Candidates for the Democratic nomination for president were eager to have the support of Steve Benjamin, the three-term mayor of Columbia, S.C., and the first African American elected to the office. In a state where 60 percent of Democratic voters are black, having Benjamin’s support would be akin to winning the Powerball lottery. That’s why it was a political earthquake when Benjamin swung his support to Mike Bloomberg before the billionaire former mayor of New York City jumped into the race.

Bloomberg doesn’t need money. But he will need black votes, and Benjamin did not hesitate to endorse him again once Bloomberg officially announced on Nov. 24. “What I see in Mayor Bloomberg is a unique set of gifts,” Benjamin told me on Nov. 25 while picking blueberries from a white bowl at a restaurant in downtown Columbia that matched his crisp white shirt and blue suit and tie.

“One, obviously, I’m a believer in capitalism and the free markets. I believe in free enterprise, and supporting entrepreneurial culture,” Benjamin said. “Starting his business and building it to a global brand, I think, is impressive and something we need to encourage more.” A former president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Benjamin lauded Bloomberg’s generosity as a fellow mayor willing to share knowledge with other municipal chief executives. And Benjamin praised Bloomberg’s legendary philanthropy.

“He’s, I think, really hit a significant stride in using the wealth that he’s created doing good. The work around Everytown [for Gun Safety] and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and trying to make sure that our gun laws make some sense, doing something to take these 400 million guns off the streets of America,” Benjamin said. “He’s been fully invested in climate and treating it like the existential threat that it is. … I serve as co-chair of the Sierra Club’s [Mayors for 100% Clean Energy initiative]. I manage the clean energy campaign, one of the three national co-chairs. So his work in climate has been particularly important to me as well. And certainly more recently his work against tobacco and vaping.”

But what about “stop and frisk”? As a prominent African American leader, I asked, what does he say to black folks who will invariably wonder why he’s supporting a person who only recently apologized for supporting a policy that targeted millions of black and Latino men in New York City. Benjamin revealed that when he sat with Bloomberg last month and back in January, he told the former mayor that, despite appreciation for his work on guns and climate by some black Democrats, “stop and frisk was a threshold issue for a number of folks.”

Benjamin rattled off the same statistics that Bloomberg’s spokesperson used in his pushback to my column declaring that Bloomberg won’t be the Democratic nominee. The number of stops had been reduced by 94 percent by the time Bloomberg left office in 2014. Benjamin also highlighted the reduction in incarceration rates under Bloomberg and the creation of the Young Men’s Initiative that focused on young men of color. But Benjamin also noted that “it wasn’t an effective policy.” That assertion is backed up by the statistics of police stops between 2004 and 2012 that were released in the 2013 federal lawsuit in which the judge ruled that while the practice was constitutional, how it was implemented was not.

Nevertheless, Benjamin made something clear. “I cannot, and won’t ever, defend stop and frisk. It’s not where I am, it’s not who I am,” Benjamin told me. “I grew up in South Jamaica, Queens, New York. So I have some New York perspective.”

The black vote

“A preponderance of the voters, our most reliable voters are African American women over 50,” said Benjamin. Therefore, winning them over is paramount if you want to win the South Carolina primary and send a signal about your strength with black voters. But Bloomberg’s campaign says the former mayor is skipping that primary and the three that precede it in favor of the delegate-rich Super Tuesday states that follow three days later. Benjamin revealed that he is trying to get Team Bloomberg to change that strategy.

“I’ve advocated, and I continue to advocate inside the camp that I think that … not only should he compete, but I believe he could compete very effectively here,” said Benjamin, who insisted that he has heard from voters “very interested and excited” about voting for Bloomberg. “We often, and you know this, get characterized as this homogeneous community, and we’re not. On any number of issues, black voters have some very sharp and distinct opinions, sometimes adverse to one another, and I think he’ll play well,” Benjamin explained.

This gets at a good bit of wisdom about black voters in South Carolina that Benjamin imparted at the Opportunity 2020 conference in Charleston, S.C., hosted by the centrist think tank Third Way in June. “If you’re black, you’re most likely a Democrat, but you’re not necessarily liberal,” he said then.

“So you’ll find in one very same individual someone who feels incredibly strong about the right to bear arms, at the very same time, outrage about the number of guns on the street, and wanting to get guns off the street because we see the carnage and the way it’s affecting our children,” said Benjamin, who counts himself among them. Another example is the traditionalist view of the American Dream and the desire to improve one’s economic standing.

“This belief in the entrepreneurial spirit and that someone who works hard, treats people right, does well is something that is part of who we are,” said Benjamin, who followed up with a warning for some in the Democratic field. “Some of the messages we’re getting from some of the more active and progressive candidates that you can’t be wealthy and do good things, or you can’t be wealthy … I think that is antithetical to who we are.”

The Democrat leading the field in South Carolina (and nationally, for that matter) is former vice president Joe Biden, powered by strong support from African Americans. The reason for that includes but goes beyond his being former president Barack Obama’s number two. “He’s been on the ground here for 40 years,” Benjamin said of Biden. “He’s not a new presence here, and I think that there’s some legitimate relationships here that matter.”

The gay thing

The person catching hell for his utter lack of black support is South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The latest Quinnipiac poll out of South Carolina put it at “less than one percent among black voters.” Before the firestorm last week over his 2011 comments about African Americans and education, there was the ugly lie that the main reason blacks aren’t supporting Buttigieg is because he is gay.

“I think it’s BS. I think it’s BS,” Benjamin responded when I asked if the gay thing was the reason Mayor Pete isn’t gaining any traction with black voters. “If you told me that 30 years ago, I think it may have had some merit. I think America’s come a long way, and I think the black community has as well.”

“When I say I’ve never heard it articulated to me, I have never heard it articulated to me over the past year that Pete’s been a serious candidate for president,” he added about whether folks have made an issue of Buttigieg’s sexual orientation. Benjamin recounted how he hosted Buttigieg’s first rally in Columbia. “He acquitted himself quite well, like he does. And it’s rare to come across anyone of any background or ethnicity who is not incredibly impressed with Pete,” Benjamin said of his fellow mayor.

“Mayors have the ability to speak to everyone at the same time, because you have to represent everyone. You don’t represent these gerrymandered constituencies. You gotta represent. … people of every race and ethnicity. And he’s developed a real skill,” Benjamin said of Buttigieg. “But I don’t think that the issue of him being gay is holding him back here. But, s--t … excuse me. But it’s just such an odd year, Jon."

What about the campaigns of Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), the two African Americans in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination? “Conventional wisdom would tell you that Kamala would be taking off, or Cory, and I just can’t figure out what the heck’s going on,” Benjamin said. “Now, black folk are pragmatic now. We’re very pragmatic,” Benjamin continued. “You think about where we were in ’08 at this time. Barack Obama wasn’t killing it, but once he got through Iowa, things changed. So we’ll see.”

That black-voter pragmatism Benjamin talks about is not only buoying Biden but also hobbling Harris and Booker. “People really wanna win. People really wanna win. People wanna make sure that we send Donald Trump home next November,” Benjamin said, explaining why Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) lead the polls among black voters. “It’s been amazing watching two high-quality African American candidates struggle vis-a-vis Joe, vis-a-vis Bernie and Warren, too. It’s been quite a study.”

I used that as an opportunity to test my theory for that struggle with Benjamin. In short, Harris and Booker aren’t doing well with black voters because they don’t think white voters will vote for another African American commander in chief after eight years of Obama and the backlash inspired by his historic presidency. And then Harris has the added hurdle of sexism. Benjamin didn’t laugh me out of the restaurant.

“My guess is that if perchance Senators Booker or Harris acquitted themselves well in Iowa, just like Senator Obama did, it could have a significant effect here in South Carolina. We gotta be convinced that someone can win. We wanna win. We need to win,” Benjamin said. The South Carolina chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign continued, “The issue of gender is always real. And at times our politics can be more sexist than they are racist. And that’s just true. … I think it would be naive and intellectually dishonest to think that sexism doesn’t still play a major role in politics in America on both sides of the aisle.”


A couple of times during the interview, Benjamin said our nation is in a “state of crisis” and that these are “scary” times. His assessment isn’t news to anyone not in thrall to the cult of Trump. Still, I asked the mayor to elaborate.

“People are struggling. We’re watching these changes in the American economy where wages have not increased, cost of living has gone up dramatically, and the gig economy has now replaced jobs that have pensions and real insurance plans,” Benjamin explained. “And if your government is, at [the] very least, it can be ineffective, but right now, maybe even working contrary to your interests, trying to deny you access to the ballot box, trying to suppress your votes, trying to allow foreign actors to influence American democracy, we’re in a serious crisis right now.”

Having a president who can solve these issues is why Benjamin has thrown his support to Bloomberg for the Democratic nomination.

“Mike Bloomberg, he’s a doer, he’s not a talker. He puts his money where his mouth is, and he’s shown a willingness to take on some of the most challenging issues of our time,” Benjamin declared, citing the former Big Apple mayor’s fights against climate change and the National Rifle Association. “He’s not [un]willing to take the tough fight, so, that’s why I’m in. That’s why I’m in.”

But Benjamin’s No. 1 goal is the same as every Democrat’s I’ve talked to for months. “Whoever the nominee is, just like Mike Bloomberg, I’m gonna support the Democrat nominee,” he said. “We’ve gotta get rid of Donald Trump.”