Does Sen. Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence), the state’s new president pro tempore, hold too much power?
With Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell’s stature and sway compromised by outstanding allegations of public corruption; former Senate titan Glenn McConnell now ensconced at College of Charleston; Gov. Nikki Haley’s executive powers trumped, as always, by those of the legislative branch; and yet another lever of power added to his console; Leatherman, 83, finally has positioned himself as the State House’s supreme shotcaller.
Last Wednesday, June 18, was set to be an historic day in the South Carolina Senate even before a young conservative senator from Edgefield took the floor to inveigh against Leatherman for half an hour.
The intrigue began with the Republican-dominated Senate electing Kingstree Democrat Yancey McGill its first president pro tempore of the day. McGill had been the only senator to volunteer for the job because Glenn McConnell’s imminent departure from the lieutenant governor’s office meant a rapid, constitutionally mandated “ascension” from Senate president pro tempore to lieutenant governor, an office much maligned as a do-nothing figurehead post. Having barely eked out his last re-election, McGill, 62, was the only member willing to exchange his Senate seat for the fast track to political obsolescence.
Promptly after McGill’s swearing in, McConnell had his resignation letter read aloud and departed to assume the presidency at College of Charleston. McGill was then sworn into that office, which he’ll hold only through 2014, when the lieutenant governor elected in November takes over. It’s the first time a Democrat has held that statewide office in two decades.
With the lieutenant governor’s office filled, the Senate turned to matters of greater importance, naming its next president pro tempore, who will hold that position for the foreseeable future. Sen. Luke Rankin (R-Conway) nominated Leatherman, the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, with the same long-winded praise that he’d previously applied to McGill’s nomination.
But before the vote, Sen. Shane Massey (R-Edgefield) stepped to “the well” — Senate parlance for the podium on the floor — and the chamber’s backslapping bonhomie swiftly dissipated in anticipation of what was about to be said.
Sure, Massey said, there’s precedent for a senator to serve as both chairman of the Finance Committee and president pro tempore, but — like secret votes and backroom deals — it’s a bad idea.
“It is the consolidation of way too much power in one individual legislator,” Massey said. “It’s just too much. Though you may not agree with me publicly, privately nearly everyone in here shares that same view.”
Leatherman’s pervasive role at the State House is well understood there. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he has a better understanding of the state budget and more say in it than anyone else in the Senate. That chairmanship also gives him a seat on the convoluted Budget and Control Board, allowing him a vote on state spending outside the budget. Additionally, combine the Senate Finance chairmanship with being vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and a member of the State Infrastructure Bank, and he has more say in prioritizing and budgeting for road infrastructure projects than anyone else in the state. As chairman of the Salary Executive & Performance Evaluation Committee, he signs off on the salaries for the biggest state jobs, including the governor’s cabinet members and other agency heads, as well as university presidents. As chairman of the Joint Bond Review Committee, he gets a say in all big-ticket state projects that require borrowing money. And those are just the biggest roles.
As Massey recognized, the power of Senate president pro tempore is not much on its own. Most significantly, he gets appointment power to commissions and boards, in a body where favors are hard currency. He can also unilaterally adjourn debate.
Massey went on to decry “the secretive process” in which the state budget is formulated.
“If you’re a subcommittee chairman over there on [the Senate Finance Committee], you might have some idea what’s going on in your area, but I don’t think anybody really has a good idea of what’s in the budget except for the chairman,” he said.
“This has been gnawing at me for the last few weeks,” Massey said. “The conference committee on the budget — oh, wait a second. There wasn’t a conference committee on the budget. There was a two-person conference committee, the chairman of Ways & Means [Rep. Brian White] and the chairman of Senate Finance. There was a conference committee of two on the largest state budget in history. There was no way that more than two or three people in this body had any idea what was in that budget when it came back from the House, and I submit that unless you’ve been reading the newspapers you probably still don’t.”
Next, Massey addressed his “philosophical differences” with his fellow Republican. When it comes to state spending, Leatherman’s “first look is to a tax increase. For many of us, that is the last option. Again, I don’t fault him for his position on his votes, I don’t fault him for his attempts to maintain the antiquated system of government that’s allowed him to accumulate the significant amount of power that he has.”
“I do fault him for what I really see as a backdoor, exclusive way of making decisions, and I fear that will continue.”
Massey’s polemic didn’t stop there, though. Next he alleged a plot ripped from the script of Netflix’s House of Cards, a favorite among South Carolina lawmakers for obvious reasons.
“I know that I have a very close friend who disagrees with me on this, but I am convinced that this was a well-orchestrated coup,” Massey began.
The theory went like this: About two weeks ago, certain Senate powers tried to fast-track a House bill through the Senate that would expand College of Charleston— McConnell’s new bailiwick — into South Carolina’s third major public research university. But then-Senate President Pro Tempore Courson opposed the effort to forgo the bill’s debate in the Senate Education Committee, which he chairs.
After Courson balked, then-Lt. Gov. McConnell said he was resigning from his office, claiming duty called at College of Charleston. Courson understood McConnell’s resignation might compel him, as president pro tempore, to become the next lieutenant governor, although he reasonably argued South Carolina had gotten along just fine without a lieutenant governor in the past. Unwilling to give up his Senate seat and play the mark, Courson resigned as president pro tempore, as several of his Senate allies lambasted the hardball politics that had forced his hand.
“When Sen. Courson balked at the request to put that bill on the legislative fast-track, I’m convinced the plan was hatched. Now I don’t know when the plan came together. I don’t know that it all came together at the same time, but there was clearly an effort to circumvent not only the chairman of [the Education Committee] but also the president pro tem,” Massey said.
“What we didn’t expect was just how much pressure there was going to be applied to the president pro tem, this suggestion all over the press, all over the newspapers that somehow Sen. Courson just doesn’t care about the constitutional order of things. All this was a not-so-veiled hit on John Courson, because he dared to say ‘no.’”
Massey closed on this somber note: “I’ve heard that there is too much lack of decorum in this body. I heard, ‘There’s no leadership. There’s no discipline. We’ve got to right that ship. We can’t have too many senators thinking for themselves and acting on their own. We’ve got to have somebody who will step up and solve all our problems for us. We’ve got to have some strong leadership.’ If you hear nothing else that I say today, here this: Let this be a warning. If you’re looking for strong leadership, you’re about to get it.”
Twice Sen. Harvey Peeler (R-Cherokee) tried to have Massey’s speech entered into the Senate Journal by unanimous consent. Twice he encountered objections, at least once from Rankin, who had nominated Leatherman.
Then Lt. Gov. McGill called for a vote on president pro tempore with Leatherman the only nominee. “Aye,” replied Sen. Ray Cleary (R-Murrell’s Inlet), the only audible vote amid an uneasy silence. McGill conducted roll call, and one by one every senator voted “aye,” except for Massey, Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beaufort). (Sen. Shane Martin was absent.)
Leatherman, appearing unfazed by what he’d heard, did not address Massey’s comments. He took his oath and control of the Senate. Courson walked over and congratulated him.
Leatherman issued this statement on social media:
“I am humbled and honored to be elected president pro tempore of the South Carolina Senate. I pledge to work fairly and honestly with all of my fellow senators to continue our efforts to move our state forward. I shall continue to focus on economic development and education in order to ensure a brighter tomorrow for the citizens of South Carolina."
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