MARCH 16, 2012 – South Carolina’s 2010 statewide election was supposed to shake up the status quo in Columbia with “outsider” Nikki Haley ascending from the House doghouse to the Governor’s Mansion.
And in a way it did, as it also cemented the tea party’s faithful some spots in the Senate’s back row. But that shake-up didn’t compare in breadth and depth that the stepping down of Ken Ard from the office of lieutenant governor caused over last week.
Ard’s resignation and subsequent guilty plea to seven counts of state ethics violations kicked off an epic game of musical chairs. Many argue Ard’s resignation hastened more change than Haley’s election.
Implicit in the state Constitution and required by statute, Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell (R-Charleston) was supposed to succeed Ard -- which he did, but not before much handwringing as to if he would and how long he would stay in the office.
Some worried that McConnell, a master of parliamentary procedure and the Senate rules, would install a patsy as president pro tem, resign his position -- but not his elected seat -- and return quickly to the top of the Senate heap.
But when that didn’t happen, wagging tongues and rumors started again -- that McConnell would run for his Senate seat again. State Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, even put in a bill this week that proposed for McConnell to keep his seniority if reelected.
McConnell, however, stanched the gossip Thursday when he issued a statement that said he would stay on as lieutenant governor through the current 2012 election cycle and would not seek reelection to the Senate.
Incidentally, candidates for his office have until the end of the month to declare for the regularly scheduled election for his office, and those wishing to run for the rest of his unexpired term can announce beginning March 30.
Several senators, both Democratic and Republican, said McConnell’s health played a role in his decision to leave the Senate. McConnell spent several weeks at home and in the hospital in Charleston after “insect bites” reportedly caused him severe problems.
McConnell, busy all week moving and taking meetings in his new digs, could not be reached for comment.
With McConnell now only in the Senate as presiding officer (the major constitutional role of any lieutenant governor) and out of its leadership, two positions were open -- president pro tem and chair of the Judiciary Committee. Longtime GOP ally Sen. Larry Martin was quickly voted into McConnell’s former spot as the head of Judiciary.
Sen. John Courson (R-Columbia) was elected President Pro Tempore over Majority Leader Harvey Peeler (R-Gaffney) with the help of substantial support from Democratic senators.
Martin, who is not a college graduate according to his Statehouse bio, had been the chair of the Rules Committee. By becoming Judiciary chair and vacating his slot on Rules, Sen. Jake E. Knotts (R-W. Columbia) being elected chairman of Rules.
Courson can remain chair of the Senate Education Committee while president pro tempore, as McConnell did as chair of Judiciary.
New Jack City
But what the vote for Courson over Peeler showed, according to observers and senators not wanting their names attached to their comments, is that a coalition is forming between Democrats and mainstream-Chamber of Commerce Republicans. Democrats voted overwhelmingly for Courson, with a majority of Republicans trying to carry the day for Peeler.
Sen. Phil Leventis, the lone wolf Democrat from Sumter who is also retiring at the end of this session, spoke about the oddly growing collegiality between Democrats and mainstream Republicans. Leventis, who often stood alone in his positions in the Senate, said that a third party has emerged in the Senate.
Some call them the “tea party.” Leventis referred to them as “wing-nuts.” Others in the Senate and the Statehouse confirm growing concerns about the remnants of the Sanfordites, who are now loyal to Haley and the “tea party’s” conservative ethos.
As such, Leventis and others said to expect more cooperation between GOP regulars and the Democrats, especially with Sen. Brad Hutto (D-Orangeburg) expected to take over for the retiring Minority Leader John Land (D-Manning). “Brad is practical, in the best sense of the word,” said Leventis, adding that he hoped that some of the most strident “wing-nuts” don’t win reelection.
Ard’s resignation also resulted in another power shift in Columbia. Just a few years ago, the state’s governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, House speaker and president pro tempore all called the Lowcountry home. Now, the Lowcountry is only home to McConnell and House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston).
State Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian has been hard at work with multiple press statements that seek to persuade the electorate to switch voting patterns after Ard’s career went down due to legal issues, as did former Treasurer Thomas Ravenel’s, and with allegations that Gov. Nikki Haley had fiscal improprieties on the campaign trail.
Symbolic and real
The departures of Land and Leventis will start a new game of musical chairs that will deliver Sen. John Matthews (D-Bowman) to the front row of the Senate chamber. Sitting on the front row physically represents how a senator is a member of senior leadership. With Matthews on the front row, it will be the first time a black member has sat there since Reconstruction, according to Leventis, who has the option of allowing Matthews to take his front-row seat this session.
Crystal ball: Will Courson be able to control and manage the Senate as well as McConnell did? Several senators said no -- that Courson didn’t have the people or political skills that McConnell possesses. And where McConnell was fixated on the details and nuances of Senate procedures and rules, which he used to wield power, Courson is seen as more of a “big-picture guy” by several of his colleagues. But his stay may be short-lived, as McConnell, with 31 years in the Senate, could return in two and a half years when he fulfills the rest of Ard’s term. Meanwhile, tongues will continue to wag.
Bill Davis is editor of Statehouse Report. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.