COLUMBIA - Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, the incoming president of the College of Charleston, plans to resign his post early next week as the politics around a bill that would affect the college have made his position untenable.
McConnell, a longtime Charleston Republican who will end a storied 34-year career in government, said in an interview with The Post and Courier on Thursday that a bill that would establish a newly-expanded University of Charleston had become more contentious than he ever imagined. As the leader of the Senate, he rules on procedural matters and did not want his rulings interpreted as biased given a political climate that has engulfed segments of the Legislature as it debates the bill. The U of C bill would allow Charleston to house the state's fourth comprehensive research university. It has passed the S.C. House but has been bogged down in the Senate.
McConnell has backed the legislation but says he is limited in how he can advocate for the bill as lieutenant governor. "The best way to help the bill is to make sure I don't become a lightning rod for the bill," he said.
Politics aside, McConnell said he has found it difficult to transition to his new role as president of the College of Charleston and attend to his duties as lieutenant governor. He said he will resign early next week but has not yet decided on a day.
McConnell gestured to his already-packed up office on the first floor of the Statehouse and said that it was time to leave. He had originally planned to resign in July, when he starts full-time as C of C president.
"Nothing good is going to come out of me remaining because there's going to be this background talk about bias and manipulation," McConnell said. "I don't need that to happen. It's just not a fair thing to do and it's not a beneficial thing to do. The time has come."
One Charleston senator called the move by Sens. John Courson, R-Columbia, and Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, on Wednesday to block a bill that would establish the Lowcountry's first comprehensive research university a legislative "declaration of war" on the city. McConnell's abrupt resignation during the final week of the legislative session could put Courson in an awkward position because some senators believe that it should force the longtime Senate leader to resign his seat and become lieutenant governor.
Courson, the Senate pro tempore or leader of that chamber, said in an interview that six senators in South Carolina's history have refused to take the lieutenant governor's spot when left vacant. He said he would not take the job. He called McConnell "one of my closest personal friends in the Senate" and does not think politics are in play in the decision. He would remain the next in the line of succession if something were to happen to the governor, the primary role of the state's number two job.
He said he does not oppose the concept of a University of Charleston but that the idea needs further vetting. "I support higher education and the College of Charleston," Courson said.
McConnell, however, was forced to take the job and give up the Senate pro tempore position and his longtime Senate seat when Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned after an ethics scandal in 2012.
"Every one of us who has become president pro tem knows that potential," McConnell said. "It's as clear as it could be in the Constitution. He'll have to make that decision just like I did." McConnell has said he didn't want to take the job but believed the Constitution mandated it.
There are other things at play with McConnell's resignation as a procedural shell game ensues to try to push the University of Charleston bill in the Legislature's final week. Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, said McConnell is a "brilliant strategist."
"Right now every weapon in our arsenal will be used," Grooms said. "When everyone's looking out for the best interest of the whole state we all prosper. When one region is under attack you have to respond. I'm not going to sit here and let Charleston get run over."
Grooms said that the longtime, respected former senator has deep relationships that could push the bill forward. "As lieutenant governor, he does not do us any good," Grooms said. "He can now reach out to certain members and spend some political capital he's earned over the last three decades."
The longtime Charleston leader's resignation will end a long chapter in a very public, political life. McConnell is a former lawyer and Confederate memorabilia store owner who spent just over three decades in the S.C. Senate and has been a part of some of the Legislature's biggest decisions.
McConnell's most famous touchstones are supporting the effort to recover and restore the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, along with the compromise that removed the Confederate flag from the Statehouse Dome and moved it to the Confederate monument in front of the Statehouse, where it remains. That subject is still a sore one and the NAACP maintains a boycott of South Carolina because of it.
McConnell said he wants to ensure his work in the Office on Aging, which he oversees, "doesn't go down the drain." He said it will be odd not to go to Columbia during the legislative session.
The longtime Senate leader also said there is hope for the University of Charleston bill. "I've seen it get like this. And after you get past the emotion of the politics you get down to business," he said.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.
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