City Council Chamber Forum 2019

Columbia City Council at-large candidates, from left, Howard Duvall, Amadeo Geere, Dylan Gunnels and Sara Middleton were among those who participated in a Columbia Chamber forum on Oct. 1, 2019.

As this is the last CityWatch column before the Nov. 5 election, a few thoughts on that subject. And thoughts only, as neither this column nor Free Times endorses candidates.

My first thought is that the at-large (citywide) council race has been remarkably low-key. As I write this, the campaign is down to the final seven days, yet I have received only one mail piece from any of the four candidates. How about you?  

That piece was from incumbent Howard Duvall. While the mailer had its share of fluff (crowing that 300,000 people visited Columbia for the solar eclipse, something that obviously had everything to do with us being directly in the path of the eclipse and little to do with anything he or City Council did), it also rightfully pointed to a critically important moment of substance that Duvall can rightfully claim.

Specifically, the mailer says that Duvall “kept his promise to end the practice of transferring water revenue into the city’s general fund.”

And indeed he did, as Duvall and fellow 2015 first term councilman Ed McDowell provided the votes to bring an end to the insanity of City Council diverting more than $100 million away from that dedicated fund, dating back two decades to the Coble-Cromatie era.

The result had been the system crumbling beneath us as Council kept robbing the water fund for both general fund and slush fund expenditures, culminating in a consent decree imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency forcing $750 million in repairs upon the city.  

Still, it took the votes of the newly elected Duvall and McDowell to put a stop to the staggering fiscal irresponsibility and basic public service neglect that councils before their arrival at City Hall had routinely and ridiculously approved.

Meanwhile, in terms of campaign presence, money matters. And one of Duvall’s challengers has it. Sarah Middleton has reported just over $50,000 in contributions (including $20,000 from herself). Meanwhile, Duvall reported just over $45,000 (including an $1,145 loan from himself).

My question is, what are Duvall and Middleton spending that combined nearly $100,000 on? Perhaps social media, which I tend to avoid or ignore. Or maybe a direct mail or TV blitz is coming from one or both in the final days.

But at this point at least, that much money has produced very little in terms of public awareness of or information about the candidates for the at-large council seat.

Not so with the District 3 seat, which has already seen lots of TV presence for two of the challengers, Will Brennan and John Loveday. The two topped all Council candidates in fundraising, with Brennan reporting $60,000 and Loveday just over $78,000.

Meanwhile, two-term incumbent Moe Baddourah has reported raising $22,500. Both Baddourah’s lower total and the significant money raised by his challengers are no doubt related to his suspension from Council when he was charged with misdemeanor domestic violence. He denied the accusation.  

While no one had ever been suspended from office by a governor based on a misdemeanor charge (all previous suspensions were for felony charges), Gov. Henry McMaster took that action and a circuit judge upheld it. Baddourah eventually was ruled eligible for pre-trial intervention, which erased the charge. McMaster then reinstated him to council.

Though he has less money, Baddourah seems to have more shoe leather than any other candidate. As Free Times reported last week that “word has been filtering through city political circles about his prodigious door-to-door campaign efforts.”

Baddourah used that same approach when he initially won the seat eight years ago, defeating Daniel Coble, son of former mayor Bob Coble. It was a stunning upset, but of course Baddourah had no legal or public relations baggage then. Can he survive this time?

We’ll see. The question is whether Baddourah can get into a runoff with either Brennan or Loveday. Both are attractive candidates, though I think Loveday hurt himself by bringing up Baddourah’s troubles in a TV ad.

It struck me as a combination of overkill and bad manners, as everyone knows about Moe’s woes. Further, Loveday went on to say in the ad that, “When our councilman was suspended, crime rose and our infrastructure crumbled.” That’s a bit much, even for a political candidate.   

Combine that with Will Brennan having come so close in his bid for Richland County Council last year and his endorsement by popular State Rep. Seth Rose, and I think he is the more likely of the two challengers to be smiling next Tuesday.

So here are my just-for-fun predictions, which again are not endorsements: Ed McDowell wins big in District 2, Howard Duvall wins closer but without a runoff in the At-Large race, and Will Brennan and Moe Baddourah head for a runoff in District 3.  

But don’t put too much faith in that — I predicted here that the Gamecocks would lose to Georgia and beat Florida!  

Kevin Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.

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