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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Mayor Steve Benjamin stood with former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke before a packed University of South Carolina campus in March. The next day, Benjamin was on a downtown Columbia stage with South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and, hours later, introduced New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker for an economic inequality forum. More recently, he welcomed former Vice President Joe Biden for the first South Carolina visit of his 2020 campaign.
As mayor of South Carolina's capital city, Columbia, Benjamin is becoming a popular — and influential — figure in the Democratic presidential primary. As candidates bulk up their travel to the state that hosts the first southern primary, Benjamin says he's met with or spoken to nearly every declared presidential candidate — no small feat in a field that spans two dozen contenders.
"I have made myself available to any candidate who wants to talk to me," Benjamin told The Associated Press. "I use it as an opportunity to discuss with the candidates the issues that are important, help them understand our culture."
As president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and one of the most high-profile black politicians in South Carolina, Benjamin is becoming not only one of the state's most sought-after endorsements but also a name mentioned for a potential slot in a Democratic administration.
In elected politics for nearly a decade, the 49-year-old lawyer became the first black mayor in Columbia's history in 2010 and easily won two more terms. He spoke during the first night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention and was considered for Hillary Clinton's running mate, according to campaign chairman John Podesta's hacked emails released by WikiLeaks in late 2016.
As the two dozen Democratic hopefuls wind their way through South Carolina, Benjamin said he's happy to help them feel at home, offering advice he jovially said includes counsel on which barbecue sauce fits which region. He's mum on whom he'll support but says he'll make an endorsement later this year. That backing is widely seen as one of the top to get in South Carolina, second to U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn.
"Some people rely on their elected officials to do the grunt work, to help talk to and learn more about the candidates and sharing our views about them," Benjamin said. "The endorsement process is way overblown. But it helps, all things being equal."
Benjamin's influence on South Carolina's politics goes beyond his own imprint. During his tenure as mayor, he's helped train dozens of staffers and fellows — college and graduate students who intern with the office to get local government experience — who have gone on to work throughout Democratic politics. Adviser Lauren Harper is leading O'Rourke's South Carolina operation, a role longtime Benjamin adviser Kendall Corley is fulfilling for Biden. Alycia Albergottie, a veteran of Benjamin's 2013 re-election campaign, is Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's state director in South Carolina. Staffers with Buttigieg's and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' South Carolina campaigns are also Benjamin alums.
Sam Johnson, who has worked with Benjamin for half a dozen years, says the mayor's experience and personal approach, uniquely positions him to help outsiders navigate the state.
"He's got that kind of relatability, and he's got that kind of humbleness to where he's sophisticated enough that he gets the complex issues," Johnson said. "He can understand high finance, or how to cover debt, but he also gets the human side of it, which is rare."
Part of that ability may have been forged in leading Columbia through tragedies, like the historic 2015 flood that left wide swaths of the city underwater and endangered the drinking water supply. For days on end, Benjamin was the face of the effort to recover from the disaster, which killed 19 and caused more than $1 billion in damage.
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 weapons to mimic fully automatic guns. Last June, he and about 20 other mayors from across the country gathered at a holding facility for immigrant children in El Paso, Texas, saying President Donald Trump had failed to address a humanitarian crisis of his own making.
As the 2020 race heats up, Benjamin said wants more details from the candidates.
"I'm hoping for a positive and aggressive process. There's a way to be aggressive and not negative," Benjamin said. "If you're not tough enough to withstand Democratic primary politics, there's no way in the world you can go up against President Trump and be successful."
In his chats so far with Democratic candidates, Benjamin said he's stressing that it takes far more than drawing massive crowds to win over South Carolina's voters.
"I just want to encourage the candidates to come and visit South Carolina often, to get out of the conference rooms and the boardrooms and get out and meet the people of the state," he said. "It's smart not to take any voters for granted. If you can't get on grandma's front porch and talk to her about what's important, then I don't think you really deserve the votes of the people of South Carolina."
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP
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