsed him for statewide office in the past. But my friend Jack wanted to introduce him as his candidate for mayor in next April's election, and I wanted to hear what Jack — a force in the influential Five Points Association since 1991 — had to say about him. It wasn't exactly Joyce's "Ivy Day in the Committee Room" and we didn't talk about Parnell, but by Columbia standards it would do.

Anyway, the rest of the story will be in my Sunday column, so tune in.