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As Columbia Mayor Benjamin enters final year, potential successors await reelection decision

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Steve Benjamin late 2019 (copy)

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin attends a 2019 City Council meeting. Benjamin enters the final year of his term mum on his future while potential successors await his decision on whether he'll seek another term. File/John Carlos II/Special to the Post and Courier 

COLUMBIA — Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin enters the final year of his term having raised relatively little campaign cash in recent months and mum as of now about his political plans as potential successors await his decision.

"I'm really praying over it," Benjamin told The Post and Courier last week. "I'll be speaking more openly about it very soon."

Benjamin is serving his third term after winning a special election in 2010 to become the city's first Black mayor. He most recently ran unopposed in 2017 to keep his seat for another four-year term.

During that time his influence has grown beyond the capital to include a place on the national stage with the Democratic Party and made Benjamin a coveted endorsement for presidential candidates visiting the state. His stature opens a range of possibilities for his political future, from running for reelection as the likely favorite in Columbia to a potential post in President-elect Joe Biden's incoming administration or run for higher office.

His campaign coffers might offer some insight.

Even while heading toward an uncontested race, Benjamin's campaign was pulling in contributions in 2016. His required quarterly campaign disclosure forms for April, July and October in 2016 showed $25,700 coming in contributions and another $32,550 during the final months that year.

During the same period in 2020, Benjamin's three quarterly reports totaled just $2,600.

The difference could be due at least in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, with local governments and businesses cast into financial uncertainty. It could also be an indicator Benjamin is not actively raising money in anticipation of not seeking another term, which would open the door for the mayor's allies and candidates not wanting to battle a popular incumbent. 

When a reporter noted the campaign disclosure numbers from the past year, Benjamin reiterated that he was praying about a decision and would be considering it over the next several weeks.

If he declines to run, that could launch the candidacy of some aligned with the mayor.

Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, a Benjamin supporter whose term on council is up this year, said she didn't know her plans beyond expecting to run again for her current seat this year.

"I've made it very clear that I have no intention of running against Mayor Benjamin," Devine said. "My decision will likely depend on what he chooses to do this year."

Sam Johnson, a former Benjamin aide considered a potential heir apparent, said he has fielded calls from community and business leaders who have encouraged his candidacy and that he is weighing the possibility. Johnson's plans also hinge on what Benjamin does, he told The Post and Courier. 

"I had a blast serving as his chief of staff, learned a ton and certainly feel passionately about Columbia, being a native," said Johnson, who is 33 and a consultant and public policy adviser at Nexsen Pruet. "I'm still kind of exploring that. Me and my wife are thinking about it, making sure it makes sense for our family. So we’ll see."

Daniel Rickenmann, a Columbia businessman whose term on the council is up at the end of the year, said he has not yet decided whether he might run for mayor or seek to keep his seat. Rickenmann first served on City Council from 2004 to 2012 before he was elected again in 2017 to represent District 4, which covers northeastern parts of the city.

Rickenmann said he was focused on possible reforms following a study showing local taxes are smothering economic growth in the area, and on emerging from the pandemic, before considering his political future.

"At this point I'm just evaluating what I want to do and what I want to get accomplished," he said. "I'm kind of really at a stage of being an open canvas. I think at this stage, probably in the next couple of weeks I'll start digging into that."

As mayor in Columbia's form of local government, Benjamin is one vote on a public body that makes city policies, passes an annual budget, appoints a city attorney and judges and oversees a city manager who runs the day-to-day functions of government.

But Benjamin has gained a national profile, serving as past president of U.S. Conference of Mayors, speaking at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, being considered for then-nominee Hillary Clinton's running mate, and leading a push for Columbia to become among the first cities in the country to ban the use of bump stocks in 2017 after the mass shooting at a Las Vegas concert.

More than a decade before becoming mayor, he was part of Gov. Jim Hodges' Cabinet and ran unsuccessfully for attorney general against Henry McMaster in 2002.

"He was on the short list in 2016 to serve as the No. 2 in the country, so I think the world is his oyster," Johnson said. "I think he could do any number of things and has some great opportunities — if he chooses not to serve in probably what he would say is one of the greatest roles of his lifetime, to serve as mayor."

Reach Stephen Fastenau at 803-365-3235. Follow him on Twitter @StephenFastenau.

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