Columbia SC City Council: The Race That Wasn’t

Will vulnerable incumbent keep his seat without a runoff?

Historically, city elections in Columbia, South Carolina are low turnout affairs – with the percentage of registered voters casting ballots barely reaching double digits.  It probably doesn’t help that these races used to be held in April in even-numbered years.  Then, for some reason, city council members decided to move them to November … in odd-numbered years. 

Why the change? 

The simple answer is that more people vote in general elections that are held in even-numbered years. In a presidential year, as many as 70 percent of eligible voters may cast a ballot; in gubernatorial years over 50 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.  Compare this with the less than 15 percent of eligible voters who cast ballots in a typical city council election. 

Council members get elected and reelected by small percentages of the electorate – and do not have to run when most voters are conditioned to vote. 

And we wonder why city council makes some of the decisions it does?

Back to the races at hand, though: City councilman Howard Duvall is up for reelection and drew four challengers – all well and good.  Of the four, It seemed that Sara Middleton was the most likely to give the incumbent, Duvall, a run for his money.

But this race has instead largely fizzled, which benefits the incumbent.  One longtime city observer told us he believes that Duvall may win this four-way race without a runoff.   

Given his positions on a host of issues related to the city, that would be unfortunate …

(Click to view)

(Via: Provided)

Middleton (above) kicked off her race in the usual and smart way.  She went to see people in town about running and generally made a good impression on the movers and shakers with whom she met.  In addition, she seemed to have access to the resources necessary for a challenger to be competitive against an entrenched incumbent. 

According to our sources, Middleton was told that she needed to tell the voters about herself (standard but necessary advice) and provide people a reason to vote for her. She (or one of the other candidates) also needed to give people a reason not to vote for councilman Duvall.  Any serious candidate would have dug into his record, his previous campaigns and his background in order to be better prepared against this longtime politico. 

Duvall won his election with the support of a small group of supporters based in the most well-to-do sections of Columbia.  If you look at the precincts that voted for him, his support historically has come from the city’s third district.  He was recruited by former Richland county councilwoman Kit Smith and her cabal of liberal activists.  This group has plenty of money – and it opened the saddlebags to get Duvall elected. 

Smith’s group also knows how to organize and run an effective campaign.

Sadly, Duvall has become a pawn of mayor Steve Benjamin and one of the most reliable supporters of the Bull Street boondoggle, which is costing city taxpayers around $170 million (and counting).

Additionally, he has been a staunch supporter of raising water and sewer fees – with the money going into an unaccountable slush fund (something he campaigned against four years ago, ironically). Duvall has also defended the controversial transfer of millions of dollars from the city’s antiquated water and sewer system into its general fund, city its use for “enterprise” projects.

Any of this would have been good campaign fodder for Middleton or the other challengers in the race – but it does not appear as though any of them (or their supporters) have pushed these issues in a way that is likely to engage voters. 

Should she fail to prevail this week, we certainly hope Middleton decides to seek elective office again.  Energetic, young candidates need to be engaged in this process – as they may have new answers for Columbia’s many woes.

And hopefully our sources are incorrect regarding the mood of the electorate in Columbia, S.C. – or at least the small percentage of it likely to go to the polls this week.  



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