It seems the City of Columbia's business and political scene has lost one of its more colorful members.
According to several Columbia officials, Joe Azar, the longtime owner of Upstairs Audio in Five Points and a seemingly perpetual candidate for seats on Columbia City Council, has died.
Azar had been battling cancer for months.
"So sorry to hear of the passing of Upstairs Audio owner, Joe Azar," Columbia Chamber CEO Carl Blackstone tweeted on Monday morning. "He was opinionated and passionate in everything he believed in. Joe also loved Columbia, SC and he did his part to make it a better place to live. #RIP"
Third term Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin also weighed-in on Azar's death.
"@CityofColumbia City Council just observed a moment of silence in memory of Joseph Azar," Benjamin tweeted early Monday morning. "We all had opportunities to agree & disagree with Joe over the years but we never doubted his LOVE of @ColumbiaSC #RIPeace Joe."
Benjamin's note was a nod to Azar's seeming omnipresence on the city's political scene. The business owner was often an antagonist of the mayor's agenda, and was even one of several opponents of Benjamin in the 2010 mayoral race. Still, few doubted Azar's passion for the Capital City.
"Joe Azar was one of a kind," Benjamin told Free Times later Monday morning. "Though an unabashed and outspoken critic of things that he disagreed with, you could never doubt his love of his hometown."
One of the longstanding traditions in city politics was Azar's unending effort to win a seat on City Council. For at least a quarter century, the audio shop owner sought political posts in Columbia, always coming up short.
In 1996 he ran for an at-large seat on Council. Then in 1998 he ran for mayor. Undaunted, he ran for an at-large seat again in 2000. And then he ran for mayor again in 2002. In 2004, he ran for an at-large seat once more. His determination continued, as he ran for mayor again in 2006, the final time he would challenge then-Mayor Bob Coble. Azar sat out the municipal election in 2008, but was back at in in 2010, when he challenged for the mayoral spot that was eventually won by Benjamin. He sought an at-large seat, that would go to Cameron Runyan, in 2012, then took on Runyan once again in 2015. His final city race was in 2017, when he challenged Tameika Isaac Devine for an at-large seat on Council.
Despite the many defeats, he kept coming back, pushing for change in Columbia, and hoping that his next race might turn out different. In an interview with Free Times before his 2017 showdown with Devine, Azar remained insistent that he could help the city, if only he were elected.
“I don’t know whether I do or I don’t [have a better shot at winning this time]," Azar said. "It’s a matter of whether people want improvement in this city. If they are happy with the status quo, with dirty water, with taxes and fees and you name it going up, if they are happy to be as it is and fall behind, which we are, then, of course, I’m really not their candidate. … But if they want progress in the city, I’ve got an excellent chance.”
Azar never seemed bitter about the results of his Council races. For instance, after falling in the 2015 at-large race, he turned up at the election night after-party for the winner of the seat, Howard Duvall. He embraced Duvall and Councilmen Ed McDowell and Moe Baddourah at the celebration, and McDowell even kissed Azar on the cheek.
Coble, who was mayor from 1990 to 2010, told Free Times on Monday that Azar always wanted what he thought was best for Columbia.
"Joe was a strong advocate for government transparency and accountability," Coble said. "He was a very successful Five Points businessman and worked hard with many community service organizations. He was a tough and fair opponent that loved Columbia with all his heart."
Azar was known for his willingness to debate city issues. Baddourah told Free Times Monday that it was one of his strengths.
"Joe Azar was a good man who believed in civil debate and the power of ideas," Baddourah said. "And he loved Columbia. He had immense pride in our city, and genuinely just wanted to see it thrive. Columbia is a better place because of Joe Azar, and the world could use a lot more people like him."
Kelsey Desender is the executive director of the Five Points Association, which advocates for the merchants in the shopping and nightlife district. She told Free Times that Azar's "love for Five Points was abundant and inspiring."
"Such passion and heart for the success of our village is something to be celebrated and will be remembered by his neighbors," Desender said.
Members of the Columbia press corps became abundantly familiar with Azar over the years, through his endeavors in politics and business in Five Points.
"Surprised and sorry to hear this," former three-decade WIS reporter Jack Kuenzie tweeted upon learning of Azar's passing on Monday. "Knew and covered him for a long time. He got mad at me for a story I did during one of his mayoral campaigns many years ago, but we later made up. He really knew high quality audio and no one cared more about Columbia. RIP Joe."
Kuenzie's experience with Azar wasn't unique. I also frequently heard from Azar after writing stories in which he was mentioned. In 2015, he took issue with a piece in which I called him a "political gadfly." He thought I was being dismissive in labeling him a "gadfly," and we had quite an argument about it. But later that week he turned up at the Free Times office, which was then on Main Street. He extended his hand and we called a truce, and then ended up chewing the fat about city politics for an hour.
I would continue to write about him through the years, including in December 2018, when he got permission from the city to put a food cart outside Upstairs Audio late at night.
It wasn't lost on me that, even though the food cart issue wasn't an election, Azar had finally gone to City Hall and won.