COLUMBIA — Longtime South Carolina politician Henry McMaster is now the state's governor.
With Nikki Haley’s resignation Tuesday to become United Nations ambassador, McMaster automatically ascended to the governor's post in accordance with state law.
Just minutes after her U.S. Senate confirmation came through, Haley and scores of well-wishers attended a hastily organized swearing-in ceremony for McMaster on the second floor of the Statehouse, catching a glimpse of his first moments in charge.
“The place we call our home is unique – and so are we,” McMaster said. “I am humbled, honored and deeply appreciative to be granted one of the rarest opportunities to serve the people of my state, my home and the land of my forefathers.”
Haley said she was “comfortable” leaving her post in McMaster’s hands.
“There’s a lot of work to do,” she said during the ceremony. “But we’ve have the right person to do it.”
McMaster spoke only briefly, not laying out any initiatives or plans other than pledging to make South Carolina “an even stronger, happier (and) more prosperous” place during his tenure. McMaster also thanked Haley for her six years in office.
Relationship with lawmakers
No stranger to South Carolina's Statehouse, the 69-year-old Republican takes over the governor's post with decades of political experience under his belt.
A lawyer by trade, McMaster served as S.C. Attorney General from 2003 to 2011. Before that, he served as chairman of the S.C. Republican Party between 1994 and 2001, a time when the party experienced phenomenal growth.
In 1981, McMaster was appointed U.S. attorney for South Carolina by President Ronald Reagan, a post that McMaster held until 1985.
On the day of Haley's confirmation as U.N. ambassador, state lawmakers expressed optimism at the idea of a McMaster administration.
Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, said McMaster has always been a very measured person when it comes to making decisions, as an attorney or a politician.
"Henry is very deliberate, and he’ll take his time and get as much information on an issue as he can get, and as much input from the different interested parties as he can get, before he makes up his mind," Bannister said.
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said he is hopeful that Democrats' positions are among those that McMaster considers when taking positions on policy.
"What Democrats want for South Carolina, it’s not what’s best for Democrats, it’s what’s best for the state," he said.
House Speaker Pro Tem Tommy Pope, R-York, said he hopes McMaster will take less abrasive approach than Haley when debating issues with the General Assembly.
Pope said he expects to have "the ability to sit down and work through problems, as opposed to calling each other out in the media."
Challenges lie ahead
As governor, there is no shortage of issues facing McMaster.
Most prominent will be paying for repairs to South Carolina's crumbling roads and bridges, an issue that threatens to slow the state's economic growth built during the final years of the Haley administration. Two road-funding bills are making their way through the state Senate and House, but getting a bill that lawmakers will rally behind remains a challenge.
McMaster has not said how will he favors paying for road improvements or whether he favors raising South Carolina's gas tax, the third lowest in the nation.
The new governor also will have to deal with a divided Republican Party that's split along fiscal and social ideological lines and still smarting from 14 years of dealing with GOP governors who were very willing to criticize GOP lawmakers.
McMaster also will be questioned about his continued membership in a Columbia-area all-white country club, which drew criticism when he was elected lieutenant governor in 2014 and could flare again in 2018, when McMaster is expected to run for a full term as governor.
Democrats raised the point again Tuesday just minutes into his term.
"If Mr. McMaster wants to be taken seriously as governor he must immediately and publicly renounce his membership in the all white country club, Forest Lake Club," said Charleston County Democratic Party Chairman Brady Quirk-Garvan. "Mr. McMaster would do well to remember it is 2016, not 1916, and that the people of South Carolina will not tolerate such divisive behavior."
Meanwhile, the state is still healing from a series of racially divisive incidents, including the 2015 mass murder of nine black parishioners at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church by a white supremacist. The shootings led Haley to call successfully for the removal of the Confederate battle flag that had flown at the Statehouse for more than 50 years.
McMaster, at the time, reacted to Haley's request to remove the Civil War banner by calling for a debate "to consider an appropriate location for the Confederate flag."
Maya T. Prabhu and Andy Shain contributed to this story.