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Palmetto Power Shift: It’s Hugh Leatherman’s World

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FOR AS LONG AS HE CAN HANG ON … 

Years ago this website used to annually compile a list of the 100 most powerful South Carolina politicos … until we realized most people had never heard of the vast majority of them (meaning the only people reading it were those whose names were on the list).

Anyway, a fixture on those scoresheets was S.C. Sen. Hugh Leatherman – a diminutive “Republican” from Florence, S.C. who has served in the South Carolina Senate for the last 33 years.

Leatherman’s power stemmed from his control of the Senate’s finance committee – a panel which wields unrivaled authority over the state budget (which keeps growing and growing and growing).  He’s still got that juice, too.  Earlier this year Leatherman became the Senate’s president, too, a move that dramatically expanded his influence.

Of course it’s not just what the 83-year-old native of Lincoln County, North Carolina has done to expand his own power … it’s what the state’s other top “Republicans” have done to diminish theirs.

Leatherman’s influence over the all-powerful S.C. General Assembly reached its zenith in 2014, of that there can be no doubt.

But it wasn’t just because he corruptly engineered his ascension to the Senate presidency, it was because the only other politician in South Carolina who could even approach his level of influence – S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell – was mired in scandal.

Now with Harrell indicted on corruption charges (and suspended from office) – Leatherman is the undisputed ruler of the legislative branch, a virtual dictator who can impose his will at will .

Wait … what about the state’s governor, Nikki Haley?

For those of you who haven’t familiarized yourselves with South Carolina’s antiquated, 1895-style system of government – the Palmetto State’s “chief executive” is basically a figurehead who controls only a portion of her own branch of government.  And with Haley staring down an escalating scandal at her child welfare agency, her constitutional weakness could soon translate into political weakness as well (not like Haley was exactly tearing it up before her latest scandal broke).

At this point, Haley is still likely to win reelection on November 4 – although her job approval numbers remain weak.  Meanwhile Harrell is unlikely to survive as Speaker.

That means Leatherman would enter 2015 in a position of unrivaled power – with an unpopular governor limping into her second term and a brand new Speaker of the House (widely believed to be Jay Lucas) sitting opposite him in the S.C. State House.

That’s a recipe for Leatherman to do as he pleases … which you better believe will be incredibly hazardous to your bottom line as a taxpayer.

The only question? How long can Leatherman hang on …

Some say the answer is “forever.”

“That old f*cker is never gonna die,” one lawmaker lamented to FITS. “They won’t let him.”

Maybe so … but there’s a growing buzz surrounding Leatherman’s diminished capacity that can’t be ignored.

Back in June we published a report about Leatherman’s health – one that referenced him losing control of his bodily functions (we’ve since learned more about an unfortunate incident in a State House elevator).  More to the point, the report referenced that Leatherman was experiencing decreased cognitive function – especially in mid-afternoon meetings.

Crazy isn’t it?  The guy who now wields absolute power over the Palmetto State wears diapers and can’t remember anything after 4:00 p.m.

Scary …

Frankly, we don’t see anything changing in South Carolina anytime soon – no matter who is in charge.  The system is built to protect entrenched special interests (most of them taxpayer-subsidized), and those who try and stand up to those interests get crushed.

That’s why long-overdue reforms that would benefit the broader public – i.e. individual income tax relief, universal parental choice and a draconian reduction in the size and scope of state government – never materialize.

One thing is for certain, though.  State government is now squarely under the thumb of a man who has no intention of changing the course that has brought South Carolina to where it is today.

Pic: Travis Bell Photography