Veteran politician may get last laugh on way out

Glen McConnell

This week, two of the most powerful senators in the state did their best to derail the College of Charleston's plan to offer advanced degrees.

And the school's future president had to stand right there in the room and take it.

But that's about to change.

As lieutenant governor, Glenn McConnell cannot join the Senate debate. He cannot lobby, or even ask his former colleagues for their votes.

McConnell, who takes the reins at C of C on July 1, cannot outline his plans for one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the country.

He really can't even talk about it.

But McConnell said Thursday he will resign early next week to get a jump on his duties at the college. The timing also will give him the opportunity to pull off one last political miracle.

He could save the College of Charleston's legislative agenda.

"Glenn needs to start being president of the College of Charleston," state Sen. Larry Grooms says. "Those of us who supported him for that position understood his leadership abilities. He needs to be engaged."

Grooms wanted McConnell free to promote the college's agenda, to spend all the political capital he has amassed over the years. He and others urged the former Senate president pro tem to help the college.

Although McConnell downplays that aspect, the school's dire situation surely played a role in the timing.

It's only a fringe benefit that such a move might strike a killing blow against the people now opposed to the University of Charleston.

This shouldn't be that big a deal.

The College of Charleston wants to be able to offer advanced degrees in certain fields - computer science, for instance. There is a need for it in the Lowcountry, the business community wants it.

Frankly, the school wants to be a research university.

Grooms says the University of South Carolina and Clemson University have no problem with this, and no one said a cross word about the legislation when it came up recently in subcommittee. That panel voted unanimously to recommend the legislation.

All the bill would do, after all, is allow the college to make a proposal to the state Commission on Higher Education. It's not like C of C would start printing master's degrees tomorrow.

Sen. Hugh Leatherman, perhaps the most powerful lawmaker in the state, suggested putting this legislation on the Senate calendar. The House had approved it, and there was less than two weeks left in the session.

If the session ends without the bill passing, the process has to start all over again next year.

But Senate President Pro Tem John Courson and Majority Leader Harvey Peeler both objected to this. They claim there is opposition to the plan but aren't naming names. They lost Round 1 to Leatherman but then used Senate rules to stymie the legislation.

They say moving a bill from subcommittee to the floor, bypassing a full committee, breaks protocol. Of course, they had no problem breaking tradition for a controversial - and insane - nullification bill last year.

What's really going on here is a complex power struggle between Leatherman and Courson/Peeler. A lot of Senate insiders don't even understand it.

Throw in the natural hatred of Charleston in the Legislature - yes, they are still mad about all that money we got for the Ravenel Bridge and I-526 - and it's a toxic mix.

It's so bad that the Senate is poised for gridlock. College supporters might retaliate by stopping legislation aimed at other parts of the state. This means bills that could help South Carolina will die an undignified death if this is not resolved soon.

"It's pretty bad when some people would rather hurt Charleston than get things for their own area," Grooms says.

That's state politics.

And nobody knows how to navigate that world better than Glenn McConnell.

This could mean big problems for Courson.

If McConnell decides to step down as lieutenant governor before the end of session, Courson would have big problems.

The constitution says the pro tem has to ascend - or descend - to the office of lieutenant governor. Courson had hoped McConnell would hold off until after the session. Because there are no other constitutionally required duties for the lieutenant governor beyond the session, Courson might have been able to avoid the job.

You see, Senate president pro tem is one of the most powerful positions in the state. The lieutenant governor is, well, not.

Now Courson will be hard-pressed to avoid such a demotion since McConnell set the bar so high when he abdicated his power after former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned in disgrace. Stopping the University of Charleston is no longer the biggest fish Courson has to fry.

McConnell had planned to stay on as lieutenant governor through the end of session, But he is already feeling the demands of the college presidency. The College of Charleston is his responsibility now, and it is in trouble.

Grooms and others argued that since McConnell will have to step down anyway, why not do it while he can still help the college?

Talk about going out in a blaze of glory. And walking into the college a hero.

"If this was anyone other than the majority leader and pro tem holding us up, we could handle it," Grooms says. "But those of us who have a keen interest in the College of Charleston and want it to be successful need (McConnell) to get out here and work with us."

There is a complicated, high-stakes chess game in progress here, and only one thing is for sure.

McConnell has called checkmate.

Reach Brian Hicks at