This is KBIA’s special coverage of the race for Columbia’s second ward city council seat, which is up for grabs in the election on April 3rd. KBIA reporters caught up with all three of the candidates, and here are their stories:
Walls painted with chocolate-covered strawberries hanging in blue skies lead visitors up a flight of stairs and into Mike Atkinson’s “office.” This office, though, seems something out of child’s dream. Conveyor belts carry streams of melted chocolate and machines knead batter for crème candies that will end up in the downtown Candy Factory display case.
Atkinson is molding the crèmes into their shapes with longtime confectioner Kris Koonse. Atkinson’s parents have owned the Candy Factory for years, and in 2005, Atkinson became part owner. He is a Columbia native with degrees from Baylor in both marketing and entrepreneurship. He lived briefly in South Dakota where he worked as corporate auditor for a holding company and also for a credit card company. His business background, he says, has prepared him for city council work.
Atkinson’s focus for his campaign has been on the city budget, which he says he has analyzed to try to find ways for the city to tighten spending.
“Right now money is very tight. People are looking at tax increases, which I philosophically do not agree with until all other options have been explored. So, I want to get into the city budget and figure out, of the general fund, which is what most of the city services are provided out of, where we can find savings in that $78 million, because I don’t think one person can stand up and say of that 78 million budgeted dollars a 100 percent of it is being spent efficiently,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson says that takes a different mindset. He says spending needs to be extremely precise and he believes that he has that scrutinizing eye.
Between visiting with customers and running the business, Atkinson is husband, a father of two and a deacon at his church. In his spare time, he’s been campaigning, visiting with constituents. He says right now, most of the people he’s talking to are concerned about crime in Columbia.
“I’ve talked to people that have had their houses broken into when they’re there in broad daylight. I’ve had people talk to me about their house getting broken into when they’re not there, in broad daylight, in the evening when they’re sleeping. But most of it is larceny. People getting their stuff stolen. Leave a bike out in your front yard, it’s gone. Leave your car unlocked, whatever is in there, it’s gone. Leave something out in your backyard, it’s gone. That’s not the kind of community we need to live in so a lot of people are very upset about that,” Atkinson said.
He says making adjustments to the existing budget could allow for the city to hire more police officers without raising taxes. On the school bond issue, he says he has gone back and forth due to his tax-as-a-last-resort approach, and his belief in the importance of education. He believes the school district should get its funding. But he says the district should be efficient in its spending, and that the city should review all of those details closely.
Politically, Atkinson calls himself an independent. He says he leans more toward Libertarian philosophies of smaller government.
Koonse, who has known Atkinson for more than 10 years, believes Atkinson has the energy and the experience for council work.
“I think he’s had some different experiences that some of—even the people his age. He has a lot of business background, but he also, with the small, family owned experience, that brings another sort of experience with people that I think is really important.”
Overall, Atkinson says he wants to bring an academic approach and productive change to the council.
Bill Pauls is a former state officer with the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. But he says he wants to challenge himself in his retirement by making a run at the Columbia City Council. If he wins, he plans to tackle three areas of Columbia’s economy: public safety, infrastructure, and economic development.
“There has been no new manufacturing in this town since Quaker Oats came here in 1995. That’s a startling statistic. We have lost I think in the neighborhood of 5,000-type manufacturing jobs,” Pauls said.
Pauls says a broader range of jobs in Columbia could give more people a path to success.
“If some of our young men in this community had fulfilling job opportunities in manufacturing, maybe jobs that they could get started into from a level without perhaps a college education, or a GED, or with even some criminal background,” Pauls said.
In addition to volunteering at the Columbia Visitor’s Information Center, Pauls also serves as president of the Hunter’s Gate Neighborhood Association. He’s also a commissioner for Columbia Parks and Recreation, and a neighborhood watch chairman. He says his neighborhood doesn’t have many safety concerns, because the neighbors look out for each other. Pauls says he’d like to see this same kind of cooperation citywide.
“One of my new innovative ideas is to set up monthly meetings in the neighborhoods, to have people come. The City often offers meetings for the people to come to; people have their own schedules. They don’t come to those meetings very readily,” Pauls said.
When Pauls goes door-to-door in the 2nd ward, he wears a green campaign button with a picture of a runner. He says he used to be out of shape because of his job and smoking, so his son suggested they start running.
“He knew I need a goal, so he also suggested we’ll run a marathon together. And I said ‘How far is that?,’ and he said ‘That’s 26.2 miles.’ And I said that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, I wouldn’t even drive that far if I didn’t have to,” Pauls said. “I am a 50 States marathoner now. I’ve run 68 of them; I’ve run one in every state.”
Pauls’ wife Kris says the people she’s talked to are buying into her husband’s message.
“It’s all been I would say 99% very positive. They like his enthusiasm, and that’s I think what he really has to bring to the table for the council,” Kris Pauls said.
Pauls says he recently read a Billy Graham book called Narrowing Home. He says the book illustrates why he’s trying to win the 2nd ward seat.
“If you’re given the mental and physical capabilities after retirement, that is your best time in the world to try and give back and leave a legacy. And that’s exactly what I’m trying to do,” Bill Pauls said.
Pauls says campaigning for a City Council seat is a burden but, like running, it gives him a goal to work towards.
Michael Trapp says he discovered Columbia in 1994 as a tourist and eventually made it his home six years ago. Originally from Michigan, Trapp worked as a counselor in Berkeley, California, and continues to work in that capacity at the Phoenix Program in Columbia. There, he helps counsel members of the community struggling with substance abuse. He was also a former case manager.
“I put in about — I start canvassing about 10:30 on Saturdays and I don’t knock off until dark, so, it makes for a long day, and so I don’t want to pick up any extra steps if I can avoid it,” Trapp said.
It’s a Saturday morning and Trapp is mapping out his route for another door-knocking trip through the Second Ward neighborhoods. He thumbs through stacks of papers with the names and addresses of constituents he has talked to or still needs to meet. It’s his third trip and he says he’s hit every precinct at least once. He has a list of issues and concerns from residents and says troubled infrastructure is at the top of that list.
“I was having a conversation with a voter about street safety a couple blocks from here and we almost got clipped and I thought, “Well, how ironic would that be if I get run down while I campaign for sidewalks and street safety?’” Trapp said.
Trapp is walking up Leslie Lane, a westward extension of Vandiver from North Providence. This is the Parkade Neighborhood. He says this area isn’t alone in its infrastructure problems and so he’s campaigning to make improvements to city streets and to add sidewalks to busy roads.
Trapp says crime is another major issue in Columbia right now. He says any time there is a high profile murder in town, it raises people’s awareness. Trapp doesn’t believe adding more police officers is an effective long-term answer. He says the city council needs to look at two things: spreading out low-income housing options across town, and working toward economic development.
“We need to, not only support our core industries, which are really kind of recession proof with the universities and hospitals and insurance, but we also need to expand manufacturing jobs. There hasn’t been a new manufacturing facility put in Columbia since 1995. We lost 1,800 manufacturing jobs from 1990 to 1999. There are some folks that think we don’t need that sort of economic development because that’s always been a small fraction of what we’ve done. Columbia contributes less than 1 percent to the manufacturing capacity of the state,” Trapp said.
But Trapp says it’s an important part of the market. He says it would allow people without a college education to find a high paying job and move out of poverty and into the middle class.
Overall, Trapp believes his experience as a counselor and case manager, along with his independent political approach, would allow him to cross any political division. Mary Hendrickson, a neighbor across the street from Trapp, likes him for his ideas on infrastructure and his overall nature.
“He’s so conscientious, and I think one of the best qualities is he really listens to people, and really listens to what their concerns are. I think that’s a really great trait to have in a city council person, and he’s been a great neighbor,” Hendrickson said.
Trapp says the city needs to work toward solutions that benefit the city as a whole instead of a quote: “narrow ideological agenda.”
KBIA’s Matt Veto spoke with Michael Trapp and Mike Atkinson. Ryan Schmidt spoke with Bill Pauls.