Glenn McConnell’s absence marks shift in Statehouse

Sen. Hugh Leatherman was sworn Tuesday in as Senate president pro tempore.

COLUMBIA — If everything had gone Glenn McConnell’s way, the longtime senator and influential power broker from Charleston would have been the one to lead the S.C. Senate into the new year.

Instead, a political upheaval that began in 2012 culminated Tuesday with his longtime colleague, Sen. Hugh Leatherman, taking over the leadership role as the Senate president pro tempore.

Tuesday had a first day-of-school air of excitement in both the state House and Senate. But it also marked the official shift in both chambers, with Leatherman, R-Florence, leading the Senate and House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, taking the gavel across the Statehouse’s cavernous second floor. Lucas ascended to the post late last year when former House Speaker Bobby Harrell resigned after pleading guilty to ethics charges.

McConnell’s absence for the first time in 34 years was perhaps the most tangible sign of a new day in Columbia.

“I’m used to hearing that gavel fall and the organization and the committee assignment and the senators jockeying for positions,” said McConnell, now president of the College of Charleston. “I miss the personalities. I enjoyed the debate, trying to come up with solutions to problems. I enjoyed all of that — that’s where the difference is this Tuesday.”

Senators said McConnell’s absence was palpable. The longtime senator forged a reputation for honesty in contentious debates by seeking out a compromise. He often used his mastery of the Senate rules to speed or slow an issue, working with a like-minded group known as the “Senate renegades” to get things done and save money.

McConnell said that compromise is becoming more difficult. The Senate, just like politics around the country, is getting more partisan. In recent years, the Senate has become about “gotcha” votes on hot-button issues instead of making progress, McConnell said.

“People get beat up now for reaching out across the line to forge ... consensus,” he said. While being “tight as a tick” on fiscal matters, McConnell said he never signed the ubiquitous conservative anti-tax pledge of vowing never to raise taxes.

This year, he said he would have looked to forge a compromise on the state’s beleaguered road system to raise the state’s gas tax.

“I would have faced up to reality,” he said. “Not political reality, but reality. And the reality is you cannot fix the roads in South Carolina without revenue increase and that includes a gas tax.”

Leatherman, 84, has served in the Senate since 1981. After being sworn in by Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, Leatherman told his colleagues that he wants the partisan rhetoric to stay off the Senate floor. Opponents on bills should hash out compromises beforehand, he said.

“Attacks on character or motive ill-serve the aspirations of the Senate,” he told his colleagues.

Sen. Nikki Setzler, one of McConnell’s longest-serving Democratic colleagues, said the Legislature has a “golden opportunity” to move the state forward. “I think you’ll see us grasp on that opportunity,” said Setzler of West Columbia.

McConnell’s unlikely road to the College of Charleston began in 2012 when former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard suddenly resigned after he admitted to using his campaign account for personal expenses. The state constitution says that the Senate leader should fill the mostly powerless lieutenant governor’s office if it is vacant.

For McConnell, it meant giving up a Senate career at its height, as well as the chairmanship of the powerful Judiciary Committee.

Many suggested to McConnell that he should simply let the office remain vacant. But he said ignoring the rules wasn’t an option he could live with.

“Here I had spent a career adhering to the constitution, and then all of a sudden I would bend it to preserve my power?” McConnell said. “How could I stand before that Senate and be a persuasive orator on those things if I wasn’t able to make the walk?”

Leatherman said he also hopes to forge consensus as McConnell did.

“Sen. McConnell was a great president pro tem, a master of bringing people together,” he said. “I like to think I can bring people together.”

Thad Moore contributed to this report. Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.