Orna Smith at CHE

Oran Smith speaks to the S.C. Commission on Higher Education board and college leaders on May 15 in Columbia. Smith was a finalist to lead the agency that oversees 33 colleges. Andy Shain/Staff

COLUMBIA — Oran Smith put his clenched hands together over his chest, pulled them apart and asked, "Why can't people see a window into my heart?"

Smith's bid to lead South Carolina's college regulatory agency is in trouble because he was an editor of "Southern Partisan" magazine that glorified the Confederacy and secessionists while demonizing Abraham Lincoln and the Union.

Smith says his views — formed by a childhood with a grandmother who was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and friends in the Sons of Conservative Veterans — have changed over the past 20 years.

It started when he saw how many people remained upset about the smaller Confederate flag placed in front of a monument on the Statehouse grounds after it was taken down from the Dome in 2000.

"I was caught up in a bubble where the phase 'Heritage not Hate' was all you needed to say," Smith told The Post and Courier. "The magazine was South obsessed, but it wasn't race obsessed, at least not in the way we thought at the time because we were talking Robert E. Lee and the honorable service of men who died and reading the inscriptions on Confederate monuments."

"We didn't understand that no matter how you designed your flag, no matter what shape it was in, that it was offensive and often provoked violence."

However, Smith did himself few favors when the S.C. Commission on Higher Education director finalists met with board members and college leaders Wednesday.

The leader of nonprofits pushing pro-family issues and limited government did not address his decade of working at "Southern Partisan" from 1989 to 1999 during his opening remarks for the $176,000-a year job.

So the elephant in the downtown Columbia conference room was brought up during the question-and-answer session.

John Dozier, the University of South Carolina's chief diversity officer, asked him to what actions he has taken to demonstrate that he no longer holds the same ideals of the magazine.

After saying he was an entry-level employee at the time, Smith sailed through a string of statements about how he thought he made his new views clear in a 2015 column in The State newspaper after the Charleston shooting, and how he was a Civil War buff who collected Union and Confederate memorabilia like many South Carolinians, and how his views started to change after leaving the magazine.

"I began to see those kinds of trinkets and symbols were not only not helpful, but they could actually be dangerous," Smith said.

Commission board member Cleveland Sellers, a civil rights leader after his imprisonment following 1968's Orangeburg Massacre, asked why Smith did not include his work with "Southern Partisan" on his resume.

Smith said he thought he addressed any potential controversy by putting down that he worked from Richard Quinn & Associates, whose namesake was editor of the magazine, rather than using the firm's other name, First Impressions. Quinn also has been at the center of a long-running Statehouse corruption probe. 

Dozier and Sellers did not think Smith answered their questions directly. "I think he tried to explain away his association with this organization," Dozier said.

Sellers said he is not going to vote for Smith to oversee 33 colleges because he does not know whether to believe Smith's change of heart.

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"This position is going to require a somebody who has a lot of integrity and is on solid footing and is not on a mission," Sellers said.

Meanwhile, LGBTQ advocates have sent more than 800 emails to the higher education commission opposing Smith because of his fights against same-sex rights and marriage when he led the Palmetto Family Council. Smith said he can separate his personal views from his professional duties, citing the 26 years he has spent as a trustee at Coastal Carolina University.

Commission member Charles Dalton, who is leading the director search committee, said the board should look at the entire background of finalists, who include an assistant commissioner at the Missouri Department of Higher Education and an attorney with a Baltimore for-profit university operator.

"I think you need to look at somebody's complete career," Dalton said. "I don't think you can segment it." 

Smith said he hopes commission members will look at how he has evolved.

"I would hope that they would allow me to explain my deeper understanding and errors of youth that I have made, which have had the effect of making me probably more aggressively supportive of equality and civil rights than your average person," Smith said. 

Commission Chairman Wes Hayes said he thinks Smith will get a fair shake, and Smith still has the backing of Gov. Henry McMaster, a longtime friend who appoints all 15 members to the commission.

Board members have the final say, and they are expected to do that early next month.

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Columbia Bureau Chief

Andy Shain runs The Post and Courier's team based in South Carolina's capital city. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.

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