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As Republicans laud Rickenmann's Columbia mayor win, many downplay impact on city politics

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Daniel Rickenmann celebrates winning the Columbia mayoral race on Nov. 16, 2021, at an election night party. File/John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — While Republican Party leaders in South Carolina and beyond celebrated a mayor-elect with conservative ideals in the capital city, observers say it's yet to be seen whether the election result will bring an ideological shift for Columbia's policymaking body.

Daniel Rickenmann, who has held both citywide and district offices on Columbia City Council over 12 years, won a runoff Nov. 16 to succeed Mayor Steve Benjamin. He outlasted fellow council member Tameika Isaac Devine in a nonpartisan race that, nonetheless, drew sharp contrasts in the final days between the Republican businessman and a Democrat in Devine who had the backing of some of the party's most notable figures.

Walter Whetsell, the veteran GOP political strategist behind Rickenmann's victory, said it's natural in the current political climate for broad political labels but that Rickenmann had to go beyond Republican support to win a city that voted 66 percent for Joe Biden during the 2020 presidential election.

"A very large piece of our success is built on Republican voters, no question," Whetsell said. "But it’s not enough."

Whether Rickenmann, the first mayor of the capital city to be considered Republican in decades, ushers in a conservative majority on the seven-member council is to be determined.

With former state Commerce chief Joe Taylor filling Rickenmann's District 4 seat and business-minded District 3 councilman Will Brennan, Rickenmann could find the votes to carry out his platform among his remaining colleagues, including newly elected at-large representative Aditi Bussells.

After a hard-fought campaign that includes both state political parties getting involved and Devine receiving backing from former President Barack Obama and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., Rickenmann's victory by receiving 52 percent of the vote garnered broad attention.

"Success breeds momentum and momentum breeds success," S.C. GOP Party Chairman Drew McKissick said. "So we expect this to energize Republicans and conservatives here in Richland County, where we've got a lot of work to do."

During a campaign bitter in the final days, Rickenmann teamed with Taylor to promote an economic study they say points to a need for lower property taxes and reduced barriers to business. He called for clean streets, reduced violent crime and increased resources for police and fire. Devine shared similar support for investing in public safety but on the backdrop of a platform that the city should focus on equity and inclusion at each level of its operations and spending.

But Taylor said there's no place for partisan politics in local government.

"No offense to anybody, but low crime, safe streets, good schools are universal," he said. "I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat, that matters to everybody.”

Former state GOP Chairman Katon Dawson declined to categorize the Columbia result as a win for his party, though he noted Republican momentum in other areas, such as the city of Georgetown, which elected a GOP mayor for the first time ever on Nov. 2.  Dawson said voters choosing Rickenmann was a resounding vote for change.

"I think the statement was 'Thank you, Steve Benjamin, we’re going in different direction,' " said Dawson, who lives in Columbia. "I don't think it was Republican vs. Democratic."

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., took notice of the result in the city of 136,000 residents.

"Columbia, SC has been led by Dem mayors for 30 years. @JoeBiden won this city by 30 points in 2020 and @BarackObama campaigned for the Democrat," Scott tweeted. "But last night, Republican @Rickenmann had a big win. The red wave is coming!"

But others closer to city operations dismissed the role of party rhetoric for a nonpartisan body that sets water and sewer rates and responds to residents' complaints about potholes.

Former Columbia Mayor Bob Coble, who was in office during much of Rickenmann's first two terms on City Council, said Rickenmann's even demeanor and broad experience on city government should make him an effective leader.

The fact Rickenmann will be the city's first mayor to be associated with Republicans in decades shouldn't matter much on the municipal level, Coble said.

Benjamin, who gained a national platform during more than 10 years in office, congratulated Rickenmann and assured him of a smooth transition.

"I know he will be committed to building on our collective successes and achievements and the vision of OneColumbia," Benjamin said in statement Nov. 17.

Rickenmann could do well to follow Benjamin's lead as a consensus builder, said Columbia political strategist Rob Godfrey, a former spokesman for then-Gov. Nikki Haley.

Godfrey said he believed the heated runoff between Rickenmann, who is White, and Devine, who is Black, revealed a racial divide in the capital city.

"It's up to him to build a broad coalition of people and surround himself with a coalition, so that he can be ready to lead the city through challenging times," Godrey said. "Such as the way Mayor Benjamin did during the summer of George Floyd (protests)." 

Adam Benson and Andy Shain contributed from Columbia.

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

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