Two terms — that’s how long Steve Benjamin and his family expected him to serve as the mayor of Columbia. That was easier said than done.
Benjamin served his last day as mayor — after three terms in office and 12 years in all — on Jan. 4, 2022. Since then, he’s shifted his focus toward taking his daughters to concerts and on college tours.
“They literally can't think of a time when I wasn't mayor,” Benjamin said.
Family has been an important pillar of Benjamin’s life since he was young, he said.
Though he’s from Queens, N.Y., Benjamin spent every summer visiting his extended family in Orangeburg, which is one reason why he chose to attend the University of South Carolina.
“Home is where the heart is, and I developed a deep emotional connection with the city. Columbia embraced me as a student,” Benjamin said. “I was much more attached to the people of Columbia than I had been anywhere else in my life.”
Once here, he got so involved that, he joked, he spent more time outside of the classroom than in it.
“Extracurricular life really became my real connection to the campus community, and then the community at large,” Benjamin said.
Through his involvement in organizations such as the student chapter of the NAACP, he said he was involved in several social justice issues while at USC.
Such issues ranged from battling apartheid in South Africa to advocating for the Confederate flag on the Statehouse dome to be removed. He said these experiences helped him connect with the social, political, business and economic aspects of the city.
Benjamin became the first Black mayor of Columbia in 2010, and he said that gave him a platform to continue opening doors for Black people.
“The opportunity to serve Columbia, the foundation for me was laid by, by men and women who labored in the vineyards, most of them names unknown, who fought for right to vote, who fought for Columbia to have the form of government that we have, that encourage participation, by all citizens,” Benjamin said. “I'm always thankful, and I carry that responsibility, that burden, that's a blessing every single day.”
Being active on campus led to a term as student body president before he graduated in 1991, and that led to earning a law degree at USC in 1994, which set the stage for an eventual career of civil service.
But first, Benjamin spent a few years climbing the corporate ladder before he made what he described as a “hard right turn” and joined then-Governor Jim Hodges’ cabinet in 1999.
Hodges named Benjamin director of the South Carolina Probation, Parole and Pardon Services, putting him in charge of a department with a $43 million budget and almost 1,000 employees.
After a failed bid for attorney general in 2002, Benjamin went back to practicing law, which is where he met 19-year-old Sam Johnson.
Johnson, a 2021 mayoral candidate and now an advisor with Nexsen Pruet, started meeting with Benjamin at the Gervais Street Starbucks once a month.
“He let me just pick his brain and, you know, figure out what going to law school was like, all those sorts of things,” Johnson said.
These monthly conversations became a mainstay for Johnson and Benjamin and later helped lead Johnson to local politics, he said.
At one of those meetings Benjamin “shared with me that he was looking at running for mayor. I ended up actually helping him run his campaign, and the rest is history,” Johnson said.
The rest was indeed history. Johnson ran for mayor in a bid to become Benjamin’s successor and received a “surreal” endorsement from Benjamin, someone he considers a mentor.
“My dad was a truck driver, and my mom was an Alzheimer's nurse. I was a first-generation college student, and you know, you got the current mayor endorsing me to be mayor of Columbia … that meant a lot, I don't think I can put that one fully in words,” Johnson said.
Like Johnson, former USC student body president Taylor Wright — who worked with Benjamin in the mayor’s office after he graduated in 2019 — sees Benjamin as a mentor.
“He was an amazing teacher as a boss, too, which is something that I really valued. If I needed a connection … he always made that happen," Wright said. "I see him as a friend and mentor.”
Now, Benjamin is a Senior Leadership Fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Board Chair for FirstNet Authority.
Of course, there has been much speculation about his next move.
Benjamin said, for now, he’s focused on building his law firm and could see himself continuing his work in academia.
Even his wife, DeAndrea Gist Benjamin, a circuit court judge for the Fifth Judicial Circuit in South Carolina, said she couldn’t say for certain what is next for her husband.
“I know that he has a servant heart, and he is a public servant,” Gist Benjamin said. “So, I am sure he will come home at some point, and we will have to have a conversation about, if it’s him running for another office or him running for some position, I would not be surprised. I mean, I know who I married.”