COLUMBIA — Questions surrounding GOP House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s self-reimbursement from his campaign account could add intrigue to the typically non-competitive speaker’s race.
S.C. House speakers are elected to two-year terms by a majority vote of House members. This year’s vote is expected to take place in December.
But the key ingredient in such a scenario, a viable GOP challenger to Harrell who could split the House Republican vote in the contest later this year, has not emerged.
Scott Buchanan, executive director of The Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, said it’s too soon to tell what impact the revelations could have on Harrell’s leadership future.
“If you look in other states where you’ve had legislative leaders get defeated or have a tough time getting re-elected to a position, it’s because of controversy of this sort,” he said. “This is the sort of issue that doesn’t help.”
A spokesman for Harrell said Monday that the campaign expenditures were legitimate and documented.
“The speaker very much plans to explain how this story was one of politics and not of fact,” Greg Foster said.
Rep. Ralph Norman, the Rock Hill Republican who challenged Harrell for the speaker’s post in 2010, said he’s unsure whether he again will try to unseat Harrell. Norman, who was defeated 112-5 last time, said he ran against Harrell over philosophical differences and because “nobody else would do it.”
Still, Norman said the outcome of the reimbursement issue will be a factor in the speaker’s contest.
“This issue is going to have to be resolved,” he said. “If it’s just an oversight, that’s fine. But hopefully he’s going to provide an explanation, which the public deserves.”
Rock Hill GOP Rep. Gary Simrill, who nominated and voted for Norman for speaker in 2010, said he doesn’t foresee a “rush to judgment” of Harrell.
But Simrill, who is running for assistant majority leader, said he expects Harrell to be forthcoming “with explanations and details with what’s going on.”
Incoming GOP House member Donna Wood of Spartanburg County said Harrell’s reimbursement issue will affect her vote in the speaker’s race.
“This never should have gotten this far out of control, be it the speaker or anybody else,” she said. “I worked in the business world, and I didn’t get reimbursed until I backed up every item of spending. It’s unfortunate that this has come up with the speaker, but we all should be held to the same standards.”
Wood is unopposed in the general election after unseating Republican Rep. Steve Parker.
Harrell is expected to win re-election to his House seat in November, but he might have to rely on Democrats to keep him in his leadership spot if a challenger for speaker can splinter the GOP vote.
Republicans control 76 of 124 House seats and could re-elect Harrell as speaker by themselves. But if a challenger splits House Republicans, Democrats could decide who becomes the next speaker.
Still, Democrats might not be inclined to turn their backs on Harrell, with whom most House Democrats have a good working relationship.
Rep. David Mack, D-North Charleston, said Harrell has done great work for the Charleston area and doesn’t think the reimbursements will be an issue.