South Carolina mayor leaving office, but maybe not forever

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Steve Benjamin, mayor of South Carolina’s capital city and one of the state’s highest-profile Democrats, will not seek a fourth term in office, telling The Associated Press he wants to focus now on his law practice and family.

But he is leaving the door open for a possible return to politics.

“I’m a believer in seasons, and this is a new season for me,” Benjamin, 51, told AP on Wednesday, ahead of a formal announcement expected Thursday. “I feel like we’ve significantly made our city better; now, it’s time to pass the baton.”

Benjamin was elected in 2010 as Columbia’s first Black mayor. On his watch, he shepherded the city through the historic 2015 flood that killed 19 people, caused more than $1 billion in damage and put many areas underwater. Recently, he has been an outspoken advocate for safety measures during the coronavirus pandemic, serving as national chair of a mayoral initiative that has donated several million non-medical grade masks to cities nationwide.

Benjamin’s national star within the Democratic Party has been rising in recent years, with his service as president of both the the U.S. Conference of Mayors and African American Mayors Association. In 2016, Benjamin spoke on the first night of the Democratic National Convention and was considered for Hillary Clinton’s running mate, according to campaign chairman John Podesta’s hacked emails released by WikiLeaks later that year.

In 2018, he and mayors from across the country gathered at a holding facility for immigrant children in El Paso, Texas, arguing that then-President Donald Trump had failed to address what they termed a humanitarian crisis of his own making. In 2017, following a mass shooting in Las Vegas, he led the charge for Columbia to become the first city in the country to ban the sale of “bump stock” devices that allow semi-automatic firearms to mimic fully automatic ones.

As for higher office, Benjamin — South Carolina’s 2002 Democratic attorney general nominee, beaten in that contest by now-Gov. Henry McMaster — has been mentioned as a possible contender for the party’s 2022 gubernatorial nomination. His name also has come up in conversations about the party’s selection to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Tim Scott.

As was witnessed in Jaime Harrison’s unsuccessful 2020 challenge of Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Democratic challenger winning a statewide office in South Carolina — where all such offices are in GOP hands — remains an uphill climb.

When asked if that had factored into his decision-making, Benjamin said the outcome had no effect on his ultimate decision.

“I just have no desire to go to D.C., at all,” Benjamin said. “I like working on local issues. I’m a city guy, so that’s not something under consideration.”

For now, Benjamin said that he wants to enjoy the last years before his daughters leave for college, build up his private law practice and “be involved at a high level on citizen engagement” through various organizations.

Even out of elected office, Benjamin will likely continue to play an outsized role in the Democratic politics of South Carolina, particularly in the state’s first-in-the-South presidential primary. Benjamin was a constant presence in the 2020 contest, meeting with nearly all of the dozens of hopefuls stumping through the state and ultimately giving his highly-coveted endorsement to former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Whatever Benjamin’s future holds, however, he made it clear that some role in politics is still under consideration.

“I’m certainly not ruling it out,” Benjamin told AP. “If I see that there’s an opportunity – or maybe even more importantly, a need – for my brand of leadership in the future, then certainly running for office again will always be on the table.”

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.

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