COLUMBIA — Sometime between Christmas and New Year’s, Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell finally decided on what he knew all along in his heart: If he were offered the president’s job at the College of Charleston, he would accept.
That meant giving up a 2014 election run for the state’s No. 2 job and ending a 33-year career in state politics in the hopes of taking over his alma mater.
“The thing that really nagged at me is that I did not want to ask money and votes and, then, I would be offered the office (of president) because I knew I would take it,” the Charleston Republican said Monday after announcing his decision. “That would be like jumping ship. I knew I needed to get out.”
McConnell’s political influence, cemented during a decade leading the state Senate, is expected to give him an inside track for the College of Charleston job. Several Lowcountry lawmakers back his candidacy. A majority of college trustees are elected by state legislators.
McConnell said he will submit an application to the college to become its next president before its Jan. 14 deadline.
If he wins the college post, McConnell’s paycheck will spike. He is paid $46,545 a year as lieutenant governor. George Benson, who is stepping down in June after seven years as the College of Charleston’s president, makes nearly $380,000 in annual state salary and supplement pay from the college’s foundation.
Time for a choice
McConnell said he wanted to make a decision about his future because the college’s timetable for its presidential search comes too close to the June GOP primary to make an effective run for lieutenant governor. A new president will not be named until around March.
McConnell also said he wanted to give other candidates a chance to run. Mike Campbell, son of the late Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell, said Monday that he is considering a bid for lieutenant governor.
The Columbia businessman ran for lieutenant governor in 2006 but lost a GOP runoff to Andre Bauer. Since then, Campbell has been state chairman for the presidential campaigns of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and worked with Newt Gingrich, who won the 2012 S.C. presidential primary.
If he decides to run, Campbell would be the second Republican to enter the race for lieutenant governor, joining Charleston developer Pat McKinney. McKinney has strong ties to Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who is running for re-election in November. A political newcomer, McKinney is a member of Haley’s re-election finance team and on the board of Haley’s charitable foundation. The governor also appointed McKinney to the State Ports Authority.
“I want to thank (McConnell) for his service to our state,” McKinney said in a statement. “I wish him the best for the future.”
McConnell and Haley clashed when he was the state Senate leader. But, in a statement Monday, Haley said: “We wish him and his family all the best going forward.”
State Rep. Bakari Sellers of Bamberg is the only Democrat to declare for the lieutenant governor’s race so far.
Whoever wins only will be able to serve one term. Beginning in 2018, voters will elect a governor and lieutenant governor on the same ticket, just like in presidential elections.
McConnell, 66, said he wants to help the College of Charleston, the state’s third-largest school, move toward becoming a research institution like the University of South Carolina and Clemson University while maintaining its liberal-arts roots.
The college is in talks with the Medical University of South Carolina about a potential merger. Some state officials also would like to see the college take over the private Charleston School of Law, which is undergoing an ownership change.
“I’ve got some strong ideas,” McConnell said. “The college has got to become more relevant to the changing economy of South Carolina. We’ve got to connect the liberal-arts core to jobs.”
McConnell said he sees the college developing programs to tap into the Port of Charleston, including logistics. “I don’t want to duplicate what other schools are doing.”
But not everyone is excited about the possibility of McConnell leading the college, which has a dorm named after him.
A pair of NAACP leaders told The (Charleston) Post and Courier that McConnell’s association with Confederate causes, including participating in Civil War re-enactments, could hurt perceptions of the school with current and potential minority students.
In an attempt to counter those concerns, McConnell’s supporters point to his push for political advancement of African-Americans in the State House.
“Reality is not the record,” McConnell said.
Also, in what was viewed as a statement opposing the naming of a politician as the college’s next president, its faculty Senate passed a resolution this fall that said “well-qualified candidates must have significant administrative leadership experience in higher education (or must have both significant leadership experience and a thorough understanding of the current challenges facing institutions of higher education).”
The College of Charleston says it is not looking for a president with only academic credentials.
The college seeks “a transformational leader,” its job advertisement in The Chronicle of Education reads. “Applications from candidates who have worked outside of academe are welcome, as are those of individuals with a distinguished record of service in higher education. The new President should have a record of accomplishments consistent with appointment as a member of the College of Charleston faculty.”
McConnell said Monday that politicians can make good college presidents.
“We are not bashful about asking for donations,” he said. “We know that you’ve got to build consensus.”
A search committee will bring a list of finalists to trustees on Feb. 10.
McConnell said he is unaware of any political influence on the college’s board to name him president and has avoided contact with trustees with the exception of a couple he called friends.
However, McConnell is aware of the support he has garnered from political allies. “There’s nothing wrong with citizens expressing their opinion.”
Four College of Charleston trustees, including three on the search committee, have contributed a total of $4,250 to McConnell’s campaigns.
Board and search committee chairman Greg Padgett, who has contributed $2,000 to McConnell, said Monday that the college’s trustees are “committed to a fair and thorough process.”
McConnell’s powerful political career ends with a job that is among the least influential in the state. The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate and oversees the state Office on Aging.
Since taking the office, however, McConnell has said he has liked working on solutions to what he calls the “tsunami” of South Carolinians reaching age 60. He plans to use his remaining time in office drawing up and wining support for legislation to revamp laws protecting the elderly and the Office of Aging.
“This will allow (me) to finish my work without having the distraction of a campaign,” he said.
Staff Writer Adam Beam contributed to this story.