South Carolina saw major changes in its leadership this week as Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster took over as governor with the departure of Nikki Haley to become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The state got a new lieutenant governor, too, just not the person who was in line for the job.
Rather than follow the constitutional line of succession for the position, the Senate played a game of musical chairs, with Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, ending up with the best seat in the chamber. In doing so, he remained the state’s most powerful politician, though with nicks and dents to his reputation, along with that of the Senate.
Sen. Leatherman quit his position as Senate president pro tempore to avoid becoming lieutenant governor. Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, then briefly stepped into the breach, and was elected Senate president, whereupon he was transported to the lieutenant governor’s office. Sen. Leatherman finished out the game by standing for re-election to the position he had just relinquished and, again, he won.
So Mr. Leatherman is right back in the saddle as the state’s most powerful politician, setting the agenda as Senate president, putting the state budget into final form as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a budget conferee, and taking care of business in other areas of significant authority. Those include the State Infrastructure Bank, the State Fiscal Accountability Authority, the Joint Bond Review Committee (chairman), Senate Transportation Committee (vice chairman) and the Salary and Performance Evaluation Committee (chairman).
It’s a lot for a single senator to take on. It’s more than any single senator should be allowed to take on by a representative body.
And a majority of Republican senators voted against their senior senator, with 16 voting instead for Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, to take the Senate’s top job. But 10 Republicans joined all 18 Senate Democrats in voting for Mr. Leatherman, and he was able to remain in charge with barely a break.
Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, nominated Mr. Leatherman for the position, blithely describing the constitutional provision that sets the line of official succession as “a technicality.”
Sen. Rankin praised the nine-term senator for wanting to stay true to his constituents in Florence County, to “represent them as the constitution requires and as the good Lord requires.” No question, Florence County has benefitted from Sen. Leatherman’s long service in the Senate, in economic development, roads and in higher education projects. So, for that matter, has Charleston County.
But Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Aiken, made the principled case to deny Mr. Leatherman’s return as Senate president pro tem. He told his colleagues on Wednesday, “I believe the rules matter, and I believe that you believe that, too.” He cited the public’s negative perception of politicians, and astutely observed that it will just get worse because of games played in the Senate.
Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, praised the example of former Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, who in 2012 relinquished his position as Senate president to become the lieutenant governor because circumstances required it. Mr. McConnell, he said, “did not want to give up being a state senator — he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, after all — but he did so because he rightly saw ascending to fill a vacancy in the lieutenant governor office as a core constitutional obligation of the pro tem.
“He refused to treat the pro tem office as an a la carte menu, picking the powers and rights of the office he liked but discarding the obligations he didn’t,” Sen. Davis said.
In urging his colleagues to do the right thing, Sen. Massey said, “People understand politicians not playing by the rules. And they understand other politicians covering for their friends who don’t play by the rules … and sadly they expect us to do this.”
And sadly the Senate met those dismal expectations, putting Mr. Leatherman back on top by a vote of 28-16 and showing the public how the game is played.