He’s the driving force who wants to ban UNC’s civil rights center from litigating

UNC Board of Governors working group members Steven Long, left, and James Holmes listen to staffers from UNC’s Center for Civil Rights respond to Long’s questions during a 2014 hearing.
UNC Board of Governors working group members Steven Long, left, and James Holmes listen to staffers from UNC’s Center for Civil Rights respond to Long’s questions during a 2014 hearing. News & Observer file photo

If the UNC Center for Civil Rights loses its legal powers to represent poor and minority clients in court, it likely will be because of one man.

Steve Long, a 56-year-old Raleigh tax attorney and member of the UNC Board of Governors, is adamant that the center – founded by the late, noted civil rights attorney Julius Chambers – not be allowed to litigate.

“The university should not be, in my opinion, hiring full-time lawyers to sue anybody,” he said of the center, which employs two lawyers and a director, and gives practical experience to law students.

The controversial litigation ban, which could clear a board committee vote Aug. 1, would apply to any UNC system center. However, the Center for Civil Rights is the only one that currently does litigation.

If the ban ultimately passes in September, UNC is likely to be in the national spotlight again, with critics accusing the board of overstepping its bounds and trampling academic freedom. If the center folds, or leaves UNC, its supporters say the university’s reputation will take a hit and the Chambers legacy will be lost.

Long proposed the policy earlier this year, on his own, even though he does not serve on the board’s committee that oversees educational policy. Since then, he has vigorously questioned the center about its operations. He’s worked the phones to make his points with board members. He asked the N.C. Pork Council to write a letter about its dealings with the civil rights center.

And this month, he wrote a 12-point memo to the board that, with lawyer-like precision, dissected a UNC-Chapel Hill committee’s report that proposed five options for changes at the center.

He accused the campus of misleading the board and of unfairly spinning the report to emphasize the center’s connection to Chambers, while downplaying its tie to former law dean Gene Nichol, a liberal professor who has sharply criticized state Republican politicians on the opinion pages of The News & Observer.

Nichol’s own Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity was abolished two years ago by a board committee that included Long. His July 8 memo said that in UNC-CH’s report, Chambers was mentioned “33 times in the 52-page main body,” while “no mention was made of Gene Nichol, the former law dean who has said the center was his idea.”

The center’s current director, Ted Shaw, sees the Nichol reference as baiting — implying that anyone who’s had contact with Nichol is “radioactive.”

At his law firm of Manning Fulton recently, Long sat at a large conference table with a pile of reports and data. He wore a blue button down, wire-rimmed glasses and close-cropped salt and pepper hair.

He downplayed his memo’s focus on Nichol. “Really the issue was not Gene Nichol; it was the accuracy of the report,” Long said. “I get it that they’d rather have Julius Chambers as their founder.”

Long admits he got into a heated email exchange with Nichol earlier this year. According to the email chain, Long accused the professor of slander, calling his actions “despicable.” Nichol had written that Long had publicly said his feelings about the civil rights center would be different if the center pursued Second Amendment claims or religious freedom claims in cases of discrimination against gay people. Long said Nichol made that up; Nichol stands by what he wrote.

The fact that Long counted references to Chambers in the report, Shaw said, was striking. “He’s rather upset about us talking about Julius Chambers,” Shaw said. “If he thinks 33 times is lot, just listen to me some more, because I’m going to keep talking about Julius.”

Shaw said he doesn’t speculate on what motivates Long to oppose the center. “The one thing that is clear to me about him is that he is someone who has an antipathy to the work that we do on behalf of black and brown people,” Shaw said.

Whether the center’s chief founder was Chambers or Nichol, Long said his position is simple: “We are a university and we should not be promoting centers that have the power to litigate, because then you’ve got these little independent organizations inside the university. So we don’t want that. Basically, to me the bottom line is staying on the university’s mission. Is the university going to stay on mission? That, to me, is the biggest issue.”

He wants the center spun off on its own, separate from UNC. Long knows that this battle has put him in an uncomfortable position. He’s regretful about “accusations that are thrown my way,” implying that he is racist.

“That really offends me because I’m a Christian,” said Long, who attends Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh. “I believe in civil rights. I believe God made everybody. ... When people say that, I don’t think they really know me.”

A Democratic family

Steven Brent Long was raised in the Eastern North Carolina town of Tarboro. His father was a school principal and his mother a teacher. Though he is a conservative Republican, his parents are Democrats. His mother was invited to the Democratic National Convention, Long said, “because she registered so many people down at the Piggly Wiggly in Tarboro.”

Long said he and his mother have some interesting conversations. Once, he said, she declared, “Bill Clinton can have all the sex he wants as long as the economy is good.”

“And I said, ‘Well I wish I’d known you felt that way when I was in high school,’” Long said.

His father was recently stopped at the grocery by a cousin who had seen Long’s name in a news story about UNC. “Cecil, is Steven a Republican?” the cousin asked, almost in disbelief.

The family joke, Long said, was that “something happened” when he went to UNC-Chapel Hill as an undergraduate. He went on to law school at Georgetown University, where he also earned a master’s in tax law. He worked with low-income clients on tax issues at a legal clinic. He also taught constitutional issues at a Washington, D.C., high school, where he hid bubblegum in students’ desks to illustrate the Fourth Amendment law on search and seizure, asking the students when he had enough probable cause to search for the gum.

Long, who is married with a grown son and daughter, has worked at several firms in Raleigh, where he spends his days in the Internal Revenue code. He said he finds it fascinating.

Those who know him say he is thorough in his preparation and research. “When it comes to presenting fact and detail, Steve is on his A-game,” said Harry Smith, a fellow board member, who worked with Long in a small group that came up with a turnaround plan for Elizabeth City State University, the struggling historically black campus in northeastern North Carolina. The plan includes debt refinancing, dorm renovations and other improvements to lure more students.

Sen. Chad Barefoot, the Republican who sponsored Long’s election to the board, said Long’s leadership on rescuing ECSU has been critical. Barefoot also praised Long’s focus on UNC’s teacher preparation programs. Being on the UNC board, Barefoot said, requires about 20 hours of time each week. “We put him on there, and he does the work, and he’s been instrumental,” Barefoot said.

Long is a regular donor to Republicans, having given to Barefoot, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and conservative judges and lawmakers such as former Rep. Marilyn Avila and House Speaker Tim Moore. Long’s contributions ranged from $25 to $1,000 over the years, but most were in the $100 to $500 range. He gave $100 for the 2012 campaign for Amendment 1, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman in North Carolina.

He has been involved in a number of issues pushed by conservatives in the legislature. He helped found Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a school choice group that advocates for charter schools and vouchers.

Long was a board member of the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank, but has since resigned, he said, because he wanted to avoid a conflict of interest. In 2013, Civitas requested Gene Nichol’s emails in a move that was decried by faculty as intimidation. Civitas recently published on its website an article discounting faculty warnings that Long’s litigation ban would affect the UNC law school’s accreditation. It suggested that the board “ignore the noise.”

Long has been focused on fiscal discipline but also on ideological issues since he joined the Republican-dominated board. Two years ago, as part of a committee that reviewed all UNC centers and institutes, Long grilled professors and others about diversity of opinion after scouring individual centers’ websites.

At the time, he said that there were “red flags” about the Center for Civil Rights.

“You have a center with litigation as its focus, you have ideological bias, you have state-funded lawyers, their allies and supporters only members of one political viewpoint,” he said in February 2015. “The university is a place where the partisans are supposed to meet and debate in front of the public and students. It cannot do that if the university is partisan itself.”

In the end, the board voted to abolish three centers – one on biodiversity at East Carolina, one on voter engagement at N.C. Central University and Nichol’s poverty center at Chapel Hill. Critics said the board made the decision based purely on politics, and in the process violated the academic freedom of faculty.

Long sees it differently. The three eliminated centers, he said, were entities with a single department and single professor, “which really shouldn’t be a center anyway,” he said.

‘That doesn’t sound right’

During that process, he said, he learned about the Center for Civil Rights and a case involving school reassignment in Pitt County, where the center represented parents in a federal complaint against the school board. He said he got on the phone with a school board member, who told him that officials had to take $500,000 from the district’s textbook fund to defend against the lawsuit.

“I thought, how in the world could this happen?” Long recalled. “I mean, that doesn’t sound right. And it was full-time lawyers suing them. It wasn’t law students. That’s what caused me to start investigating.”

Long said he wanted to do something about the litigation issue at that point, but former board chair John Fennebresque was reluctant.

“I did discourage it two years ago because we had a lot on our plate,” Fennebresque said, “and I didn’t think we needed another controversy right then.”

He described Long as “conscientious, smart and extreme. Sometimes inflexible and impractical.” But he agrees with Long that there is not a balance of viewpoints at the university, “but the board has to be very careful about what it does.”

Long said he decided he would bring the issue to a vote after an internal review of the center last year didn’t address the issue of litigation, he said.

Since then, he’s been working relentlessly on the issue, calling other law schools around the country and interviewing people about the center’s past work. Long carries with him a heavy accordion folder with documents about the center. “I don’t like to delve a little bit,” he said of his work, starting with the 2015 center review panel. “That’s just not my nature. They made the mistake of putting me on this committee.”

As a lawyer, he said he has not been involved with the center, but a colleague at a previous firm defended Brunswick County against an environmental case brought by the center. It involved a waste dump planned for an African American community; the case was ultimately settled, with the county agreeing to build an elementary school there instead of a dump.

UNC President Margaret Spellings has not taken a position. Board chairman Lou Bissette said he’s undecided.

“I’m still learning about it,” he said. “I’ve had a number of communications from Steve Long. This is a very important issue.”

The board has been deluged by hundreds of letters against the litigation ban, and a public hearing was packed by the center’s supporters. Nichol, who started the center and brought Chambers in to run it, thinks Long is driven by the same values of the conservative think tank that he previously served. “I think what’s extraordinarily clear here is his motivation is Civitas ideology,” Nichol said, “which is not the dogma that the University of North Carolina has to follow.”

Long said board members are concerned about “the optics and the noise” that have been created by the center’s advocates. He said he’s had no directive from legislators to take on the issue; there’s too much heat, he said, and politicians don’t want the political fallout.

But Long thinks he has the votes to win. “If the full board disagreed with me and they voted it down, then I’ve done my job.”

As for the UNC law graduate and late civil rights icon whose name has been invoked in the debate, Long said: “I think there are other ways to honor Julius Chambers that are consistent with our policy, and I would hope that they would do that.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill