SC Politics

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster’s Heritage Act Tightrope

How a likely change to this 2000 law could put the Palmetto State’s chief executive on the spot …

Shortly before our founding editor Will Folks left the capital city of Columbia, South Carolina for his summer break, he spoke with a pollster he trusts about the so-called “Heritage Act” –  the state law which presently governs (among other things) the disposition of markers, memorials and designations related to the War Between the States and the civil rights movement.

According to this pollster, a whopping ninety (90) percent of Republican primary voters in the Palmetto State are opposed to renaming buildings or removing monuments. Period.

For those of you unfamiliar with its history, the Heritage Act was passed in 2000 as part of a bipartisan, biracial compromise that moved the Confederate flag off of the dome of the S.C. State House (and from within the House and Senate chambers). It holds that “any monument, marker, memorial, school, or street erected or named in honor of the Confederacy or the civil rights movement located on any municipal, county, or state property shall not be removed, changed, or renamed without the enactment of a joint resolution by a two-thirds vote of the membership of each house of the General Assembly.”

The law was used in 2015 to move the Confederate flag off of the grounds of the S.C. State House – which we championed – but Republican leaders in the S.C. General Assembly indicated at the time they were disinclined to support further historical sanitization.

We supported them in that decision …

This year, the debate over the Heritage Act is back in full force following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Memorial Day – with some black leaders in the S.C. General Assembly urging state agencies and municipalities to exercise civil disobedience of law for the purpose of removing statues they deem offensive.

Ground zero for this debate? Marion Square in Charleston, South Carolina – where liberal mayor John Tecklenburg is advocating for the removal of a towering monument honoring the legacy of the late U.S. vice president John C. Calhoun.

Beyond that there is a larger debate as to the constitutionality of the Heritage Act itself, with many believing its imposition of a supermajority (or two-thirds majority) requirement for lawmakers to amend it is an example of a former legislature unduly imposing its will on the current body.

We believe they are correct on that point … although we also believe that if this particular section of the law were struck down (presuming a justiciable controversy were to arise from it) the S.C. supreme court would likely leave the rest of the act intact.

Which brings us to governor Henry McMaster

Assuming the Heritage Act is modified to require that only a simple majority of lawmakers support amendments – what does the governor do with the barrage of renaming/ removal requests likely to come across his desk?

Remember, if lawmakers in both chambers of the S.C. General Assembly were to vote to take down a statute or rename a building – such a measure would be subject to the approval of the governor. Were he to object (i.e. use his veto pen), all of a sudden the supermajority requirement would be back on the table – no longer due to the disputed wording of the Heritage Act, but due to the constitutional separation of powers in South Carolina.

In the case of a gubernatorial veto, then, it would once again take a two-thirds majority of both chambers to amend the law.

In other words, if McMaster (or whoever is running his administration) were to come out strong against renaming buildings or removing monuments and other markers in South Carolina – he would wield immense power in this debate.

What is his position? That’s a good question …

McMaster’s decidedly less-than-woke personal history – along with the apparent unilateral opposition of his Republican base – could compel him to veto any Heritage Act amendments. Then again, the governor has been working hard to shore up his electoral position among more moderate voters in the Lowcountry – including sucking up to Democratic congressman Joe Cunningham on the issue of offshore drilling.

Perhaps that compels him to support such a purge?

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Either way, McMaster clearly has quite a tightrope walk ahead of him … a balancing act complicated by the fact he has spent decades as the definitive “Old South” politician.

As we have previously reported, McMaster’s association with multiple “whites only” organizations is widely known. Upon inheriting the South Carolina governor’s office from Nikki Haley in January of 2017, for example, he steadfastly refused to withdraw his membership in the Forest Lake Club (which at the time had no black members).

Prior to that, McMaster declined to withdraw his membership from the club after he was challenged by former state representative (and current CNN commentator) Bakari Sellers during the 2014 lieutenant gubernatorial election.

Several Republican lawmakers later joined Sellers in asking McMaster to leave the club – which he and his wife have belonged to since the 1970s.

Additionally, in 2008 McMaster’s daughter – actress Mary Rogers McMaster – was debuted at the Columbia Ball, a “whites only” dance club based in the state capital of Columbia, S.C.  Also in 2008, McMaster’s daughter was a guest at the Cotillion, another “whites only” dance club based in the South Carolina capital.  The latter club formed in 1890 but did not begin presenting debutantes until 1947, when two daughters of prominent Palmetto State families were excluded from another “whites only” society called The Assembly.

Beyond these associations, until 2017 McMaster used veteran South Carolina political strategist Richard Quinn – whose neo-Confederate leanings are a matter of public record – as his chief advisor for years.

Quinn’s empire was brought down that year as part of an investigation into public corruption at the S.C. State House. The veteran advisor is currently facing perjury and obstruction of justice charges in connection with that inquiry – although he has reportedly returned to action as an advisor to embattled S.C. senator Luke Rankin in a high-profile Republican primary race in Horry county this month.

McMaster’s influential chief of staff Trey Walker – whom many believe will be the one making decisions for his administration as it relates to the Heritage Act – is also a former top staffer to Quinn.

Stay tuned … this news outlet will obviously be keeping a close eye on the McMaster administration as it may soon be compelled by circumstances to begin articulating a position on various challenges to the Heritage Act.




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