COLUMBIA, SC — He is the counterpoint to the polished, articulate, well-funded mayor he wants to unseat.
Restaurant owner Moe Baddourah often meanders through his thoughts, occasionally mangling pronunciation of English, his second language.
But the plain-spoken ways of the Columbia city councilman, who has two degrees from the University of South Carolina, appeal to his backers. Phrases such as “world-class city” or “long-term economic development vision” do not cross Baddourah’s lips.
“He’s a meat-and-potatoes politician,” said John Adams, son of a former Columbia mayor. “He really worries about your water bills and crime and potholes. And I like that about him. His focus is not necessarily just on the visionary-type, speculative things.”
Adams reflects distaste for big dreamers like Mayor Steve Benjamin and hopes that enough voters feel the same on Nov. 5.
Adams contends the first-term mayor, who also is pushing to convert the Capital City to a strong-mayor system, serves powerbrokers more than he serves ordinary citizens.
Adams cites the city’s purchase of the Palmetto Compress former cotton warehouse from some of the city’s most well-heeled people and the multimillion-dollar public investment in the Bull Street property to help a Greenville developer build a huge new neighborhood.
Baddourah, 50, hammers at those themes.
“I’ll stand up against the cronyism, political patronage, backroom deal-making and other abuses which have become common in Columbia, Richland County government,” he says in fliers he has left behind on his visits to what his campaign staff says is 10,000 homes.
“I believe the best elected officials are those who listen to the people they serve, not just other politicians,” a “Moe! Businessman for Mayor” flier states.
Bobby Williams’ family owns a string of Lizard’s Thicket restaurants in Columbia and the metropolitan area. He said the city is ready for a more down-to-earth approach.
“I think we’ve got enough lawyers,” Williams said, referring to Benjamin and fellow council members Tameika Isaac Devine and Brian DeQuincey Newman. “I just want to give a businessman a shot. It may be a huge mistake, but I’m willing to try.”
Knocking off Columbia’s popular, first African-American mayor would be a huge upset, especially when measured by typical campaign standards.
Baddourah has raised about $47,000, and his campaign staff has one professional, a strategist from a family of political strategists. RJ Shealy is armed with 18 years of experience from running several dozen races and an ever-present laptop computer.
Baddourah and Shealy said they are weighing the cost of an expensive television ad campaign in the closing weeks of the race. In the meantime, Baddourah is targeting neighborhoods with the same kind of shoe leather effort that helped him win the District 3 seat a year and a half ago.
He relies on yard signs and speaking engagements at campaign forums and neighborhood association meetings.
Benjamin, however, has raised about $410,000, according to his campaign. His latest disclosure form at the State Ethics Commission lists 15 pages of donors, many of whom contributed the maximum $1,000.
Benjamin employs a campaign manager, a volunteer coordinator, a media adviser, and two veteran political campaign firms: Richard Quinn & Associates and BANCO/Bannister Co. The Quinn firm has handled more than 100 political races over 40 years, generally for Republicans, Richard Quinn said. Heyward Bannister said his firm has handled 250 campaigns in 30 years.
Baddourah is not the only mayoral candidate to be running a grassroots efforts campaign. The third contender for the mayor’s seat, former Richland County deputy Larry Sypolt, has a campaign staffed entirely by volunteers.
Attacks growing sharper
Since Baddourah announced in March that he is challenging Benjamin, their public relationship has become increasingly combative.
Small exchanges during City Council meetings are more frequent and more pointed.
Last week, Baddourah turned noticeably more aggressive during a forum sponsored by the Elmwood Park Neighborhood Organization.
The challenger pounded Benjamin for voting for a transfer of $4.25 million from the city’s water and sewer fund into the general fund; for the failure to address the “hidden problem” of Columbia’s stormwater system; for the way the public funding for the Bull Street neighborhood was handled; and for what Baddourah said is the mayor’s disrespect toward those who disagree with him.
“I will give you the respect you deserve every time you come to City Council,” Baddourah told about 30 Elmwood Park neighbors. In an interview with a reporter later in the week, he called Benjamin “a bully.”
As the challenger turned questions from voters into criticisms of the incumbent, Elmwood Park neighborhood president Chuck Archie stepped in. He asked Baddourah for his solutions to problems. “Let’s keep it positive,” Archie said.
When a voter asked how the city was going to pay the $750 million bill it is facing to improve the sewer system, Benjamin smiled and said, “Let the businessman answer.”
Baddourah’s response was, “Stop the transfers.”
But if City Council were to immediately stop just this year’s total of $9.3 million in transfers out of the water/sewer fund, there would be that much less money in the general fund, which pays for most city services.
Asked in an interview how he would offset such a cutback, Baddourah’s answer was to find efficiencies in city government. He said, for example, the city should more aggressively pursue collection of what Baddourah said is $1 million in uncollected water and sewer bills that are written off.
Pressed on where he would turn for enough efficiency to avoid reducing services, Baddourah said, “You would be more efficient in how you run your operation. I don’t know how to be clearer than that.”
If he were mayor, the challenger said, he also would not have a three-person staff or accept a part-time driver from the police department to transport him to functions, as Benjamin does.
The precise expense for those jobs was not immediately available. But the total for those salaries is likely to be less than $200,000.
Benjamin, also in an interview, called Baddourah “a liar” for saying during a North Columbia Business Association forum last week that the mayor at one point was driving to the dry-cleaning business where NAACP president Lonnie Randolph was arrested last summer on charges of creating a disturbance.
The mayor had publicly criticized the city manager for creating an appearance of favoritism by going to the scene in Five Points. Benjamin then pushed council for a city policy that would ban administrators and members of council from crime scenes. That failed, with only Benjamin voting for it.
Benjamin said last week that city manager Teresa Wilson called him from Tripp’s Fine Cleaning to let him know that Randolph, who has diabetes, was on his way to a hospital. Benjamin said he pondered going to the hospital but decided against it.
“It’s simply untrue and reveals a pattern of Mr. Baddourah stating untruths,” Benjamin said the day after the North Columbia forum.
Benjamin also said Baddourah went to three crime scenes between February and March. The challenger said he has never crossed a police crime-scene tape or attempted to influence an investigation.
The first thing Baddourah tells voters is that if he were mayor he would be sure the city hires a police chief to help stabilize the department.
But hiring decisions are up to the city manager, who is scheduled to remain Columbia’s chief executive at least until July 1, 2014 – even if the strong-mayor referendum passes on Dec. 3.
Since late April, interim chief Ruben Santiago has been in charge. But hiring a permanent chief has been stalled for months.
Wilson and City Council members have said they are waiting on the outcome of a State Law Enforcement Division misconduct investigation that involves Santiago and fired Capt. Dave Navarro. The cloud of that probe could keep the best candidates from applying, Wilson and council members have said.
Baddourah also pledges to provide more police cars to the department so that each officer can drive his or her cruiser home.
Asked how many cars that would be and how he would propose to pay for them, Baddourah said, “I would have to sit down with the police chief to understand how much revenue he needs.” A leasing plan that Santiago has proposed might be an answer, he said.
Benjamin points to Baddourah’s vote against both the city budget and a small pay raise for firefighters.
Baddourah counters that he voted against the budget because of his opposition to transfers from the water/sewer fund and because raises for firefighters should be matched by equal raises for police officers.
The police department has far more employees than the fire department, which makes police raises more expensive. Further, officers had elected earlier to accept a larger raise at one time while firefighters opted for a smaller increase with the promise of later matching that of police.
The mayor dings the challenger for seeking three different elective offices within three years. Baddourah ran unsuccessfully in 2010 in a Democratic primary for a seat on Richland County Council. City races are nonpartisan.
Baddourah said his campaigns show his civic-mindedness.
He often reminds constituents of his activism in helping to get long-contaminated soil removed from yards in the Edisto Court area off Rosewood Drive.
Baddourah moved to Columbia from Beirut, Lebanon, as a teenager to work with his uncle, Andy Shlon.
Shlon owns Andy’s Deli, one of the city’s best-known sandwich shops. Local, state and national political leaders often are seen in the lunchtime crowds at the deli near the USC campus, where each customer is greeted with the now familiar, “Hello, my friend. Hello, my dear.”
Married and a father of two sons, ages 3 and 1, Baddourah owns Moe’s Grapevine, a restaurant that features Sicilian food. He said he acquired his love of that specialized Italian cuisine from a relative who would sail from Beirut across the Mediterranean Sea to the Italian island to get herbs and seafood for his Lebanese customers.
Baddourah grew up in Beirut after leaving Kuwait as an infant, said Shealy, his campaign manager. His native language is Lebanese, which is one of dozens of forms of Arabic, Shealy said.
Baddourah received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from USC in hotel, restaurant and tourism management and worked as a chef the Mediterranean Tea Room on Devine Street. Later, he owned the Éclair bakery in the St. Andrews area.
Baddourah purchased and built Moe’s Grapevine in 2005, and he often refers to struggles that small-business owners face.
He seeks to turn his underdog, rough-edges status to his gain.
Baddourah writes in his yellow fliers: “I’m not a politician. I don’t have speech writers or highly paid advisers. I’m not even a great public speaker. But I am a hard-working businessman who loves my city. I care deeply about our future, and I’m eager to serve.”
He says that when he knocks on doors, voters say, “Thanks for coming to my door. The mayor won’t even answer my phone calls.”
Next month, voters will decide whether Baddourah keeps his District 3 seat or moves to the center of the room in City Hall chambers.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.