Orangeburg Mayor-elect Michael Butler says he didn’t become this city’s first black mayor this week by focusing on race.
“Being African American, that’s who I am, who I always will be,” he said Friday. “But in my focus, I focused on the citizens. I didn’t focus on race. I focused on the citizens and the needs of the people.”
Butler will retire in June from his job as a career specialist at the Technology Center in Orangeburg Consolidated School District 5 to focus more on his new role as mayor, a part-time position. He also founded and serves as pastor of Victory Tabernacle Deliverance Temple of the Apostolic Faith.
He will get sworn in Oct. 1 — three weeks after he edged by three-term incumbent Mayor Paul Miller in a light turnout.
Butler’s election tips the balance of power on City Council, where whites have had a 4-3 majority for years. That’s now flipped for the first time.
The city’s electorate is about 70 percent black —and it’s home to two predominantly black schools, Claflin and S.C. State universities.
However, black residents are relatively new on the city’s political scene: There were no African-American council members until the city switched to single-member districts in the 1980s. Since then, it has had only two mayors.
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a veteran lawmaker from Orangeburg, said she was not involved in the race but watched it unfold. And she said Butler’s becoming the city’s first black mayor and City Council gaining its first black majority are “obviously significant.”
“I think it’s an important milestone,” she said. “We will see how well it bodes.”
Butler’s platform included seven promises. He vowed to: champion economic development; revamp neglected properties; reduce crime; reduce unemployment; promote an educated workforce; improve collaboration between the city and the county; and serve college students’ needs.
Asked how he hoped the city would be different in the next two years, he said, “Two years from now, I hope to see you see a community working together toward one common goal, and that is to make the lives in this city better.”
Butler said he also wants to focus on bridging the gap between the city and county. “We seem to be a little divided in that area,” he said. “The city and county need a closer working relationship.”
Miller, former chair of the S.C. Municipal Association, said he ran on his record, which includes a 76 percent reduction in crime since 2000, $8 million worth of downtown streetscape work, and $458,000 worth of rebates recently from the city-run utility system and no business license increases or employee furloughs.
Asked why he though he lost, Miller said, “I’m not going to say. They just decided they wanted a different mayor.”
A racial undercurrent
Miller served two terms on Orangeburg City Council before running for mayor in 2001, when he defeated a black challenger.
He said both he and his predecessor, the late Mayor Martin Cheatham, worked to build bridges to the city’s African-American community.
“My wife and I go to S.C. State’s football games, and I go to Claflin with my wife all the time,” Miller said. “Twenty-five years ago, that would never have happened.”
He also was very aware of the rocky racial history in the city, site of a massacre many consider South Carolina’s greatest tragedy during the Civil Rights era.
Miller recently played a lead role in helping fix an error in a monument to the victims of the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, where three young men were shot while protesting being excluded from an all-white bowling alley. The memorial had the wrong middle initial for Delano H. Middleton.
Miller contacted Middleton’s nephew because he was concerned about the error, and with his encouragement, saw it was corrected.
During this year’s campaign, Butler raised about $9,847, about half as much as the $19,620 that Miller raised.
Butler credited his 120 volunteers and efforts to knock on doors and reach out across the city.
“The campaign was very organized. We had a very good campaign manager and support and volunteers who worked with us,” he said. “That organization brought us to victory.”
Cobb-Hunter said Miller had support among black voters, just as Butler attracted some white voters, “but the majority of Mayor-elect Butler’s support came from the black community and the majority of Mayor Miller’s support came from the white community.”
“Race was an undercurrent,” she added. “Paul Miller didn’t say, ‘Vote for me because I’m white,’ and Michael Butler didn’t say, ‘Vote for me because I’m black.’ But we are in the South, and we are in South Carolina.”
Miller said he has no regrets. “I can walk away feeling like I left the city in better shape than it was when I came on board,” he said. “I told Bishop Butler I wish him well, and I hope he is able to do the things he sees coming.”
An Alabama native who grew up in Atlanta, Butler said he was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. He moved to Orangeburg to attend Claflin, and he graduated from there in 1983.
Asked why he decided to run for mayor, Butler credited one of his English professors at Claflin for inspiring him.
“She talked to me about doing something great for Orangeburg,” he said. “I just felt this was the right time.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.