Those frenetic last days of the legislative session were anything but an exercise of calm, deliberative governance. The "University of Charleston" issue and Glenn McConnell's departure as lieutenant governor created a bitterly fought musical chairs free-for-all for Senate leadership posts.
On the Senate floor, it was an open test of leadership strength, including McConnell's.
Behind the scenes it was an alley fight.
And hardly surprising, Florence's Hugh Leatherman emerged unscathed - even more powerful than he had been when this scrum began.
Follow the dots, folks: By a 42-2 vote, Leatherman was elected by his Senate colleagues to succeed Williamsburg Democrat Yancey McGill as president pro tempore. Mr. McGill briefly assumed that post before becoming lieutenant governor under the constitutional rules of succession. Columbia Republican John Courson resigned as president pro tem rather than take the lieutenant governor's post when McConnell resigned to assume the presidency of the College of Charleston.
What we witnessed is the scalability of Hugh Leatherman's leadership - and his aggregated authority and power. At 83 and going strong, Leatherman will continue to chair the Senate Finance Committee.
He is the most powerful male in South Carolina governance, maybe the most powerful person.
And he is arguably the most powerful state legislator in the "Home Rule" era which dates to 1975.
Not bad for the kid who grew up on a North Carolina cotton farm - and earned an engineering degree at N.C. State University having never studied algebra or geometry at his small rural high school.
Detractors argue against such concentrations of power. South Carolina's political history features leadership senators who held tightly to the reins of legislative processes. Remember Marion Gressette, Rembert Dennis and Edgar Brown? It's a trait of the structure and processes set forth in the State Constitution. The reality is power concentration; but the larger issue for us voters who empower this system is how the "powerful" perform.
Hugh Leatherman's colleagues generally agree that he performs well, and that he is a decent and hard-working leader, someone who understands compromise and oh, yes, the application of political powers.
Some pundits call him "tough" and "hyper-sensitive."
Some now call him "czar" or "Caesar."
I call him a "friend."
Five years ago, Mr. Leatherman called to talk about ports and railroads. I was impressed. He was mining for information and insights. He was bright and deliberative, and clearly someone who saw a very large picture of South Carolina and its future. I have since enjoyed our fairly regular conversations about many topics. I know him to be a politically "powerful" man, but "power" has never been a part of his demeanor. He talks more about his family than he does politics.
Once I asked him about his intense work and travel schedule and his age. "Age is just a number," he said with a sly smile that seemed to rationalize his answer.
Leatherman's competitiveness shapes his port development positions. "We can't let Savannah prevail - and it won't," he declared in 2011. A Savannah newspaper columnist once called him a "Carolina Crackpot." Shortly thereafter, Leatherman directed efforts to have the state escrow $300 million to assure the timely deepening of Charleston Harbor shipping channels to 50 feet. This bold action might prove to be the most important public policy decision in the 73-year history of the S.C. State Ports Authority.
And even as he refined his strategic policy views about ports and surface transportation infrastructure, he became the tireless behind-the-scenes coordinator of Boeing's serial investments in South Carolina. He proudly answers to "Senator Boeing."
As a former Quinby Town Councilman in 1981, Leatherman arrived in the Senate as a Democrat, eager to make things happen. He quickly realized the value of compromise, especially in achieving leadership posts - and, over time, power.
"It's compromise without compromising principles and values," he says. "My principles and values can be summed up in about one sentence: Let's do what's right for all of South Carolina; let's always do what's right for our state."
He switched to the Republican Party in 1995 and became Finance Committee chairman in 2001. His ascendancy has been steady and consistent, leadership engendering authority and "power." And power begetting power.
Leatherman seems on top of his game - and enjoying every minute of his work. Last week, following a meeting on railroads in North Charleston, he invited Mayor Keith Summey to join him for a walk to the Senate chambers. Three years ago Summey and Leatherman squared off as avowed enemies in state and federal courts over port-related rail operations in North Charleston. These days they're pretty much best friends forever.
Says Leatherman, "We compromised - and saw things South Carolina's way."
Leatherman explained to Summey he had not yet had a chance to visit his "new" office. The senator fumbled through several keys before he found the one that opened the very large door to the president pro tempore's office. He then sat behind "his" desk for the first time.
The most powerful man in South Carolina government is human, too.
Hugh Leatherman beamed with genuine pride. The kid from the North Carolina cotton farm has mounted another zenith in a remarkable journey that's not over yet.
Ron Brinson, a North Charleston city councilman and former associate editor of this newspaper, has served as president/CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities and president/CEO of the Port of New Orleans. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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