Despite probe, Harrell criticism limited

Rep. Harry Ott (left) is one of several Democrats who describe Bobby Harrell as a respected colleague and friend.

— S.C. Democratic lawmakers typically have little hesitation in bashing Republican officials and their policies.

Democrats in the House and Senate, for example, frequently criticize Gov. Nikki Haley’s administration and her policy moves.

But when it comes to House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a Charleston Republican who is under fire for allegedly using his campaign account and office for personal gain, legislative Democrats have essentially been silent, generally not uttering a word of criticism or concern.

The reasons why lawmakers have been wary of questioning Harrell, political observers say, go back to the immense power the speaker wields over the legislative process through things such as committee appointments and the cross-party alliances formed in the lower chamber.

Harrell, who presides over the House, arguably is the most powerful elected official in South Carolina.

Several Democrats, including Reps. Harry Ott of St. Matthews and David Mack of North Charleston, describe Harrell not only as a respected colleague but also a friend. He deserves complete due process, not criticism, they said.

“I believe if there are groups out there who want to target any individual in the General Assembly, they could do that,” Ott said. “And I don’t think we should just take a group’s accusations and say it’s the truth. Everybody needs an opportunity, if somebody makes a charge against you, I think you should be given ample opportunity to respond to those charges.”

In a statement, Harrell dismissed the allegations against him.

“As is typical, political attacks and baseless mudslinging like this situation distract the media’s attention much more than it does lawmakers at the (Statehouse),” he said.

And Harrell said he has received strong support while the House is “having an incredibly productive year,” passing legislation to fix a ballot issue that caused the removal of hundreds of candidates last year and a bill to dedicate $100 million to road funding without raising taxes.

“The outpouring of support I’ve received from folks here at home and from my colleagues in the House, particularly from House leadership, reflects that most people are seeing this for what it is, just another baseless politically motivated attack,” Harrell said.

The S.C. Policy Council, a limited-government think tank, filed an ethics complaint against Harrell, alleging among other things that he has used his campaign account and legislative office to benefit himself. After meeting with the group’s leader, Attorney General Alan Wilson in February asked the State Law Enforcement Division to conduct an initial investigation of the charges.

Mack said he is not concerned about any of the questions that have arisen about Harrell. Having Harrell as the leader of the House has been a great benefit to the Lowcountry, the Democrat said, and losing him would hurt the region.

Talk to Democratic staffers and, when they’re permitted to speak without attribution, they will explain that publicly scrutinizing Harrell would be akin to criticizing your doctor just before he’s about to put you under anesthesia.

The Republicans’ majority in the House is substantial enough that the GOP can pass most legislation without any Democratic votes if Republicans vote as a united group.

Harrell is known generally for giving Democrats a place at the table, bringing them into the legislative process and letting them provide input. He is generally regarded by supporters as a pragmatist.

“He’s trying to tug the far right wing of his party to the center, and he finds himself making compromises with responsive Democrats who are willing to deal with him,” said Mark Tompkins, a University of South Carolina political scientist.

To others, Harrell is regarded as vindictive.

Harrell’s Republican peers also have voiced their support for him, though multiple lawmakers confirm that a thus-far subterranean campaign by multiple Republicans to be Harrell’s possible successor in the House already is under way. Others, such as Charleston GOP Rep. Chip Limehouse, say they have heard no such talk.

Limehouse, a Harrell ally, said the controversy surrounding the House speaker has been “a complete non-issue” in the Republican caucus.

Dick Harpootlian, the outgoing chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, said he has been frustrated by the reluctance of Democratic House members to take on Harrell, but he noted that Harrell controls most committee assignments in the House.

“A number of House Democrats have indicated Harrell is a very retributive guy and they are fearful that if they do speak up, they will be kicked off committees,” Harpootlian said.

“I guess crumbs are better than nothing.”

Haley has said that when she was a House member from Lexington County, Harrell knocked her off a preferred committee because of her push for mandatory on-the-record voting. Harrell has denied Haley’s accusation.

Unless a credible challenger to Harrell emerges or an investigation yields information or charges that make his continued leadership untenable, House members appear unlikely to stop supporting Harrell, who was re-elected to the speaker’s post late last year.

A state government watchdog group has called on Harrell to step down as speaker during the investigation, but he has rejected that request. His spokesman called the group, S.C. Common Cause, part of an effort to smear the speaker. Elections for House speaker are held every two years, but House members could attempt to change chamber rules to hold an election sooner.

Tompkins said what happens next in “an unfolding story” could depend in large part on Harrell’s relationship with his fellow House members.

“It probably turns on whether the members continue to feel OK about him or not,” Tompkins said.

If he is cleared, Harrell’s political power likely will remain intact if not grow, said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political scientist who runs the school’s polling operation.

“If he is exonerated, (Harrell) will be able to say, ‘My political enemies leveled attacks against me but failed,’ ” Huffmon said.

“While he’ll be battered during the process, he’ll come out emboldened and maybe a little empowered.”

Rep. Ralph Norman, a Rock Hill Republican who unsuccessfully ran against Harrell for the speaker’s post in 2010, said he wants to let the process play out when it comes to the investigation of Harrell before commenting on it.

Until that time, he said, it would be premature to say whether he would try to succeed Harrell as House speaker.

The next regularly scheduled speaker’s election would take place in late 2014.

Norman said there already is chatter about taking Harrell’s place.

“Are there talks among members? Oh yeah, there’s talks about a lot of things,” he said. Norman said he could see four or five Republicans who could be interested in taking over as House speaker.

Ott, the St. Matthews Democrat and former House minority leader, said he hasn’t been approached by any Republicans hoping to unseat Harrell, but noted that he likely would be one of the last members to be approached because of his friendship with the Charleston Republican.

To Tompkins and Huffmon, it makes sense that Republicans hoping to be the next House speaker are keeping talk of their interest confined.

“You don’t take down the king until you know who’s next,” Tompkins said.

Huffmon said potential Harrell successors need to start moving early. “But if you are seen moving early and he’s exonerated, you’re going to be in for a world of hurt,” Huffmon said. “At this point, being risk-averse is probably your wisest choice.”