Leatherman (copy)

Senate Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman. File

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Past and future lieutenant governors

Even though Henry McMaster no longer has to preside over the Senate, he still has to watch Kevin Bryant. File/Maya T. Prabhu/Staff

COLUMBIA — State Sen. Hugh Leatherman was able to weave his way back into his top power spot Wednesday, regaining the job of Senate leader despite a closer-than-expected margin to stop him.

Leatherman, R-Florence, returned to the post of president pro tempore on a 28 to 16 vote, with one senator abstaining. Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster, abstained. All of the 16 senators who voted against Leatherman were Republicans, meaning Democrats opted to side with the leader.

The vote came a day after he resigned the same job in an effort to avoid becoming lieutenant governor.

The lieutenant governor's job went to now-former Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson.

The job shuffle came after the Senate had been leaderless for less than 24 hours following Leatherman's resignation as pro tem when Nikki Haley was confirmed as ambassador to the United Nations.

Leatherman had stated publicly he wanted to remain in the Senate but would resign as pro tempore to avoid ascending to the lieutenant governor's office.

While many senators clearly weren’t happy with Leatherman’s scheming to regain the leadership job, others believed he was justified in performing the political maneuvering.

Calling the state law that obligates the Senate pro tempore to ascend to the lieutenant governor’s office “a technicality,” Sen. Luke Rankin nominated Leatherman for the coveted post as the Senate assembled Wednesday to settle its leadership holes.

“Let’s all remember how we got to where we are today,” said Rankin, R-Conway. “In December, Sen. Leatherman publicly announced that we would not serve as lieutenant governor, making no mistake about what his intentions were at that point." 

“We knew when we picked him as our pro tem that he would not serve as lieutenant governor, and again we knew why,” Rankin added.

Rankin said that Leatherman was simply showing loyalty to his constituents in the Florence area by not ascending to the lieutenant governor’s post. He was not playing devious political games or shirking his constitutional duties, Rankin said.

“His pledge was to those folks, who elected him to remain their senator,” he said. “Not our president pro tem. As their senator, he would remain in a position of power, influence, and (retain the) ability to … represent them as the constitution requires and as the good Lord requires.”

Even though many believed Leatherman’s nomination and subsequent reelection as Senate leader would be a mere formality, a passionate plea from Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey appeared to make things closer than expected.

Massey nominated longtime Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, as a challenger to Leatherman.

Appealing to the moral compass of his fellow senators, Massey offered strong criticism for the actions taken on Wednesday in the Senate.

“All 45 of us, we know this is wrong,” said Massey, R-Edgefield. “Every one of us knows that we violate the spirit and intent of the constitution by sanctioning (Leatherman’s reelection) … Everybody knows that.”

“I believe the rules matter. And I believe that you believe that, too,” Massey added. “Why with your votes today would you say otherwise?”

Like he’s done in recent weeks, Massey worried aloud about the public’s perception of South Carolina’s lawmakers – which he says will only worsen after Wednesday’s actions in the Senate.

“People understand politicians not playing by the rules,” Massey said. “And they understand other politicians covering for their friends who don’t play by the rules … and sadly, they expect us to do this.”

Also Wednesday, Bryant took over full duties as lieutenant governor. A special election will be called later to fill his seat. He had been in the Senate since 2005. He is a pharmacist. 

Reach Andrew Knittle at 843-830-2026