There are a few “musts” for Democratic presidential candidates visiting South Carolina, a critical early primary state in 2020. One involves a visit with Steve Benjamin.
Benjamin, who in 2010 was elected the first African American mayor in Columbia’s history, has emerged as a key player and potential party kingmaker in the state’s political scene.
With U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn not planning to make a formal endorsement and freshman U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham not tipping his hand, Benjamin “is generally seen as the most coveted endorsement in South Carolina” among Democrats, according to Tyler Jones, a South Carolina political strategist expected to be an adviser on former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s 2020 campaign.
A source close to the presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., agreed: “There are very few endorsements in South Carolina that would carry statewide appeal. Mayor Benjamin is one of them.”
Benjamin’s endorsement in the presidential primary race — which he said he expects to make later this year — would carry weight not just in the state, but among Democrats across the country.
He’s had friends in high places for years now. One night during the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Benjamin was a special guest in President Bill Clinton’s private box. The next evening, Benjamin delivered a primetime speech celebrating Hillary Clinton’s nomination.
“I went to a … conference last summer in Columbus,” Jones recalled. “I didn’t know (Benjamin) was gonna be there, but there he was, introducing me to leaders all across the country. That was another moment where I said, ‘Wow, Steve is big time now’ … His network is just massive.”
Benjamin has further expanded his national network, and boosted his national profile, as he’s climbed the ranks of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He is currently the Conference President.
“Not a day goes by where I don’t speak to another mayor in Iowa, or in Texas, or in California, or in Georgia, or in Florida,” Benjamin said in a recent interview with McClatchy, ticking off the names of crucial primary and Electoral College states. “Absolutely, I will share my opinions — and (mayors) ask for them regularly — on policy issues and just in general what do I think of this candidate or that candidate, since they know we’re spending so much time with them in South Carolina.”
Now in his third term in the mayor’s office, Benjamin has encountered bumps in the road. Several years ago, his name came up in court proceedings tied to a public corruption case, which culminated in a prison sentence for a former business associate, Jonathan Pinson.
The husband of a state circuit court judge and father of two young daughters, Benjamin was implicated in an embarrassing revelation as a part of that investigation: According to witnesses testifying in court, the mayor was flown in a private jet to Orlando, Fla., treated to dinner, put up in a hotel and taken to a strip club.
But Benjamin was never charged with any crimes or called as a witness in the investigation, and the State Ethics Commission voted unanimously that he did not violate the law for not disclosing the trip.
“Politics aside, it was a very difficult time in our lives,” Benjamin said of the episode. “The allegations were unfounded and absurd and rightfully went nowhere.”
He won reelection to a second term easily and ran for his third term unopposed. In 2016, he was invited to Washington to discuss his local implementation of President Barack Obama’s mentorship initiative for young black men, “My Brother’s Keeper.” In 2017, he made headlines when Columbia became the first U.S. city to ban bump stocks, which turn semi-automatic rifles into rapid-fire machine guns.
As his profile has increased, he has also built a reputation for going “all in” when he makes an endorsement, doing more for the candidate than just firing off a tweet or appearing at a local rally.
“When Steve puts his name to something, it’s not so much his name, it’s the sweat equity he’s going to put into it, whether it’s helping to raise money, knocking on doors, putting his name on mail, being a surrogate,” said Kendall Corley, a South Carolina Democratic operative who is close with Benjamin.
“Once I endorse, I will be on the road stumping. I will raise money. I will help shape policy positions,” Benjamin said. “When I got involved and supported (Hillary) Clinton, I stumped in California, Maryland, Ohio, Florida … I’m not hesitant to get on the road for the men and women that I support.”
Benjamin was Clinton’s South Carolina campaign co-chairman in 2016 and on her short list for vice president.
This time around, Benjamin said he’s met with, or spoken to, nearly every declared or potential 2020 candidate. He admitted that associates of former Vice President Joe Biden, who could jump into the race this month, did recently inquire about his endorsement plans, but Benjamin is keeping his powder dry for now.
In the meantime, he’s currently offering himself up as a resource to presidential aspirants visiting the state.
He hosted a forum with Harris and personally escorted her around the Pink Ice Gala, an event hosted by the oldest black sorority of which Harris is a member.
He held a town hall for South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigeig, who is on the cusp of making a formal announcement about his candidacy. He took O’Rourke on a tour of Columbia’s Main Street.
Serving as a liaison to the candidates is also helping Benjamin see his options up close. He told McClatchy he is weighing several factors as he makes a decision about who will get his vote.
He wants candidates to “articulate a good, strong, positive message” and “treat each other with dignity.” They should talk about the economy, climate change and social justice.
And they need to be able to raise money.
“I want to see first quarter fundraising,” Benjamin said. “It’s a bellwether of a candidate’s strength. It’s also a strong indicator of their commitment to the campaign. You gotta be willing to raise the money to get your message out.”
As that first round of fundraising numbers gets circulated, Democratic contenders are actively courting Benjamin — and flattering him.
“I am grateful to call Steve Benjamin a friend,” U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said in a statement. “He and I have known and supported each other throughout our careers, offering support and serving as sounding boards from one mayor to another (former) mayor.”
Booker was the mayor of Newark, N.J., from 2006-2013.
“Anyone who has been paying attention to the success and growth that Columbia has experienced over the last decade has to admire the job done by Mayor Benjamin,” said U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in a statement of her own. “I’ve really enjoyed my conversations with the mayor, and look forward to the opportunity to work with him in the future.”