COLUMBIA — First a state Senate panel voted down Gov. Henry McMaster's nominee to lead the board of a state-owned utility. Then the full Senate overwhelmingly punted his pick for a new director of a Cabinet-level agency that helps South Carolina's elderly population.
The rare rejections of former S.C. Attorney General Charlie Condon for Santee Cooper and Steven Morris for the Department of Aging both came on a single day this week — a one-two punch that exposed increasing tension between McMaster and the state Senate on the issue of gubernatorial appointments.
Though McMaster described his relationship with the Senate as "excellent," particularly with Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, he did not hide his frustration with the recent votes in an interview Wednesday with The Post and Courier.
He called Morris, an old friend, “one of the finest men I’ve ever known” and said there was no question in his mind he would have been a good director of the Department of Aging, which is now a cabinet agency.
“The Senate takes pride in being the deliberative body, and sometimes I think they’re a little too deliberative or perhaps deliberate over the wrong issues,” McMaster said. "It was disappointing to see that vote."
He suggested the Senate is overstepping the bounds of its confirmation role on nominees.
"In executing the laws passed by the Legislature, the governor must have his team or her team, and it is very important that he or she is allowed to pick the people that he or she can work with and understands to be the best qualified to do the job that he wants them to do," McMaster said. "It is not the Legislature’s job to pick Cabinet members."
Lawmakers said the reason that the nominees were both handily voted down was simple: They were both unqualified for the jobs.
Morris had also faced allegations of racial discrimination, which he had strenuously denied, but Republican senators insisted their concerns with him were more related to his qualifications.
Several senators said that outreach from the governor's office on Morris was both too little and too late, and the governor refused to withdraw the nominees even when it became clear they were destined for public humiliation with a negative vote.
By contrast, Senate Majority Shane Massey pointed to the recent unanimous confirmations of new directors for the departments of Social Services and Employment and Workforce as examples of a more successful approach.
In those cases, key lawmakers said they were in contact with the governor's office in advance of the nominations and had a role in ensuring confirmable candidates were chosen.
“If the executive and the legislative branch — and I know this is a radical concept — but if they talk, things actually go a lot easier," said Massey, R-Edgefield.
Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said increased scrutiny of gubernatorial nominees stems from lingering discontent with the performance of some of former Gov. Nikki Haley's agency heads.
“We’ve gotten the message that we need to take our constitutional responsibilities more seriously, and I think that’s what you’re witnessing,” Kimpson said. “(The nominees) were turned down on the basis of their qualifications, and that’s certainly a legitimate issue. So it’s hard for him to make the case we’ve overstepped our bounds.”
Adding insult to injury, McMaster is fresh off the defeat of his favored pick for the next president of the University of South Carolina, another high-profile job in Columbia that plays an influential role in Statehouse politics.
Robert Caslen, a retired three-star Army general who ran West Point for five years, was considered the front runner to succeed university president Harris Pastides. But he stumbled during talks with students, faculty and community leaders, especially with a comment that some took as blaming victims for sexual assault because of drinking.
Caslen said the comment was taken out of context and pointed to his West Point record in addressing sexual assault. But protesters, also upset about the lack of a female finalist, filled the lobby of USC's Alumni Center while trustees deliberated on Friday. The board voted against hiring any of the four finalists and reopened the search.
McMaster called Caslen on Tuesday to apologize for the "shabby way" he was treated by USC during the presidential search and asked the former West Point superintendent to apply again, said Trey Walker, the governor's chief of staff. McMaster did not call the other three USC presidential finalists.
Caslen has said he has no plans to apply again. "There was a lot of resistance," he told The Post and Courier.