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Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin steps into the national spotlight

Steve Benjamin: From the mayor’s office in Columbia to the main stage in Philadelphia (copy)

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin speaks at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. File/J. Scott Applewhite/AP

COLUMBIA — Mayor Steve Benjamin, one of South Carolina’s star local politicians, takes office Monday as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a duty he said he’ll use to position his city as the new premier destination of the Southeast.

“I plan to use this as an opportunity to put Columbia on the national and international stage,” Benjamin said about his role leading the group of more than 1,400 mayors. “We’re a mid-sized city in the American South doing some really solid things.”

But Benjamin also faces the challenge of making the new attention stick.

For Columbia to be a national model, it must continue to address issues facing cities across the country, including its large demand for affordable housing, Benjamin said.

A recent study revealing Columbia has one of the nation’s highest eviction rates highlighted the area’s housing shortage for low-income people.

With his peers eyeing him, Benjamin will be expected to keep his promises from an ambitious State of the City speech in January that included a call to fund in-state tuition for all graduates of Columbia-area public schools.

Benjamin, 48, will become the second South Carolina mayor to head the national group, joining former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who was president from 1986-87. A Democrat in his third term as Columbia’s mayor, Benjamin has served as the group’s vice president for the past year.

The group organizes an annual meeting for U.S. mayors of cities with populations larger than 30,000, where they vote to adopt official positions on issues facing cities across the country. Those policies are then shared with the president and Congress.

As the leader of the mayors group, Benjamin is expected to regularly discuss its policies with U.S. lawmakers.

Benjamin is likely to also use his position to invite high-profile local leaders across the U.S. to Columbia. Similar to February’s visit from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, those tours are likely to show off the area’s business and entertainment centers, historic Statehouse and a Main Street recently revitalized with new bars and restaurants.

Benjamin’s inauguration Monday, planned for the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, is one of two events in Columbia for the mayors group this year. The mayors of New York, Miami and Houston, among others, are expected to visit Columbia for a leadership meeting in September.

Benjamin, once floated as a potential vice presidential pick for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, denied that his new role is a political move.

“I’m not sure I’ll ever run for any other office,” he said. “I really believe I have the best job in the country right now.”

What issues will he advocate for?

Benjamin said as president he’ll push the country’s mayors to focus on what he’s calling “The Three I’s” — infrastructure, innovation and inclusion.

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“We have a trillion dollar dollar deficit on infrastructure building,” Benjamin said, referring to national estimates of unfunded projects needed to repair the country’s crumbling roads, clogged ports and old bridges, among other fixes. “How are we making sure we have the ability to finance infrastructure?”

He said the group must also tackle the government’s potential challenges in handling a new-age economy of autonomous cars and more widespread access to broadband.

His push for inclusion, he said, stems from a recognition that issues facing urban families are often universal.

“We need to help us all realize that we’re stronger together,” he said, quoting Clinton’s campaign motto. “The struggles facing a poor family in Appalachia are the same as the inner city, or even the suburbs.”

Sparring with the Trump?

“I hope not,” said Benjamin, who has recently criticized the Trump administration’s housing policies.

As president of the mayors group, Benjamin is likely to meet in person with congressional leadership and, potentially, members of the Cabinet.

“We have an African-American mayor and diverse political thought and philosophical thought,” he said, adding that he knows and has worked with S.C.’s congressional delegation. “We need to use it to mine through difficult issues and come up with thoughtful consensus.”

Focus away from Columbia?

In January, in addition to his call to fund in-state tuition for Columbia-area students, Benjamin proposed a local referendum for a tax that would pay for an elevated railroad to break up Columbia’s freight train traffic.

He also promised a makeover for a downtown public park that was once considered a crown jewel, but has since dilapidated into a gathering spot for the homeless.

“I care about my colleagues and my peers form all over the county, but I answer to the people in Columbia,” he said. “The pressure that I get at home is much more important to me. If you want to want to talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk.”

That walk can be difficult, he admits.

“This journey is difficult because it takes a lot of time away from your family,” he said. “This is a sacrifice. Working from sunup to sundown, being away from my wife and my two girls, who I love dearly, is not the optimal experience. It’s something you do because you love people.”

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.

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