Steve Benjamin of the law firm McAngus Goudelock and Courie, LLCOctober 18, 2007
Recently you decided to join the law firm of McAngus Goudelock and Courie. Why give up your own practice and join another firm?
It’s great to have your own practice and I would not trade that time for anything, but part of my decision to come here was that I would be better able to serve the needs of my growing client base in a larger law firm. There simply is a broader skill set and a deeper pool of legal talent here.
Another factor is that one of my colleagues at the Benjamin Law Firm, Tina Herbert, who was the best hire I ever made, came with me to MG&C.
The most important thing was that MG&C was a good fit. This is a firm filled with great people who do excellent work. It’s given me a clean slate, an opportunity to help develop a burgeoning business practice group here at MG&C, and the freedom to continue my work serving the community.
Where are you from originally?
My parents are originally from Orangeburg County, but I was actually born in Queen’s, New York. Like a lot of black Southerners, my family moved up north during the 1960’s. My brother and I both decided to come back to South Carolina for college. He went to South Carolina State and 20 years this past August 17th, I arrived on USC campus as a freshman.
I received both my undergraduate degree in political science and my law degree here at USC.
What did you do after law school?
I started my practice with McNair Law Firm in 1994 and then spent a few years in Raleigh doing corporate and government affairs work at Progress Energy and International Paper. I returned to Columbia in 1999 when I accepted a position in Governor Jim Hodges’ Cabinet just after he was elected Governor. Actually, I remember the date, January 25th, 1999.
In September of 2001, I decided to pursue the race for the Attorney General’s office.
Obviously you did not win that race. What were some of the lessons learned from the campaign trail?
I love South Carolina; I felt we could make a difference. The timing was right (I was single at the time with a small law practice) and win, lose or draw I wanted to elevate the level of the debate that I saw occurring in South Carolina politics.
We raised about $1.1 million which is the high watermark for all candidates running for that office. We received 44% of the vote and had phenomenal support across the board, even from areas where some thought we might struggle. 26 out of 35 sheriffs endorsed our campaign. I am proud of that and it really reinforced my views about the incredible potential we have in this state.
Republican, Democrat, Black or White – there are so many people who care deeply about South Carolina and want to move the state forward.
It was an incredible experience and although we didn’t win, I loved meeting people from all across this great state.
Would you run for political office again?
Yes, definitely. I love politics and being a part of the policy making process. We have such a deep talent pool in the state, but very few want to run for public office. I want to be involved and I encourage other like-minded people to do the same. I find it intellectually dishonest to ask people to do something that I am not willing to do myself.
We are making great progress, but this is still a state that has significant needs. I really just want to help.
How well is the state doing at improving race relations?
W.E.B. Dubois wrote over 100 years ago that the problem of the 20th Century would be the problem of the color-line. Racism is not a problem that is restricted to the United States; there is ethnic and racial strife all across the world.
There are 4 million people in the state of South Carolina, and each of us has an opportunity here in the 21st century to turn things around. If we elect the right people who want to genuinely improve the quality of life for ALL people, then each individual can make a difference.
From the good people serving on PTO boards, to the City councils, to our elected officials in the General Assembly, right up to the people at the highest levels of office, everybody needs to buy into this vision and simply shut out those who would promote intolerance and division.
We all want a society where our kids are safe, where we can have good jobs and take care of our families, where we can contribute to society. The things that unite us are way more numerous than those that divide us.
What leaders do you most admire?
Israel Brooks, who was the first black state trooper in South Carolina and the eventual Chief U.S. Marshal in South Carolina during the Clinton administration, is a personal hero. In early September, Israel Brooks died at age 63 and I think it’s safe to say that he touched the lives of so many people.
I admire people who are trail blazers, who challenge conventional wisdom and who knock down barriers. He and I got to know each other at St. John’s Baptist church.
He was a straight shooter and possessed that rare skill of being able to speak to prince or pauper alike. I admired him as a business man and most importantly, I admired his generosity.
What community efforts are you focusing on now? What Boards are you serving on?
I serve on the Executive Committee for the Columbia and the State Chambers of Commerce and the Midlands Business Leadership Group. I also serve on the board Columbia Urban League to name a few.
I focus all my efforts on a couple of key issues: creating a positive business environment and supporting a strong education system in South Carolina. We need to have the infrastructure in place to grow our own talent right here and keep the brain power here, and we need to make big investments in education. We have to remember that we are not just competing with the Raleigh’s and Atlanta’s of the world, but cities around the globe.
Our biggest challenge is to create opportunities for the less fortunate. There are still places across our state, where the living conditions are more akin to those of a third world nation. There is a school in Dillon County that is featured in the Corridor of Shame that is over 100 years old – it is literally falling apart.
The average 4th or 5th grader in some of the less fortunate areas of the state has never seen a dentist and has over 8 cavities. Lack of health care is just one of the myriad issues surrounding poverty in these areas. But great things are being done. You need to go and talk to Ken Trogdon, the Executive Director at CommuniCare, who is actively coming up with solutions for the working uninsured of this state. A few years ago they came up with the idea of offering school based dental clinics, the first of which was rolled out in Allendale County.
When thinking of poverty we often consider lack of parenting skills, drugs, safety – sometimes the physical health of these students is overlooked.
We need to make some common sense decisions in this state to ensure the quality of life for each and every person.
In summary, if it’s about creating business opportunities or educational opportunities for kids, then I’m all for it.
I heard good reviews of a commencement speech that you gave recently. What are the most important points that you tried to communicate to the graduates?
Yes, I was honored to be chosen to give the commencement speech this past June at Midlands Technical College. At Midlands Tech (and the other technical colleges) you really have the engine that drives the state economy and its workforce retraining and development.
I decided to go over to the campus and do some informal research in advance of the speech. I met an inspiring woman with 5 children, 30 years old who had made a conscious decision to improve her position in life.
What they probably appreciated was that the speech was brief. But here are a few points I tried to make.
One. Dream big. Don’t ever let your current condition or others around you let get you down. Don’t let others tell you what you can or can’t do.
Two. Start planning. Focus. You have to take action and execute your plan.
Three. I used the metaphor of the glass balls and the rubber balls. I told them that their professional career is great, but you have to remember the important things in life. The glass balls you possess (spiritual and mental health, family, friends) are precious and cannot be dropped.
The rubber balls you possess (your career, your job) will bounce back. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like they will, but things have a way of working themselves out. Don’t lose track of what is important.
If you weren’t a lawyer at MG&C, what would you most like to do in the world?
I’m a Dad. If I could spend every waking hour with my two beautiful girls, I would.
I’d also love to teach and focus on the educational needs of the disadvantaged. In particular, I would love to develop educational opportunities for young black men. That’s my passion.
And if I didn’t have a family, I’d be a hobo and travel the trains from town to town like they did back in the early part of the last century. Maybe it was the campaign trail, but I just love meeting people and I love to travel. What a great way to see the country!
What books are you reading?
I am a student of history. Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis chronicles the lives of America’s founding fathers at the birth of our nation. These men had an incredible sense of self; they knew that through their service they were creating something larger than themselves. Our current leaders should be students of history and fully understand the legacy they have been entrusted with.
Where do you see this city in 10 years?
Columbia is sitting on some of the most incredible opportunities that we have ever faced. It’s time for all of us to step up to the plate and make things happen.
And yourself in 10 years?
I married a Columbia girl, we are blessed with two Columbia babies, and I expect to be here the rest of my life.