For a time there, Glenn McConnell was the most powerful man in Palmetto State politics. Due to quirks in the South Carolina constitution designed to keep power out of the hands of the governor, the General Assembly maintained control of the vast majority of typical executive branch functions. And no one legislator was more in control than the Senate president. From 2001 to 2012, McConnell was that person.
However, an unforeseen matter derailed McConnell’s reign. Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned amid an embarrassing display of campaign spending maleficence that involved buying football tickets, game consoles and clothes for his wife. The official who had to take his place was none other than the Senate president. Or at least that’s what South Carolina law said at the time. More on that in a minute.
Needless to say, McConnell was not happy. He briefly considered resigning from his post, letting a sacrificial lamb take his place as the next lieutenant governor. But McConnell was an honorable man and so he did the right thing. He obeyed the law.
In the end, it all worked out for Glenn. He landed a cushy post as the president of the College of Charleston, a move that was not without some controversy. After all, McConnell was not only a staunch Confederate flag supporter; he also had been a defender of the late pro-segregation barbecue baron Maurice Bessinger.
To make matters worse, the presidential selection process was tainted by the perception that the entire search was an act of subterfuge designed solely to install the one-time Senate pro tempore, even though McConnell had no qualifications to run a university.
Regardless, McConnell has served CofC well despite some early bumps, eventually bringing in a significant amount of fundraising and responding appropriately when the call came to remove the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds following the murders of the Emanuel Nine.
Some would say things have improved in Columbia, too. The governor is no longer merely an economic booster-in-chief. The position now oversees the Department of Administration, although the governor still doesn’t have the authority to approve some Cabinet level-type positions like secretary of state. Equally as important, beginning in 2018, the governor will select his or her running mate.
But there’s a hitch.
No one could have predicted that Nikki Haley would be leaving the Governor’s Mansion before her term ended.
Yes, we knew she had higher aspirations, but few would have wagered as much as a Confederate dollar that President-elect Donald Trump would nominate Haley for the position of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. After all, Haley let it be known several times that she was not a fan of Trump. Even an Election Day statement seemed to indicate that she thought Hillary’s victory was inevitable — and that Haley was going to start campaigning for POTUS the next day. Funny, that.
With Haley seemingly out of the way, Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster will now move up to governor, fulfilling a long-held wish, a dream that was only realized thanks to the actions of Trump, a man who counted McMaster among his early campaign supporters. Make of that what you will.
Now, figuring out who succeeds McMaster is easy: the Senate president pro tempore, Hugh Leatherman. But Leatherman has let it be known that he isn’t going to take the largely ceremonial position of lieutenant governor. This is in stark contrast to McConnell, who believed following the rule of law was more important than lording over his own little Palmetto State fiefdom.
Admittedly, it makes sense that Leatherman would want to hold onto his post. As a legislative lord, he has done quite well.
According to Charleston’s Post and Courier, the company Leatherman founded and which he once served as president, Florence Concrete Products, has been awarded “about $8.5 million from state contracts since July 2009.” Moreover, S.C. Policy Council’s Nerve news service reports that Florence Concrete Products has received nearly $2 million from the federal government as “‘a disadvantaged business enterprise,’ a designation designed to assist minority businesses.” The reason the business qualified as a minority business: It had a female president.
None of this takes into account the amount of power Leatherman wields over state government. He’s a member of the State Infrastructure Bank, the chair of the state finance committee and a member of the State Fiscal Accountability Authority. Together he has his fingers on the state’s budget, big-money purchases and road funding. He’s not exactly the Mr. Moneybags of the Statehouse, but he’s pretty dang close.
And that kind of power, apparently, comes with the feeling that the South Carolina Constitution doesn’t apply to you.
You would think that all of this would be clear to everyone in Columbia, but it isn’t. Some are arguing that the state constitution no longer requires the Senate pro tempore to become lite guv in the event the position becomes vacant. According to these folks, the 2012 amendment creating a joint governor/lieutenant governor ticket gives the governor the power to select an LT in the event that person walks, whether of their own volition or not. This, however, contradicts the amendment the people of South Carolina voted on 2012. As clearly stated in the amendment’s explanation, these changes weren’t supposed to go into effect until the 2018 general election.
Unfortunately, in one of those all-too-common instances of legislative carelessness, the amended constitution doesn’t specifically note a 2018 start date regarding the succession of the lieutenant governor — that date is mentioned elsewhere, just not in that section. And it’s this error on which Leatherman’s hopes rest.
Enter state Sen. Tom Davis.
The libertarian-minded Beaufort legislator has asked the state Supreme Court to determine which interpretation is correct — the one that the people approved or the one that supports the disingenuous argument that gives Leatherman control of the state’s coffers.
At this point, we don’t know if the court will take up the case, but it’s something they should most assuredly do — and to do it posthaste. The law applies to everyone, even the most powerful man in South Carolina politics.
(P.S. You know a legislator has too much power when even his own campaign ad brings it up as a criticism — and then spins it as a positive.)