COLUMBIA — After more than 11 years at city hall helping guide Columbia’s priorities, Steve Benjamin is content to step down when he has and hand over city policy to others.
During his months away from the mayor’s office, Benjamin temporarily traded his famous hot town for snowy New England and taught Ivy League students about his municipal experience.
He threw himself into a historic downtown mansion he bought and renovated for use as event space and apartment rentals, presides over an effort within President Joe Biden’s administration to expand capacity communication skills of first responders, while continuing to practice law.
Benjamin served as the city’s first black mayor and the city’s public face during the 2015 flood, the 2020 protests over the killing of George Floyd, and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He announced in February 2021 that he would not seek another term, without indicating any future political plans.
“You have to know when it’s time to take a fresh look at an old set of issues,” Benjamin said in a recent high-profile interview with Post and Courier Columbia. “You must disabuse yourself of the idea that only you can do this work. There are other people who can serve.”
While Benjamin, 52, has long been seen as having a political future beyond the mayor’s office, he said he is thriving in his current roles and spending more time with his wife and friends. two daughters, the oldest of whom visits college campuses.
Benjamin spoke about his new jobs, his thoughts on the apparent collapse of a convention center expansion deal he supported, and his relationship with new Mayor Daniel Rickenmann.
Help his successor
During a contentious campaign year in 2021, then-Mayor Benjamin, a Democrat, occasionally argued with Rickenmann, a District 4 council member vying for Benjamin’s office.
Rickenmann, a Republican, campaigned in part on a study he supported that found Columbia’s growth lagged behind other major cities in the state, in part because of a structure complicated and heavy tax. Benjamin championed the city’s economic competitiveness and regularly noted that the city did not raise taxes during his tenure.
But after voters chose Rickenmann in a contentious runoff with former councilman Tameika Isaac Devine, Benjamin worked with Rickenmann during the transition and helped encourage the new mayor to get involved nationally as Rickenmann visited Biden. in Washington, DC, to talk about federal infrastructure. money.
Benjamin and Rickenmann both attended a January meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors, a group of which Benjamin served as past president. Rickenmann was outspoken and involved, Benjamin said.
Benjamin said that in general he would support Rickenmann and the newly elected board members and that any concerns would be shared directly with Rickenmann.
“We have an open line of communication. I like that,” Benjamin said. “And I’m going to continue to make sure he understands all the issues that I think he needs to be fully aware of.”
Work since I left office
U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo appointed Benjamin in October as chairman of the First Responder Network Authority, known as FirstNet, created by Congress in 2012 to oversee the development of a communications network national for first responders following problems uncovered during the 9/11 terrorist attack.
Benjamin will serve a three-year term in the paid position, attending regular meetings virtually or in person with federal officials and representatives of private partner AT&T. Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano was also named to the council.
The network, which already covers much of South Carolina, ensures that first responders can join in the event of a disaster or at other times when communication systems are overwhelmed, such as during a big football game. , Benjamin said.
From January to March, Benjamin taught a course on public health policy at Harvard University as part of a fellowship that brings leaders from government, nonprofits, and journalism to campus to teach. students their experience.
Benjamin’s classes each covered a different topic, from the city’s response to the COIVD-19 pandemic, to gun violence initiatives, and to social and racial justice issues.
“With the glare of the pandemic, the glare of social unrest and obviously trying to influence them as the next generation of public health leaders, I found this time in Boston both invigorating and incredibly cold,” said Benjamin. “It snowed the day I arrived and it snowed the day I left.”
His new real estate adventure
Benjamin purchased a 5,400 square foot mansion in downtown Columbia in October and renovated the building with plans to launch event space for weddings and retreats. At 1329 Blanding St., the property also includes apartments that Benjamin rents to a student and short-term rentals such as those listed on Airbnb.
The main house is the star, and the 19th century home has received refurbished floors and new paint throughout the months since Benjamin has owned it.
“It’s a beautiful old house,” he said. “It’s in wonderful condition, mainly because a family has lived there for over 100 years. … It’s become a really, really enjoyable project. I spend too much time there, quite frankly. I’ve need to spend more time practicing law.”
Watch a beloved project die
In March, a developer said it was ending plans to build three hotels, parking lots and other projects as part of a major redevelopment to coincide with the expansion of the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.
Developer Ben Arnold said he was walking away from the project due to local elected officials’ apathy towards the deal. Both Rickenmann and Councilman Joe Taylor said an expanded convention center should not be an immediate priority.
Benjamin supported the project as mayor and expressed frustration in 2021 when state lawmakers only set aside $9 million of the $19 million the city requested for the expansion. He said he still believes expansion should be a priority for elected officials in Columbia, Richland and Lexington counties and local schools, including the University of South Carolina.
“You need to be able to show people how you’re paying for it and what the long-term O&M costs might look like,” Benjamin said. “I think that should be a priority. But it’s up to policy makers and active citizens to advocate for it, if in fact they feel the same way.”