PHILADELPHIA — On Monday night, television viewers of the Democratic National Convention wondered, who was the bespectacled African-American man sitting next to former President Bill Clinton?
Some speculated on Twitter it was Randy Jackson, who is best known as a judge on the former reality show “American Idol.”
It was actually Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin. And if those same viewers were tuning in to live coverage of the DNC on Tuesday night, they would have seen him delivering prime-time remarks from the main stage.
Those who know Benjamin personally aren’t surprised at his rise.
“People could get a sense that he was going to do great things, that he always had a great vision to move things forward and to bring people together,” said Third District delegate and political operative Trav Robertson, who overlapped for a year with Benjamin at the University of South Carolina, “so there’s no surprise to some of us that he was sitting next to Bill Clinton.”
One of the state’s top Democrats agreed.
“I met Steve when he was a young law student and he was interning over at the legislature,” recalled former S.C. Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat, “and he immediately was someone that I and a number of people recognized as a talented, charismatic person who was going to do well with us.
“Fast forward seven years later, when I was elected governor and I was looking for talented young people to bring into the administration,” Hodges continued. “Steve was the person.”
Benjamin served in Hodges’s cabinet as the director of South Carolina Probation, Pardon and Parole Services.
People who know Benjamin professionally are likewise unfazed by his fast rise to the national spotlight. He was a very early supporter of Hillary Clinton for president in South Carolina, assuming the role as a state co-chairman and taking personal time to travel to other states to campaign for her.
He told The Post and Courier he has developed what he considers a friendship with Bill Clinton during times where they shared coffee in Columbia and watched a basketball playoff game in Atlanta.
“This isn’t the first time the two have been seen sitting next to each other,” said state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a longtime friend of Benjamin’s.
Benjamin is second vice chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, poised to become the president in two years (which would make him the first South Carolina president of the organization since former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley in the mid-1980s).
Benjamin also has been a team player with Obama’s administration. He recently visited the White House for a panel discussion on President Barack Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” project, which aims to empower young boys and men of color. Benjamin was showcased as an example of what city leaders can do to show how “My Brother’s Keeper” tenants can be turned into community initiatives.
Columbia’s police department also has been lauded for showing how law enforcement agencies can build, or rebuild, public trust by collecting data about their practices and sharing the findings with the community.
In a DNC media room adjacent to the Wells Fargo arena, Benjamin, taking a break from rehearsing his speech, told The Post and Courier he has worked hard to “really elevate Columbia’s profile,” and “articulate a bold vision for American cities.”
He wouldn’t say whether he had greater ambitions beyond serving as Columbia’s mayor. He said he’s running for reelection, but his name has been floated as a possible candidate for governor in 2018.
If 76-year-old U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., were to retire in the next few years, Benjamin might find himself looking toward the race for that open seat as well.
“He’s one of my favorite people,” Clyburn said of Benjamin earlier Tuesday. “He’s part of our party’s future. That’s one of the big things for me, as you know. Start building a bench, getting people trained for the future and I think he’s a part of the future.”
Clyburn will speak form the main stage Thursday night, as will S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison and former State Rep. and CNN analyst Bakari Sellers. “They’re all the future,” he said.
As for how Benjamin got to be where he is today, he said, “I can’t say. All I can say is, I’ve worked very hard to appropriately, aggressively, represent the people of our city.”
But on Tuesday night, Benjamin didn’t talk about cities, urban growth, infrastructure or community trust. He didn’t list his credentials like his leadership position with the Conference of Mayors, or praise Clinton’s policy proposals.
Instead, he spoke about his two young daughters, whom he had promised a year ago to help elect Clinton the president of the United States.
“I want them to feel the same way I felt eight years ago when President Obama was elected,” Benjamin said, “to feel in their hearts that, in America, anything is possible. Because it is.”
His fellow South Carolinians on the convention floor greeted him with cheers of “we love Steve,” and each held up a sheet of paper printed with a letter spelling his name. Kimpson trained his cell phone on the stage, beaming proudly.
And Benjamin’s daughters, watching him at home on their television in Columbia, knew who he was, too.
Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.