A partner in the state's largest law firm says he is running for mayor of Columbia with a message of developing downtown as a means of invigorating the city's distressed neighborhoods.
Steve Morrison, who helped build Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough from 10 attorneys to more than 400, said his view from the 16th floor of Main Street's Meridian building inspired him to run.
"I'd like to see more outdoor cafes at the base of the Meridan building. I'd like to see more of the Magnolia Marketplace that is there on Saturday mornings outside of the plaza," Morrison said.
"I look at Greenville's Main Street and the excitement that is there, and I look at what we've been able to accomplish in the Vista, and I think the downtown corridor could be a vital and exciting place."
City Council members have poured millions of dollars into downtown in the past decade, including the convention center, EdVenture, street improvements and the CanalSide residential development.
But as the neighborhoods north of Main Street have watched their tax dollars rebuild and promote the Vista, Main Street and Five Points, they have pressured their elected officials to step out of downtown and spend money where they live.
That kind of "it's our turn" attitude has contributed to the recent push for a special tax district that would capture property tax growth in the city's north and east neighborhoods and return it to those corridors in the form of incentives for private developers.
"I don't mean to say that the Main Street corridor would be my focus to the exclusion of our important neighborhoods," Morrison said. "But I do think the vitality of the downtown is symbolic of the vitality of Columbia. And so when we develop our Main Street corridor, we develop a spirit and a vitality that spreads out to the neighborhoods and the entire community."
Morrison's clients have included the American Red Cross, Ford, General Motors, AT&T, BellSouth and Walmart. He said he has never represented or sued the city and that his firm's ethics committee vetted his work at the firm to search for any potential conflicts and did not find any.
While the election isn't until April, and candidates cannot file their paperwork until January, many believe Morrison waited too long to announce his candidacy.
Attorney Steve Benjamin has set a record in the third quarter, raising $103,000 for his mayoral campaign.
City Councilman Kirkman Finlay says he matched Benjamin's total in his first fundraiser three weeks ago.
"I have been active in Columbia civic affairs and politics for 30 years and I have only had one conversation with Steve Morrison in my entire professional career," said Bob Wislinski, a political consultant who is working for Benjamin as a fundraiser. "He dwells in the stratosphere of issues and politics."
But Morrison has hired Bud Ferillo, who last year led Councilwoman Belinda Gergel to a landslide victory in District 3 - the largest and most politically active of the four council districts.
"The money in Columbia is in the boards and commissions of nonprofit institutions of higher learning," Ferillo said.
"(Morrison) has served on Allen's (University) board, Benedict's (College) board, United Way, Palmetto Health Foundation and he's chaired the Historic Columbia foundation, the Columbia Museum Foundation and the Columbia Philharmonic. These people together are capable of raising a million dollars."
Benjamin and Finlay said they welcome Morrison to the race.
While the race is officially nonpartisan, Benjamin is the former chairman of the Richland County Democratic Party and Finlay has been active in Republican circles for years, even once hosting an event for former President George W. Bush at his home.
Morrison said he has supported candidates from both parties over the years but admitted most were Democrats - a fact that leads many to believe Morrison's candidacy will help Finlay by taking votes away from Benjamin.
"I think that's sort of like trying to understand what bouncing a ping-pong ball off the wall is," Finlay said. "It could bounce my way, it could bounce the other way. I wouldn't speculate."
Benjamin said he doesn't expect to lose supporters to Morrison, saying he believes his message of a "safe city, clean city and creating jobs" will attract a majority of voters.
"We're going to run a strong campaign that's going to be appealing to voters from across the city," Benjamin said. "I think that you need a new set of eyes on an old set of problems."