Powerful South Carolina Senate finance committee chairman Hugh Leatherman – who spent nearly two decades controlling the purse strings in the Palmetto State from his perch atop the influential Senate finance committee – has passed away.
Back in April, my news outlet reported how Leatherman – an unapologetic fiscal liberal – had been returning campaign checks to contributors, signaling to these donors that he would not be seeking another term in office. It soon became clear the diminutive politician was having serious health problems – which prompted feverish jockeying within the chamber he dominated for decades.
“The void that would be created in the event Leatherman were to leave the Senate (however that happened) would be immense – and unlikely to be filled by just one person,” I wrote back in April. “Like him or not, the man is an institution in Palmetto politics – and you don’t just ‘replace’ institutions, you try to straddle the event horizon accompanying their collapse and gradually adapt to the new reality created by their absence.”
A native of Lincoln county, North Carolina, Leatherman began his career in politics as a Democrat – and as this news outlet has extensively chronicled over the years, he never really shed his stripes, so to speak.
The man who would become the Palmetto State’s “Godfather of Pork” was a town councilman in rural Quinby, S.C. from 1967-1976. In 1980 he was elected to the S.C. Senate – as a Democrat – and six years later he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination (finishing last in his party’s primary that year). After joining the GOP in the aftermath of the “Republican Revolution” of the early 1990s, Leatherman quickly rose through the ranks of the chamber – which at the time was run by white Democrats.
In 2001, he helped engineer a “Republican” takeover of the Senate. That same year, he became chairman of thee powerful Senate finance committee – a post he held until his death. In 2014, he became president of the Senate – a post he held until 2019 (well except for a brief, constitutionally dubious interlude in 2017).
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“Leatherman was already in a class above the others,” one S.C. State House observer told me back in 2014. “Now he’s creating a new class of power like no one has ever seen in state government.”
That’s true … but did Leatherman use his immense power for good?
“I’ve always said I want to leave this state in a better shape than when I came in,” Leatherman told his hometown paper, The Florence Morning News, back in 2017.
Did his policies do that? No, they did not … but this is not the time for that discussion.
I have written – and will continue to write extensively (and bluntly) – on Leatherman’s legacy, but as I noted last month “now is the time to wish Leatherman, his family and friends every peace and comfort as they confront this incredibly difficult time.”
While Leatherman’s colleagues breathlessly extol him in the mainstream media, though, the truth is they have been circling him like vultures over the last few months – plotting ways to leverage his demise to their political advantage.
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Senate president Harvey Peeler (above) – who took his seat in the chamber with Leatherman way back in 1981 – is expected to surrender his leadership post to become the next chairman of the finance committee.
The fact he would resign the presidency to take over the chairmanship of this panel – which helps craft the state’s $32 billion annual budget – shows where the real power is in that chamber.
In fact, Grooms was reportedly calling senators last week in the hopes of lining up commitments for the post.
Leatherman’s death also creates a vacancy in his S.C. Senate seat, which is currently in the process of being redrawing as part of the decennial redistricting process. The early favorite in that race is state representative Jay Jordan, although again, the lines of all forty-six Senate districts are currently being redrawn so it remains to be seen who will have a leg up in that race.
This is a developing story … please check back for updates.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children. And yes, in addition to having lots of kids he has LOTS of hats (including that Minnesota Twins’ lid pictured above).
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