Powerful South Carolina Senate president Hugh Leatherman – arguably the most influential elected official in the Palmetto State – will voluntarily surrender his leadership position within the chamber as it prepares to adapt to a constitutional change related to the office of lieutenant governor.
Leatherman has informed numerous colleagues of his intention not to seek the presidency under the new Senate system – which will feature a member of the body as the presiding officer instead of the previously independently elected lieutenant governor.
If not Leatherman … then who?
According to our sources, the role is likely to go to former majority leader Harvey Peeler – who entered the chamber with Leatherman way back in 1981. A native of Gaffney, S.C., Peeler is generally regarded as a GOP centrist. A more fiscally liberal state senator – Larry Grooms of Berkeley County – reportedly coveted the job but was unable to muster sufficient support.
For decades, lieutenant governors in South Carolina have served as ceremonial presidents of the Senate – presiding over points of order within the chamber and issuing rulings related to various procedural matters. That will change beginning in January 2019 after the lieutenant governor is elected as part of a statewide ticket for the first time ever this fall.
Rather than presiding over the Senate, the new lieutenant governor will serve as something akin to a minister without portfolio in the governor’s office.
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This constitutional change – originally approved by voters back in 2012 – significantly impacts how the Senate will operate moving forward. Not surprisingly, the shift has prompted all sorts of behind-the-scenes maneuvering within the chamber.
Next week, a group of lawmakers will convene at the capitol complex in Columbia, S.C. to continue their work in crafting new rules for the body in anticipation of the upcoming legislative session. Their goal? To define the new president’s role within the chamber before a president is chosen.
“We’re not going to elect a president and then put the rules in to suit them,” one senator told us confidentially. “We’re gonna do the rules first.”
According to our sources, senators have been determined that the new president of the chamber should not be senator who serves as the chairman of one of the Senate’s standing committees.
“There was a general consensus that since a senator would now be presiding, ruling on points of order and (on) the status of bills, that it would be best if the president of the chamber was not the chairman of one of those committees,” a source familiar with the situation told us. “You don’t want to have them making procedural rulings on their own committee’s legislation.”
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Leatherman, 87, reportedly did not protest this determination. In fact, we are told he voluntarily agreed to give up the presidency of the Senate so long as he was able to retain his title as chairman of the Senate finance committee.
That makes sense. Leatherman has always derived the vast majority of his political power from his position as finance committee chairman – a title he has held since 2001. We believe he will hold on to that position until the day he dies, which is bad news for limited government advocates. Leatherman, a “former” Democrat, most assuredly does not believe in limited government – as he has presided over nearly two decades of rampant government growth (with very little in positive outcomes to show for it).
Leatherman inherited the presidency of the Senate in 2014 when former state senator John Courson gave up the office in an effort to avoid becoming lieutenant governor following the resignation of Glenn McConnell. He briefly resigned in 2017 to avoid becoming lieutenant governor when Henry McMaster replaced Nikki Haley as governor, but was reinstalled as the Senate’s leader the following day.
Our view on these machinations?
As with anything that goes down on the State House grounds, we have heard stories. Some contend Leatherman agreed to give up the presidency of the chamber because he knew he did not have the votes to hold onto both positions. Others tell us the process never got that far, and that Leatherman moved preemptively to cut a deal.
We may never know what happened …
Bottom line? Change is clearly coming to the Senate, but it certainly seems as though the old guard remains firmly in control – especially over those positions that wield the real power.
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