A Transplant from Queens in the Heart of the Confederacy

Stephen Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, S.C., has ambitious goals for his city. He's off to a strong start.
by | March 21, 2013 AT 11:00 AM
Columbia Mayor Stephen Benjamin
Columbia Mayor Stephen Benjamin

A cadre of dynamic mayors is bringing a fresh, aggressive, optimistic approach to the challenges facing American cities. One of those mayors is Stephen Benjamin of Columbia, S.C., and for him it all started when he grew tired of hearing people talk about the city's "potential."

Benjamin came to South Carolina's capital city in a roundabout way. He was born and raised in New York City, in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, where his family had moved from Orangeburg, S.C., in 1967 as part of the great migration of blacks from the South. He came back south to Columbia to go to the University of South Carolina. He became a student leader, involved, he says, "in everything from diplomacy to agitation," and was eventually elected president of the student government and, later, president of the USC law school's Student Bar Association.

After graduation, he worked in the corporate arena in government affairs and became involved in Democratic politics. In 1999, at the age of 29, he was appointed to the governor's cabinet as director of the state's Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services. In that role, he saw how the ideas he'd had as a student studying political science could make a difference in people's lives. He ran for state attorney general and finished second, but by that time he'd definitely gotten the political bug.

He says he decided to run for mayor because he wanted his daughters to be proud of the town in which they'd been born and raised--that he wanted to be part of making Columbia's present meet the potential that everyone was talking about. He thought Columbia could become the most talented, educated and entrepreneurial city in America. That may sound overly ambitious, but the city does have strengths to draw on, including its relationship to the military through nearby Fort Jackson, which trains more than 45,000 soldiers annually; nearly 50,000 college students brought in by the university; and a thriving technical-college system. Harnessing the energy of these institutions, he thought, could make Columbia a talent magnet.

The path to realizing that kind of vision starts with an emphasis on fiscal austerity and good management. In the past, says Benjamin, the city had done a poor job of financial stewardship, going at least two years without being able to close its books properly. For the last three years, the city has closed its books every year on time and with a surplus. It also has been able to halve its liability for city retirees' "other post employment benefits" to $100 million. Last April, the city got a credit-rating upgrade.

Those steps toward fiscal health can only help Benjamin's efforts to develop the city's extensive riverfront and reintroduce Columbians to their city's historic core. The city used $425,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant money to leverage $6.1 million in private investment to bring downtown landmarks back to their former glory, including restoring the city's 140-year-old City Hall. The redevelopment strategy is working, the mayor says. "We've moved more commercial real estate in the last quarter than we did in the previous three years." Public excitement might be another measure of success: The city's first annual "Famously Hot New Year's Celebration" brought 22,000 people downtown.

The voters will get to weigh in on how well Benjamin has done a little sooner than has traditionally been the case in Columbia. He's up for re-election in November. He was first elected in April 2010, but the election date didn't seem logical to him so, working with the League of Women Voters, he got it moved up by five months.

Engineering the shortening of one's term of office might see an unusual move for an elected official, but then Stephen Benjamin is a pretty unusual politician: a son of Queens who transplanted himself to the heart of the old Confederacy. And Benjamin clearly is comfortable with change. As he put it in his state of the city speech in January, "We know that the old strategy of cheap labor and free property is a thing of the past and, in a world where industry follows talent, creating a culture of creativity and a unique sense of place is vital to all that we hope to accomplish."