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Columbia mayoral candidates overcome loss, other obstacles. Here are their stories

·4 min read

A stillborn child. A learning disability. The loss of a loved one. The closing of a family business.

Each of the four candidates for mayor in Columbia have spent swaths of their lives in or around high levels of Capital City government, and are now pushing to succeed Mayor Steve Benjamin in the city’s top political spot. But the pathway hasn’t always been easy.

Like many people in the long arc of life, they’ve faced hurdles during the journey. The State recently reached out to each of the four mayoral hopefuls — former District 3 City Councilman Moe Baddourah; at-large City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine; Sam Johnson, a former chief of staff to Benjamin; and District 4 City Councilman Daniel Rickenmann and asked them about some of the biggest obstacles they’ve had to overcome in their lives.

Baddourah, who previously served on council for two terms but lost a re-election bid in 2019, said the death of his first wife, Angie Koon, was a particularly difficult flashpoint in his life. She died after an illness in 1994. They were both in their early 30s at the time, and Baddourah said it was a tough moment to get past.

“It affected my life moving forward, it affected how I wake up every day, how I go to sleep every day,” Baddourah said. “And how I look at people every day. And it affected every decision that I made from then on.”

For Devine, the loss of a son during pregnancy was a critical moment. In 2014, she was nearly 38 weeks pregnant with a son — his name was to be James Henry — when doctors could no longer find a heartbeat. A knot had developed in the umbilical cord. James Henry was stillborn.

“The loss of my son strengthened my faith and gave me a sense of peace that no matter what comes your way that God has given you what you need to get through it more resilient, and stronger,” Devine said.

The tragedy with Devine’s son made headlines in Columbia at the time, and she said dealing with the matter in a public way proved helpful.

“It taught me a lot about the goodness of people,” she said. “I had strangers sending me cards and emails expressing their condolences and telling me they were praying for me and my family. It showed me what an amazingly kind community we have and that love and kindness will always bring in the light.”

For Johnson, there were bumps in the road during a working class childhood that have strengthened his resolve to be mayor. He said, on two occasions, his father lost a family business. One was a janitorial service, the other was a trucking company. When the janitorial business was running, Johnson said he’d help out emptying trash cans and cleaning offices. And COVID-19 has been a particularly wicked enemy in Johnson’s family. His aunt, grandmother and grandfather died from complications from the virus.

Johnson also notes there are life lessons he takes from his late grandfather Frank Johnson, who drove pulpwood trucks, ran a nightclub, fixed cars and did what needed to be done to raise a large family.

“He had a fourth grade education but, with immense work ethic and entrepreneurial grit, he found a way to raise my father and his 10 siblings,” Johnson said of his grandfather. “His example is what I think about whenever I face obstacles in my life because it reminds me to embrace our challenges and always move forward as we learn to appreciate the trials, the tribulations, and the triumphs together.”

Part of Rickenmann’s backstory is one that weaves through immigration, loss and an uphill learning battle.

His parents were from Switzerland and moved to the United States in the 1960s. Rickenmann was born in 1969 and, when he was 8, his father died of a heart attack, leaving him with a single mother.

He also had to deal with learning disabilities. Rickenmann had dyslexia and an auditory deficiency that he had to work through in school and into adulthood.

He said his mother’s strength steeled him through the years. She died in 2010.

“It was my mother who fought along with me every step of the way,” Rickenmann said. “She sacrificed more than I will ever know so that I could have a better life than her. Because of her courage, perseverance, and faith, I am now sitting here today, living the American dream, and running to be (Columbia’s) next mayor.”

The Columbia election is Nov. 2, with runoffs on Nov. 16, if necessary. To read more about the mayoral hopefuls, click here.

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