Elections

Morrison rooted in civil rights

Columbia mayoral candidate Steve Morrison and his wife, Gail, chat with constituent Bill Dufford before a forum at 701 Whaley.
Columbia mayoral candidate Steve Morrison and his wife, Gail, chat with constituent Bill Dufford before a forum at 701 Whaley.

When Steve Morrison once suggested his company ditch a division that earned $100 million a year, his colleagues thought he was nuts.

"A lot of people felt that way," said Larry Wilson, who was in that 1996 meeting at Policy Management Systems Corp.

Morrison stood his ground, explaining how the division didn't fit with the company's long-term business strategy.

"In the end, he was exactly right," said Wilson, who at the time was president and Morrison's boss.

PMSC sold the division, just before competitors glutted the market.

Morrison has a knack for absorbing complex information and explaining it, Wilson said. He also can think strategically and build common ground among diverse interests.

Those skills make him the kind of mayor Columbia needs, Wilson said.

"He's the kind of person who can build consensus about what is important," Wilson said.

"It's not enough to have someone who can make sure the budget is balanced. We need someone who can make sure we're making progress, too."

As Columbia elects its first new mayor in 20 years, Morrison is running his campaign on a platform of creating a strong, safe, clean, creative and just city.

The 60-year-old is a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough, South Carolina's most prestigious law firm.

Yet it is his public stands on behalf of racial and social justice - specifically, with schools suing the state in the "Corridor of Shame" lawsuit - that have brought him recognition.

Those commitments have led to endorsements for Morrison by some of the city's most prominent African-American residents, among them S.C. NAACP president Lonnie Randolph.

AN EARLY CALL TO JUSTICE

Morrison's foundation of strategic thinking started as a child in Midlands, Mich.

His father, George Morrison, worked as a research chemist for Dow Chemical Co. and pushed his son in math and logic. Sometimes, the two prepared for debates using index cards, the father poking holes in his son's theories.

His mother Ginny put aside a journalism career to be a homemaker. She was active in the public schools attended by Steve Morrison and his two younger sisters.

By eighth grade, he knew he wanted to be a lawyer.

Morrison said as a teenager in the turbulent 1960s, the family often discussed the civil rights movement.

"My mother and father were very clear in the civil rights era about what was right and what was wrong," he said.

At the University of Michigan, Morrison played freshman basketball but gave up playing varsity because he was "too small to play forward and too slow to be a guard."

But campus civil rights protests were among the most memorable of his college experiences.

At Michigan, the student-led Black Action Movement's 1970 boycott shut down the campus for eight days.

Morrison, president of the Interfraternity Council, helped convince most of the campus fraternities to participate in the boycott.

In the end, the school's administration agreed to increase African-American enrollment and to hire more minorities on faculty and staff.

After his junior year, Morrison won a national student leadership award to spend the summer as an intern in a profession he wanted to pursue.

The award allowed participants to choose from one of four U.S. cities.

Morrison had never been to the Deep South, so he picked Columbia.

He went to work for a family court judge, who assigned him to a home for troubled boys.

Morrison said he enjoyed the experience, and Columbia, so much that he applied to law school at the University of South Carolina.

And, he kept ties to some of the boys he worked with during his internship, moving into a house in the Granby Mill neighborhood with five who, at 16, had become too old for the group home.

"I knew they were making great progress," he said. "I didn't want them to do something silly."

During the day, Morrison attended classes while the boys went to therapy and worked on their high school diplomas. At night, Morrison ran a basketball league in the gym at the old Olympia school.

"I thought I was making a big difference and I loved those kids," he said.

The living arrangement ended when Morrison married his high school sweetheart, Gail, after his first year of law school.

But even today, Morrison still knows the whereabouts of those five boys.

Three went on to get jobs and live productive lives. Two are in prison.

A PERSUASIVE ATTORNEY

Morrison's first job after law school was with Nelson Mullins, where he quickly earned a reputation as a talented litigator.

In 35 years with the firm, he has built a career representing large corporations, among them Wal-Mart and General Motors. He has tried a case before the U.S. Supreme Court and in international courts.

Ed Mullins, one of Nelson Mullins' founders, said Morrison has a well-deserved national reputation, calling him "almost disgustingly competent."

Still, Morrison has used his financial success and prestige at Nelson Mullins to push for social causes.

In 2000, when the S.C. NAACP organized its first King Day at the Dome, leaders recognized something was missing from the roster of speakers - a leader from Columbia's white community.

They turned to Morrison.

That day, Morrison stood on the state capitol steps before more than 50,000 people and implored the Legislature to remove the Confederate flag from the State House dome.

"I agreed to do it because the symbolism of the flag is bad for us," he said. "It divides us. It hurts us economically. It fractures us as a community."

For nearly a third of his career, Morrison has been part of the legal team representing eight S.C. school districts, among the state's poorest, who sued the state over inequities in education funding.

Morrison joined the case in 1998, after Nelson Mullins agreed to provide free legal services for the school districts. The firm pays his salary when he works on the case.

As co-lead counsel, Morrison argued the case in a 102-day trial in Clarendon County between July 2003 and November 2004. Today, the case is awaiting a ruling from the S.C. Supreme Court.

During the trial, Morrison and the rest of the legal team worked out of a rented house in Manning and slept in a hotel near I-95.

Morrison's wife and son sometimes drove down during the week to join him for dinner, and he would come home for brief visits on weekends.

The cause made the sacrifice easier.

"For me, education is the way to end the cycle of ignorance, poverty and despair I've seen with at-risk kids," he said.

"The priority of our society should be on educating our children."

Many who have worked with Morrison call him "brilliant."

Carl Epps, a partner at Nelson Mullins, has been in the courtroom as Morrison's opponent and as his partner, most notably during the school funding lawsuit.

"He has an extraordinary short-term memory and he's able to articulate his point so well," Epps said.

"I've worked with talented lawyers. There is no close second."

Tom Truitt, a retired Florence 1 superintendent and former executive director of the Pee Dee Education Center, said he was amazed by Morrison's ability to jump into the complexities of the lawsuit.

"When he examines a witness he gets to the meat of the stuff," Truitt said. "He doesn't let them give superfluous answers and slide by."

Epps recalls a day in court when the state called a statistician as one of its witnesses.

The statistician brought a pile of charts, diagrams and spreadsheets.

Morrison spent an entire day picking apart the numbers during his cross-examination.

By the end, the statistician was interpreting the numbers in a different light.

"He turned that statistician into one of our best witnesses," Epps said.

Morrison said he is rarely conflicted by his representation of big business and his fight for minorities or poor people.

In his eyes, both deserve justice.

"An unfair accusation against a major company is just as unjust as underfunding public schools," Morrison said. "Justice is what you seek for everyone. It includes big corporations and the richest people and it includes the public schools and the poorest people. You can't say, 'I only want justice for one' and then have it for everyone."

CHALLENGING TIMES

While Morrison receives high praise from colleagues, his courtroom experience has not been trouble free.

In 1993, Morrison drew the ire of U.S. District Court Judge Ross Anderson, who accused him of ethical violations by failing to produce documents during the discovery process of a civil trial.

Anderson also pointed out questionable tactics used by Nelson Mullins litigators, who were led by Morrison.

They were fierce accusations, and the dispute became a hot topic in the state's legal circles.

Morrison eventually turned over Anderson's accusations in a federal appeals court. But he said he wishes he had never crossed hairs with the judge.

"I regret the whole episode," Morrison said. "He stayed mad at me."

During the early 1990s, Nelson Mullins was the fastest-growing law firm in the Southeast, and Morrison was given much credit for it. He was considered the next in line to be managing partner.

However, Morrison agreed in 1994 to become vice president and general counsel of Policy Management Systems Corp., which developed software for the insurance industry.

PMSC was in trouble with its shareholders and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The company was accused of inflating revenues.

Wilson, the company's founder and president, believed Morrison was the man who could get PMSC's house in order.

Morrison never really left Nelson Mullins, but PMSC became his full-time job. He said he took it because "I am attracted to a challenge."

As head of PMSC's legal, human resources and marketing departments, Morrison oversaw an audit of the company's accounting practices and was the face of the company as it waded through a shareholder lawsuit and an SEC complaint.

In late 1994, PMSC agreed to a reported $31 million settlement with shareholders. And, in 1997, the company agreed to pay a $1 million fine to the SEC for improper bookkeeping.

After PMSC was sold in 2000, Morrison returned full time to Nelson Mullins.

The experience at PMSC will translate well to managing city finances, Morrison said.

"I learned the need for absolute accuracy, not just at year end but monthly," he said.

PROMISE TO LISTEN

Amidst his legal practice, fight for social causes and service on community boards, Morrison makes time for family.

Gail and Steve Morrison, married for 44 years, are among the city's staunchest arts supporters. They serve on boards and attend art exhibits, the symphony and plays. They are avid readers - their home's bookshelves are fully stocked.

Morrison has never given up basketball. He holds season tickets at USC, and he and his wife recently visited their son, Gregory, a student at Duke University, so they could see the Blue Devils play Maryland at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Morrison's mother, Ginny, said her son stays almost too busy.

"I say to him every once in a while, 'You better stop and go fishing,'" she said.

Gail Morrison said her husband has a lot of energy, and she wasn't that surprised when he mentioned running for mayor.

"If you think it will make you happy, go for it," Gail Morrison recalled saying.

Morrison said he's running because he was challenged by others to get into the race.

He said it's disturbing that the city has been arguing about a homeless shelter for 10 years. And, he is critical of the city's handling of the public transportation system, especially allowing SCE&G to essentially buy its way out of it.

"When I get critical of our leadership the question becomes, as it should be, 'Well, what are you doing?'" Morrison said.

Morrison has brought his trial lawyer's preparation habits to his campaign.

He has requested meetings with city staff to understand topics such as sewer infrastructure. He can recall which obscure water pipe has a leak and name the main creeks and most serious pollution in each.

He said he will bring his most essential skills as an attorney to the mayor's office.

"The single skill that is the most important to a lawyer is listening, not talking," he said. "We gather the information, understand the information and then explain it to other people.

"As a mayor, that's what you're all about. You're about listening to other people, studying information and then coming together and making a decision."

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