When Steve Benjamin ascended in May to the presidency of the U.S. Conference of Mayors — a nonpartisan group comprised of leaders from cities of 30,000 or larger that advocates on issues that affect municipalities — we all knew the yearlong post would likely lead to an enhanced national spotlight for the third-term Columbia mayor.
That spotlight came quickly, and was associated with one of the most divisive issues of the year: the separation of immigrant children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border.
As part of his role with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Benjamin, a Democrat, led a bipartisan group of 18 mayors on a trip to the border in Texas on June 21, where they spoke out against the practice of child separation, and called for the reunification of families.
Free Times caught up with Benjamin and asked him to reflect on his journey to the border. We also wondered what might be next on the Conference of Mayors’ agenda, and whether Benjamin can handle his new national role and still keep his attention focused on the Capital City. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Free Times: So, take us to the border. What was the scene like down there?
Steve Benjamin: It was powerful. It was exhilarating, energizing, depressing, infuriating, validating and painful. There was a range of emotions there. It was painful, as a father, a leader and a Christian, to think that American policy had sunk to the depths of being willing to make decisions that weren’t just inhumane, but inconsistent with God’s law. I don’t believe you separate families. But I was energized by the fact that we had a bipartisan group of leaders — from very progressive mayors to very conservative mayors — that were speaking in unison that this is not what America is supposed to be. That was powerful and validating as we continue to watch Washington, D.C., struggle to remain truly relevant and a positive force in our lives.
Free Times: President Trump has issued an executive order ending the separation of families at the border. What needs to happen next?
Steve Benjamin: We know that every day apart could potentially have lifelong psychological and physical ramifications for these children. Reunifying them must be a priority. Then, we need to work to restructure the national dialogue. This should never have happened. It’s easy to fall back on what is the truth, that comprehensive immigration reform is key to solving this challenge. The failure to have that falls in the laps of Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C. We need comprehensive immigration reform.
Free Times: Did you anticipate, as you were preparing to lead the mayors’ group, that you would have to go to bat on explosive national issues like this?
Steve Benjamin: The reality is that, on so many issues, because of the failures of national leadership, mayors have found that we have to step in. We are out there leading on issues of, not just immigration, but on clean air and climate issues. We’re out there on international trade issues. Without the leadership in Washington, D.C., if it’s not coming from the White House or the Congress, then yeah, you are going to start seeing more and more of us, individually and recognizing the power we have collectively, speaking up and trying to drive public policy in so many of these areas.
Free Times: Do you feel like the role of mayors in addressing national issues has increased, or are we just seeing it more in Columbia because you’re leading the U.S. Conference?
Steve Benjamin: I think you are going to continue to see local government leaders rise to the top. It’s really the only place things are getting done. Eighty-five percent of all the people in the country live in cities and metropolitan economies. Mayors are the heart of those metro economies. You are starting to see these incredible metropolitan areas that are naturally connected communities of interest, and they are starting to act independent of a federal government that, at times, either suffers from a paralysis in policymaking or just makes bad policy. As a result, yes, mayors are standing up and standing out.
Free Times: Is there another national issue on the radar where you guys will step up and insert yourself into the narrative?
Steve Benjamin: We are going to be focusing intently on infrastructure, for one. The U.S. has massive infrastructure needs. Depending on which professor you talk to, it’s between $2 trillion and $5.2 trillion. The plan that the president floated earlier this year called for spending $200 billion on infrastructure. I’m always interested in working with the president and the White House on a real infrastructure plan, but it was not robust and not going to address our $5 trillion need. We’ll be focused like a laser beam on infrastructure.
Free Times: You are still the mayor of Columbia. Do you feel like you can handle this national spotlight, and have city residents feel like you’re focused on them, too?
Steve Benjamin: Absolutely. We are about to close out another good budget year, we’ve got a vibrant arts scene, economic investment, a strong police force. We’re still going to get the job done. We can block and tackle, and we’ve got a great team at the city. But I am not shy about the fact that I am going to use this national platform to elevate our city this year. Columbia is a special place that gave me, as a young man and now as a not-so-young man, opportunity. I plan to use this as a platform to make sure everyone across the globe knows how special this city is.