Morrison might join mayor's race

A Columbia attorney with a strong record of community involvement, especially in education and with the disenfranchised, might run for mayor.

"I see my city kind of ... floundering ... and I am considering carefully the call to service," said Steve Morrison, a partner with Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough, one of the state's largest law firms.

Morrison told The State on Friday he has consulted with political and fund-raising experts and is still discussing a race with his family and law partners. He said he will make a final decision next month.

"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."

He would enter a race against declared candidates City Councilman Kirkman Finlay III, former Richland County Democratic Party chairman Steve Benjamin, perennial candidate businessman Joe Azar and retired Army Lt. Col. Gary Myers.

Others also have expressed interest in joining the race.

Finlay said he heard a month ago that Morrison was considering a race. Morrison's candidacy will put pressure on the others.

"It will make everybody focus more so on their base," said Finlay, son of a former mayor. "I think everybody's going to have to put their A-game on."

Benjamin campaign manager Joseph Oppermann said he, too, was not surprised by Morrison's now-public interest in the race.

"If it's something he's considering, he may well do it," Oppermann said. "He's an excellent lawyer and a fine man. We would look forward to debating him."

Oppermann declined to discuss Morrison's impact on the race, saying the campaign would address that if Morrison formally declares.

Morrison, 60, is one of the lead attorneys in South Carolina's lawsuit over equitable funding for poor school districts. The case, which could become a landmark, is awaiting a ruling in the state Supreme Court.

He and his firm took the case for free.

Morrison also has served in leadership positions with the Columbia chapter of the Urban League, the Historic Columbia Foundation and the city's art museum.

His community activity has been recognized by the NAACP, the Urban League and the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council, among others. Morrison's name often appears on lists of the nation's best lawyers.

Urban League chief executive officer J.T. McLawhorn said he could not take a position in the race because Benjamin is a member of the organization's board and Morrison is a former chairman.

"I have the highest regard for them," McLawhorn said.

A tough courtroom litigator, Morrison has carved out specialties in business liability, product liability, securities litigation and technology law. He teaches trial advocacy and legal writing at USC's law school, from which the former Michigan resident graduated in 1975.

Morrison was court-appointed to represent one of Columbia's most notorious criminals, double murderer Larry Gene Bell. Morrison was on a team that challenged Bell's mental competence to be executed after his conviction. Ultimately, Bell became the last person in South Carolina to die in the electric chair.

Born in Pasadena, Calif., Morrison was raised in Midland, Mich., headquarters for Dow Chemical, which employed his father as a chemist.

Dow was widely criticized during the 1960s for manufacturing napalm, a defoliant widely used in the Vietnam war.

Morrison once protested Dow's napalm business at a company shareholders' meeting. Yet as president of his fraternity and the inter-fraternity council at the University of Michigan, Morrison said he did not consider himself a student radical.

He said Friday he has never been involved in a political campaign other than to make contributions or host fund-raisers.

As a candidate, Morrison said his primary focus would be fixing the capital city's financial mess.

"So far, we haven't been able to get to the bottom of it," he said.

The city reserves were depleted by $39 million over the past seven years, and Columbia leaders operated with multimillion-dollar deficits for several of those years.

Council members learned the city had paid some of its bills twice, lost $1 million on poor investment decisions and overpaid some workers.

Without providing details, Morrison said his candidacy also would address the need for more economic development, neighborhood preservation, promoting the arts and partnering with the University of South Carolina.

Early response from city and state leaders was positive.

Dick Riley, former governor, U.S. secretary of education and a partner in Nelson Mullins, called Morrison "unusually bright," with an analytical mind, and "a real leader."

"That will be a very interesting race," said Riley, who did not know before Friday that Morrison is considering a run.

Mayor Bob Coble said Morrison is "a top-notch person and lawyer ... a very formidable candidate."

"He's probably spent more time on public policy issues than any other lawyer," Coble said.

The mayor of 20 years has not endorsed a candidate.

Lonnie Randolph, president of the state NAACP, said Morrison's commitment to community service contributed to the civil rights organization granting him its humanitarian award in 2007.

"He is something that is rare in public life," Randolph said. "Most people in public life have more interest in self.

"Steve Morrison would not only be a good candidate, he would be a great candidate for any elective office."

Asked if Morrison, who is white, would divide the city's African-American vote with Benjamin, who is black, Randolph paraphrased the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Because of his track record, people will evaluate him not on the color of his skin but on the content of his character."

Randolph advised voters: "Look not at what they promise you, but on what they've done."