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Courson Should Run Out the Clock

By Kevin Fisher
Wednesday, June 4, 2014 |
Glenn McConnell set the bar high when he stepped down from the powerful position of Senate President Pro Tem to “ascend” to the office of lieutenant governor in 2012 upon the resignation of incumbent Ken Ard. But two years later, McConnell dropped that bar low to the floor and did the limbo under it as he danced off to become president of the College of Charleston (his resignation is effective June 5).

McConnell’s final legislative act, like countless others over the past three decades, was calculated and clever. The master of parliamentary moves made one more on his way out the door, setting the stage for a constitutional crisis if current Senate President Pro Tem John Courson doesn’t follow McConnell’s precedent and resign his position in order to become lieutenant governor.

OK, I’m kidding — the use of “constitutional crisis” and “lieutenant governor” in the same sentence? Now that’s a good one. Nevertheless, McConnell has not only put Courson in a bind but is doing all he can to tighten the ropes around the Richland County senator.

Why?

Here’s the short version: In his new role as president of the College of Charleston, McConnell wants and needs to validate the reason he was selected for the job without the requisite academic or administrative experience — political clout. Specifically, the political clout needed to secure funding to make the College of Charleston a research university in the mode of the University of South Carolina and Clemson.

The result has been a byzantine power struggle among Republican big dogs in the Senate, with Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman supporting McConnell’s efforts while Courson and Majority Leader Harvey Peeler oppose the plan. So, removing Courson from his powerful role in the Senate by relegating him to the position of lieutenant governor (and for all of six months, at that) clears the path for McConnell to deliver for the College of Charleston.

Whether or not expanding the scope and budget of the College of Charleston is a good thing is not the point of this column. I don’t pretend to know the answer as to whether the state cannot afford to do so (as critics say) or cannot afford not to do so (as supporters say). The question here is whether McConnell can force Courson’s hand by having resigned as lieutenant governor in his final calculated and clever act in the Legislature.

I say no, and urge Courson not to take the bait. Of course, McConnell has baited the hook well, couching the matter in terms of Courson’s constitutional duty, etc. And indeed, McConnell surprised many by stepping up to that duty two years ago in the wake of the Ken Ard disaster, when the former lieutenant governor resigned amid ethics violations.

While I don’t question McConnell’s service to the state and dedication to its constitution, I also think he knew he was headed for the presidency of the College of Charleston. But while his sacrifice may have been less than meets the eye, the circumstances were what they were and he should not be criticized for the actions he took then.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said now. McConnell deserves criticism for not remaining as lieutenant governor at least through the 2014 legislative session and possibly through the end of his term.

What should Courson do now? Nothing. And by nothing, I mean run out the clock.

It seems highly unlikely that a case can be brought to force him to take the lieutenant governor’s post, and that a case could work its way through the courts and be resolved in the next six months.

And that is the key: We’re only talking about roughly six months. A new lieutenant governor — one who wants the job — will be elected in November and take office in January. In the meantime, if something were to happen to Gov. Nikki Haley, Courson could step up to the post of lieutenant governor, and then governor, for those few months or weeks or days.

South Carolina has gone without a lieutenant governor six times before, as recently as the 1960s — and that was for two years. We’ll survive without one for six months.

Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.

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