Bolton: Here's hoping Morrison answers the call

Associate EditorNovember 8, 2009 

I HOPE attorney Steve Morrison does more than consider a run for mayor of Columbia.

His candidacy would be a welcome sight. That's not an endorsement of Mr. Morrison. It's just good to see capable candidates offer themselves for public service. That's so often not been the case, particularly in the city.

Over the years, too few people with the wherewithal to lead this city to the next level have run. After Mayor Bob Coble, who's not running for re-election, defeated former Mayor Patton Adams a couple of decades ago, his re-election every four years was all but sure because of a dearth of high-quality opponents. It was always the steady, capable Mayor Bob - and everybody else.

It wasn't until 2006, when Kevin Fisher entered the fray, that Mayor Coble was forced to defend his record and the direction the city was heading in. It's good for voters trying to make a decision - and the city in the long run - when quality candidates force one another to thoroughly explain their positions on the issues.

But Columbia hasn't gotten that as often as it should have. I'm convinced that more capable people haven't joined the field because they aren't interested in a part-time mayor's job that has no executive authority and is largely ceremonial.

So when a Steve Morrison - or a Kirkman Finlay or Steve Benjamin - is willing to step up despite the limitations, he should be encouraged to do so. Councilman Finlay and attorney Benjamin are currently considered the frontrunners in a field that includes perennial candidate businessman Joe Azar, retired Army Lt. Col. Gary Myers and environmental activist/nature photographer Sparkle Clark.

A race between Mr. Finlay, a former mayor's son, and Mr. Benjamin, a former S.C. attorney general candidate and prolific fundraiser, is intriguing. But a third serious contender would enhance the chance of voters getting the right kind of debate. This is an extremely important race in the life of the city. Columbia is "floundering," as Mr. Morrison put it. It's financially challenged, groping to regain shattered public trust and, quite frankly, in need of strong, respected leadership.

That's why it's good Mr. Morrison is considering a run. I've long thought he should be serving in elected office - at a level higher than mayor. He possesses attributes that the state of South Carolina needs in the governor's office. He's well-equipped to help the city out of this mess it's in.

Like Mr. Finlay, a fiscal conservative who's helped the city focus on righting its financial ship, and Mr. Benjamin, a moderate who's a capable leader and bridge-builder, Mr. Morrison brings his own bonafides to the table.

I'm impressed by Mr. Morrison's insight, compassion and smarts. He's the type who would, as mayor, not hesitate to make tough, but sound, rational decisions - including some that would ruffle feathers - without prejudice.

Active in the community, he's chaired the United Way of the Midlands campaign and the Columbia Urban League board and served in leadership capacities with other organizations. The NAACP and the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council among others have recognized his community service.

Often recognized as one of the nation's best lawyers, Mr. Morrison is a lead attorney in the lawsuit over equitable funding for poor school districts in our state. He and his firm, which took the case for free, are trying to convince the courts that legislators don't give poor school systems enough money to provide students an opportunity at a good education.

It's unclear whether he's going to run. He told The State he's consulted with political and fund-raising experts and still is talking with his family and law partners.

"If I run," Morrison said, "I will be running ... to stand for visionary leadership over divisiveness, big-picture interests over pedestrian politics, solid management over risky alternatives and unity over racial discord."

That's vintage Morrison. I vividly recall hearing him speak publicly on two occasions, both Urban League functions. Each time, I was struck by his sincerity.

The speech that has stuck with me most was the one he delivered in 2001. It was one of the most candid, forceful speeches I've heard in the years I've attended the Urban League's annual dinners. In his speech, Mr. Morrison challenged Columbians and South Carolinians to take brave steps to address glaring inequities in our society, many of which adversely affect African-Americans.

"To build a great community, we must be fiercely committed to equality and justice," he said. Calling for change, he said the greatest injustices were in the areas of health care, education and economic competitiveness.

What made the speech so effective was that it wasn't a political speech. He wasn't running for anything; he wasn't pandering. It was a speech from the heart from someone who deeply cares for this community and this state.

If Mr. Morrison runs, he would inject a new dynamic into the mayor's race. He likely would pull some support away from both Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Finlay.

His community activism would garner him some level of support among African-Americans, a strong voting bloc in the city that kept Mayor Coble well ahead of his competitors. Mr. Benjamin would get a majority of those votes, but Mr. Morrison would have some appeal.

A big question is how many key community leaders and operatives who can deliver votes - those who supported Mayor Coble especially - already have pledged their loyalty to Mr. Finlay or Mr. Benjamin. Perhaps that's why Mr. Morrison has let it be known he's thinking about it. It's an opportunity to not only test the waters but also get people to put the brakes on settling in on a candidate just yet.

"I am considering carefully the call to service," he told The State.

I hope he answers.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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