By Andy Brack, Statehouse Report | State Sen. Hugh Leatherman, president pro tempore of the Senate, never made it a secret that he didn’t want to be lieutenant governor.
When elected by Democratic and Republican colleagues a couple of years ago to the top organizational job in the chamber, he made it crystal clear that if a vacancy was imminent in the lieutenant governor’s position, he would step down as pro tem to remain chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
After the November election, the Florence Republican recited the same mantra, despite the clear possibility that then-Gov. Nikki Haley would step down one day to become part of President Donald Trump’s leadership team, thereby elevating Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster to the governor’s office and creating a path for the pro tem to become lieutenant governor. Nevertheless in December, Leatherman kept both leadership jobs — president pro tem, which organizes Senate business, and Finance chair, which is key in setting priorities by allocating tax dollars.
Lo and behold, Haley resigned and McMaster became the state’s new governor. And Leatherman, as expected, resigned from the pro tem job to ensure that he didn’t have to accede to a mostly ceremonial role that has little of the strategic power of the Finance Committee chairmanship.
All’s good, right? With a vacancy in the pro tem position, state Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, was elected Senate president pro tem, held the position for a microsecond and then became the state’s lieutenant governor. Which left another vacancy in the pro tem position. Which Leatherman ran for and won, despite competition that peeled 16 GOP votes from more conservative senators who didn’t like the musical chairs and thought Leatherman was avoiding his constitutional responsibility to step up to the state’s number two spot.
Hogwash. Leatherman made it clear from the get-go that he wanted to remain in the Senate, to which he has been elected from the Florence area since 1980, and use his skills as chairman of the Finance Committee to help the state push forward.
Frankly, we’re lucky to still have him in that job. While there are 170 legislators in the Statehouse, few have the strategic vision to steer where South Carolina needs to head. As we’ve long lamented, there’s no real long-term strategy that guides members of the General Assembly. Rather, lawmakers generally react.
Leatherman is different. Through the years, he’s set his eyes on certain targets, whether fixing the state’s procurement code, pushing for tort reform to limit liabilities for businesses, focusing on making higher education more affordable for families or working with countless companies to lure them to locate hundreds of millions of investment dollars and thousands of jobs in the Palmetto State.
We’re lucky to have him where he is. At 85, his hearing is sometimes a little off, but his mind is sharp as a tack.
“He’s worked across the aisles with Democrats and Republicans,” said former Democratic state Rep. Vida Miller of Pawleys Island. “That’s the type of leadership we need in Columbia — folks who will work across the aisle who are willing to help the whole state, not just one community. He’s a great asset to the state and a wealth of historical, institutional knowledge that often is so lacking.”
Former GOP Sen. Larry Martin of Pickens saw Leatherman’s hard work behind the scenes.
“Although he’s accused of hauling large aid back to Florence County — and Florence County has benefited from his service — he does have the statewide view,” Martin said. “One only has to look to Boeing to see that. It wasn’t coming to Florence. It was going to Charleston and he had a huge role to play at that.”
To critics who say Leatherman has too much power in his hands, Martin noted, “They’ve been good hands for the state.”
Leatherman, a North Carolina native who came to the Palmetto State in 1955, explained in an interview why he kept plugging away as chairman of the Finance Committee. “It might sound corny,” he said, “[but] I really want to leave this state better than I found it. If I do that, I’ve been very successful. I love this state and I’ll continue to do what I’m doing as long as my people keep electing me.”
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