I recently attended the inauguration of Steve Benjamin as Columbia’s 44th mayor and the first African-American mayor of that city. It was an honor for me to work on his campaign and to be a part of history. In order for that to happen, blacks, whites, young, old, rich, poor, elite, and everyday people needed to come together for Benjamin to win and for Columbia to be victorious.
In a three-way race that included another African American and a sitting Columbia City Council member whose father was a former mayor of the state capital, Benjamin prevailed. His message of “One Columbia” reminded me of the time City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie ran for mayor of Charleston in 2007. His theme, “A City that Works for Everyone,” did not resonate with Charleston’s residents as One Columbia resonated with that city’s residents.
During Mayor Benjamin’s race, I marveled at the array of people who volunteered on his campaign. Elected officials, community leaders, ministers, those in the business community, and other influential people made a conscious decision to support one candidate, a candidate who was not interested in making history or serving his self-interest, but a candidate who had a vision for one Columbia. They were not interested in being divided or creating false stories, but rather openly supporting the candidate who would ensure that their city works for everyone.
Throughout the campaign and for the three days of inaugural activities, I saw some of Charleston’s finest contributing, volunteering, and enjoying what so many people have prayed, sacrificed, and labored for. It was clear that many outside of Columbia had an interest in the mayoral elections as well as a keen interest in Benjamin being successful. I wonder if such a thing is possible for Charleston.
With a city election to be held next year, would a transformation take place if Charleston were to elect an African American and/or a woman as mayor? I don’t mean that we need to elect an African American as mayor because of his or her race or for a woman as the result of her gender. Will someone credible run against Mayor Riley next year, will Charleston City Council be strengthened, or will all remain the same?
Charleston and Columbia are different in many ways. Columbia is more progressive, people are more open-minded, and the mentality of its residents is not enslaved. Charleston is too fixed in history; people rely on class and cliques, and being progressive is labeled as too risky, foolish, and unnecessary.
I find it very hard to believe that those who drink the water on this end of the state would do something new. Nevertheless, hope does exist. While we tend to follow the lead of others, the grand architect of the universe would have to cast a spell over local elected officials, community and business leaders, ministers, and other influential people and organizations for them to make a conscious decision to support something new in city government.
It is not suggested that the Holy City be like Atlanta, Charlotte, Jacksonville, or Columbia; however, it is insinuated that the progressive, inclusive, and energetic mindset of those cities become the new norm for Charleston.
Perhaps next year’s city elections will spark the interest of people in order for substance to triumph over rhetoric and that an inclusive vision will emerge and that a never-ending story will not be repeated. I fundamentally believe that the mentality of Charleston can change for the better.
How the city operates and how it is governed and managed has served a good purpose. But will that system be challenged? And can Charleston rise to such an occasion?