COLUMBIA - The state Senate twice elected a president pro tempore Wednesday, allowing Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell to resign and focus on his new responsibilities as president of the College of Charleston.
The power shift wasn't without controversy: One senator alleged a coup had taken place because of opposition to the University of Charleston bill.
Senators elected Yancey McGill, D-Kingstree, to the leadership position without opposition. He was sworn in as lieutenant governor after McConnell resigned. A Democrat has not held the seat since 1995, also under a Republican governor.
Minutes later, Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, was subsequently elected president pro tempore, making him the most powerful member of the General Assembly. Leatherman also chairs the Senate Finance Committee.
McGill, a 26-year Senate veteran, praised McConnell's work as a senator and as lieutenant governor.
"Senator McConnell's academia and his strength could have been about Charleston," McGill said. "But it was not about Charleston. It was about helping every member in this chamber. ... And I just want to tell you that I appreciated the amount of love and compassion."
It was a tumultuous end to McConnell's 34-year career as a lawmaker. In his resignation letter read to the Senate by its clerk, McConnell said he found his duties as lieutenant governor "severely limited."
"Although I wanted to resign at the end of the regular session, I agreed to remain until June 19, 2014, so that acts could be ratified and a constitutional impasse would not happen," McConnell wrote. "All of this has been completed."
McConnell could not be reached for comment after he resigned.
McGill's 26-year Senate career comes to an end now that he has become lieutenant governor. He could run again for his seat, but it would mean starting again as a freshman legislator.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who attended McGill's swearing-in, later issued a statement praising McGill, and made no mention of his party affiliation.
"The importance for South Carolina to have a lieutenant governor cannot be understated and I want to personally thank Yancey McGill for making this sacrifice," she said. "For 25 years, he has served this state and his district with great distinction and I know his legacy as a statesman will only grow in his new role. I offer my sincerest congratulations to our new lieutenant governor and his family - he has made South Carolina proud today."
While McGill's selection was uncontested, Leatherman's pick was contentious.
Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, blasted what he described as a coup put in place against the previous president pro tempore, Republican Sen. John Courson of Columbia, for opposing the University of Charleston bill, which died this week after strong divisions arose.
"I am convinced that this was a well-orchestrated coup," said Massey, adding it was because Courson dared to say no. "Let this be a warning: play ball or there will be consequences. Just ask Sen. Courson."
Massey also criticized the idea of electing Leatherman as the chairman of the Finance Committee. Leatherman would have too much power, he said.
"It is way too much power to put in the hands of any one legislator," he added. "The consolidation of power that I'm talking about is seriously concerning for me. I just, in good faith, cannot support it."
The vote was 42-2, with Massey and Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, dissenting.
Courson later joked that for there to be a coup there had to be dead bodies, and he was still standing. But he noted that the issues started when he wouldn't allow the U of C bill to go through without it being properly vetted.
As for Massey's concern with Leatherman having too much power, Courson said Leatherman's "got the piggy bank."
Leatherman thanked the Senate when he was sworn in.
"I love this Senate like you love this Senate," Leatherman said. "I will treat all of you with respect. We're not Democrats. We're not Republicans. We're South Carolina senators."