Downtown Columbia / Cut Throat Marketing
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On a recent weekend afternoon, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and his family took a trip out to Boyd Island, the scenic spot in the confluence of the Saluda, Broad and Congaree rivers at the western edge of the Capital City.
The mayor says that, as the waters rushed by, he waxed poetic with his daughters — for probably the millionth time, he admits — about the importance of the rivers in the foundation of Columbia. That’s when one of his girls, Jordan Grace, offered an idea.
She suggested that the new city flag — adopted by Columbia City Council earlier this year and almost immediately emblazoned on stickers, T-shirts, caps and more — could be put on a pole and raised right there on Boyd Island, announcing the city’s presence from the confluence.
A unique idea, to be sure, but the third-term Democratic mayor has never been averse to unique ideas. He’s long been enamored with the independent spirit of Columbia.
“Since March 1786, we were meant to represent something different,” Benjamin says, referring to the date when the state Legislature approved a bill to create a capital for South Carolina.
It’s a maverick streak that has continued through the ages, and has particularly manifested in moves made by Benjamin and Columbia City Council in the last few years, across a number of issues.
For instance, the council has adopted a host of new gun ordinances, meant to crackdown on everything from “trigger cranks” that make semi-automatic weapons perform like machine guns to essentially untraceable “ghost guns” that people can make at home without serial numbers.
While the city has insisted the moves are necessary to cut down on gun violence, they have been met with derision by some in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Now Columbia is being sued over a number of the gun laws by Republican S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, who has argued that it is the state, not cities, who have the power to make gun laws in South Carolina.
And some think the city gun laws are, at least in part, a bit of political theater.
Columbia area developer Joe Taylor — the former state secretary of commerce and long a critic of the Benjamin regime — says the council is often guilty of “staking out political positions instead of practical positions” when it makes headline-grabbing moves
“My opinion is that we are not spending enough time fixing our streets and making our city safer, curing the homeless situation, being advocates for how we can improve education in the city and the county,” Taylor tells Free Times. “Why aren’t we expending our energy on things like that, versus trying to buck up against constitutional questions on guns?
“I’m not saying I support it or don’t support it. I just don’t necessarily think it’s our particular place to do that.”
These gun issues are one of a number of areas where Columbia often conducts itself as if it’s its own state.
Columbia has made moves that are a nod to the racial justice movement that has gripped the nation after the deaths of Black people in incidents with the police. In August council voted to make Juneteenth — the annual remembrance of the end of slavery in the United States — an official paid holiday for city employees. While the Legislature, in 2008, approved a resolution recognizing Juneteenth, it is not an official paid state holiday.
The city also has sort of forged its own path in response to the coronavirus pandemic, seemingly outflanking the state at every turn. In June, Columbia was the second large city in South Carolina to adopt a mask ordinance, a move the state health department says has been beneficial in slowing COVID-19. Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has resisted a statewide mask ordinance, but has said cities and counties can enact them.
Columbia adopted a “stay at home” order in March, about 10 days before the state announced a similar order. And the Capital City had an 11 p.m. curfew through much of the spring and into the early summer. That preceded McMaster’s “last call” order in July, which, among other things, mandates that bars and restaurants stop alcohol sales at 11 p.m.
City officials insist that Columbia has steadfastly followed coronavirus data and the advice of public health officials, and has made COVID-19 decisions accordingly.
It’s tough to ignore the paradigm of politics, particularly in a state capital, which longtime City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine says brings additional gravity to the city’s actions, something its leaders embrace.
“We all recognize that, as the Capital City, people look to us,” she says. “Sometimes they look to us for guidance, sometimes they look to us to put our toe in the water before they do it. As the Capital City we recognize we are the leader and we have to act like leaders, and make sure we are moving not just our city, but our state forward.”
Mayor Steve Benjamin / photo by John Carlos
While he has yet to announce any formal plans, Benjamin has long been rumored to be considering a run for governor in 2022, so the COVID law dance between him and McMaster in recent months has seemed like something of a preview of things to come.
Meanwhile, small business owners — many of whom have felt the pinch of the maelstrom of laws and safety precautions amid the pandemic — have said they can sometimes feel caught in the middle of the volley between the state and city.
“It feels like we’re just a political football,” says Steve Cook, owner of Saluda’s restaurant in Five Points and the president of the nightlife and entertainment district’s merchants’ association. “And, man, that’s not a fair position to be in.”
Benjamin and crew have not been shy about enacting laws targeting guns.
Perhaps its most demonstrative move came in December 2017, when Columbia became the first city in the nation to ban bump stocks — also known as “trigger cranks” — which are devices that make a regular gun perform like a machine gun.
The city ban came about two months after a mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas, where a gunman killed dozens of people and injured hundreds of others. Authorities said a number of the gunman’s weapons had been modified with bump stocks.
Columbia’s move met opposition from some in the General Assembly. Republican state Rep. Jonathon Hill, an uber-conservative legislator from Anderson County, and several others filed legislation that would have overridden the city’s ban on the devices.
However, that measure never gained steam and, ultimately, the federal government came to see things the way Columbia does. In December 2018, the Justice Department ruled that bump stocks effectively turned semi-automatic firearms into illegal machine guns, and said citizens had to get rid of them.
“[Bump stocks] hit the scene here and we wound up with this unique challenge that posed a threat not just to individual Columbians, South Carolinians or Americans, but also to law enforcement,” Benjamin tells Free Times. “You found that there was this bold gray area, especially in a state like South Carolina where the Second Amendment is sacrosanct and no one is willing to lead. So we decided that’s a space we wanted to step into, because it was the right thing to do and the right time.
“We were willing to lead not just South Carolina, but the nation.”
Subsequent Columbia gun laws have also drawn the ire of state-level Republicans.
Wilson, the state’s legal chief, is challenging three gun ordinances Columbia City Council passed in 2019: one that prohibits the possession of firearms within 1,000 feet of a school; another that allows for the seizure of guns from individuals who have an extreme risk protection order against them, commonly known as a “red flag” law; and a third that added so-called “ghost guns” to the city’s nuisance laws. Ghost guns are homemade firearms that are made without a serial number.
Wilson has continued to argue that, with few exceptions, state law — not city or county regulations — takes precedence in regard to firearm regulations in South Carolina.
The mayor says council knew legal challenges to the city’s gun laws were inevitable.
“We raise them as policy, we have them vetted by [the city’s attorneys],” Benjamin says. “We discussed them as a council, understanding that there was a significant likelihood they would see a legal challenge. … Then we did the right thing.”
Councilman Howard Duvall, the former longtime director of the state Municipal Association, also acknowledges that council was well aware they could meet legal pushback on guns.
He also notes the city didn’t approach the laws hastily.
“It didn’t happen overnight that we supported those things,” Duvall says. “We talked about those things for several months.”
But some see the gun stances, and other city moves, as a bit of political grandstanding. Taylor, the developer and former commerce secretary, says the city needs to sharpen its focus on basic services and making it easier for companies to do business here. He bemoans the lack of construction cranes in Columbia that are seen in other nearby cities, like Greenville.
He also criticizes the aesthetic appeal of the city, saying maintenance and beautification efforts should be undertaken.
“Look at the appearance of the city,” Taylor says. “We talk about guns. But you know what? … I think the more pride you show in your city, the less crime you have.”
Benjamin downplays the idea that headline-making decisions Columbia has made, like the gun laws, have anything to do with any future political aspirations he might have.
“If someone like me was deciding to run statewide for governor, I could think of a whole lot safer decisions,” the mayor says, referring to things like the gun laws and bold moves amid COVID-19. “Or none at all, like a lot of folks do. A lot of folks decide to keep their cards close to the vest and not do anything someone might deem controversial. We’ve never led that way, and we are not going to start now. It would be very easy to do nothing.”
A Year With COVID
If there’s one thing that seemingly has remained true as COVID-19 walloped the U.S. this year, it’s that there isn’t a perfect response to the virus and its subsequent fallout.
But Columbia has done what it can to respond quickly to the pandemic.
The Capital City put in a mask mandate for people entering commercial businesses back in June, and has since renewed the ordinance twice. The current city mask law runs until November. Columbia was the second large city in the state to adopt a mask law, doing so the day after Greenville installed a similar measure in June. Dozens of other cities and counties followed suit, covering about half the state.
While the governor has not put in a statewide mask mandate, the state Department of Health and Environmental noted in a late August news release that “those jurisdictions with mask requirements in place have seen an overall decrease of 43 percent of total cases for the five weeks after the requirements were implemented compared to before the requirements were in place.”
And Columbia has pushed a number of other measures amid COVID-19, including the 11 p.m. curfew that preceded the governor’s ban on restaurant alcohol sales after 11 p.m..
Additionally, council passed an ordinance cracking down on large house parties as college students returned to the University of South Carolina’s Columbia campus in August.
Columbia quickly approved a COVID financial relief package, passing a measure in March that dedicated $2 million in city funds for small businesses and nonprofits. That package was approved a week before the federal government passed the $2 trillion CARES Act relief funding.
City Council members Tameika Isaac Devine and Howard Duvall / photo by John Carlos
“We were the first ones, even before the state and federal government, who were putting money in the hands of people,” Councilwoman Devine says. “We were on the forefront and did as well as we could. Are people still suffering? Yeah. People are still suffering. People are dying. People are financially hurt. We are going to continue to figure out what role we play as a city to lessen some of those effects.”
Council has resisted putting in another late-night curfew in an effort to slow down COVID. There were rumblings about it in August, but Benjamin ultimately said the city would likely not reinstate a curfew as long as McMaster’s 11 p.m. alcohol order is in place. However, the mayor said at the time the city would reconsider if McMaster ended his “last call” law.
Cook, the Saluda’s restaurant owner and Five Points business leader, says he would be against the city going back to a curfew if McMaster rescinds his 11 p.m. alcohol order.
“You are basically telling everybody, ‘The City of Columbia is not safe, don’t come here,’” Cook says of a curfew. “So, you are putting all the businesses at a competitive disadvantage, and for what? It’s really to make a political point.”
For his part, Benjamin now says he hasn’t talked with council about a return to a city curfew since August, and would have to consider the state of COVID-19 in Columbia before returning to one, if McMaster were to rescind his late-night booze law.
Duvall feels the same way.
“I’d have to think about that one,” the at-large councilman says. “I’m hopeful that McMaster understands that his last call order is a lot less restrictive on businesses than a curfew. Municipal government does not have the prerogative of pinpointing alcohol in a last call situation, like the governor. So, the only tool we would have would be a curfew, and it would hurt a lot more businesses than just closing down alcohol at 11 o’clock.”
The Blessing and the Burden
This has been a year of reckoning in America in regard to racial and social justice.
Protest and civil unrest — in Columbia and across the nation — has been widespread after George Floyd, a Black man, died while in police custody in Minnesota, and after Jacob Blake, also a Black man, was shot seven times in the back by police in Wisconsin. Both incidents were caught on video, and have sparked outrage and activism across the summer.
It’s a searing moment of protest that has been rekindled after authorities in Louisville, Kentucky last week declined to charge any officers directly in the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was shot multiple times when officers raided her home while executing a search warrant connected to her ex-boyfriend.
With the winds of racial justice on the air, this was a year in which June 19 — commonly known as Juneteenth — took on an elevated perch in the national discussion, as people acknowledged the day that commemorates the end of slavery.
Columbia took action to make Juneteenth more than simply an observance in years going forward.
On Aug. 26, council voted unanimously to make it an official city holiday, one in which the city’s employees get a paid day off work. At the time, the state Municipal Association was not aware of any other towns or cities in SC that had gone as far as to make it a paid holiday. Irmo Mayor Barry Walker has said that town just north of Columbia would likely consider a measure this fall to make it a full holiday.
Benjamin says council thought the timing was right to make a move on Juneteenth.
“You only get, sometimes, a few moments to effect meaningful change,” the mayor says. “We are living in one of those moments. If you want to make a big decision to move forward, you have to be able to seize the opportunity. I’m just thankful for the leadership of the entire council recognizing … the contributions of African Americans to Columbia, South Carolina and the U.S.”
The Juneteenth measure caught the attention of longtime Columbia civil rights activist and author Catherine Bruce, who says she appreciated that council was willing to approve the holiday.
But Bruce, who mounted an unsuccessful run for City Council in 2019, says the city could do more to help marginalized communities.
“I think we still have these broad swaths of the community that are low income, and especially with COVID, it has laid open and laid bare everything that is in need of improvement,” Bruce says. “A lot of people who were living on the poverty line and not having their voices heard, now it’s even more the case. Not having access to funding, to jobs, all of that has been made even worse.”
As just one small example, Bruce noted that city council meetings are, during the pandemic, being held online, and that some in the community might not have the access to the internet that is effectively needed to watch and participate in the meetings.
Still, stepping forward to make Juneteenth a paid holiday is another example of the Capital City taking its own path.
Benjamin insists it’s the kind of thing that is expected of Columbia.
“I do believe there is a unique responsibility being the Capital City, with all the blessings and burdens that you bear as a capital city,” he says.