COLUMBIA, SC — In a historic day at the State House, the Republican-majority state Senate elected a Democrat as the state’s new lieutenant governor and chose a new Senate leader, who was accused of taking part in a “coup” against a previous top senator.
Yancey McGill, D-Williamsburg, became the first Democrat to hold statewide office in three years after agreeing to vacate his Senate seat to assume the state’s No. 2 post for seven months, until a newly elected lieutenant governor takes office.
The Senate elected McGill, 61, the Senate president pro tempore by acclamation. However, he held that post for only a few minutes Wednesday before taking the promotion to lieutenant governor as prescribed under the state Constitution.
Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, resigned Wednesday, a move expected after he was named president of the College of Charleston. McGill then was sworn in as lieutenant governor by S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal with his wife and Republican Gov. Nikki Haley by his side.
“I knew Yancey McGill would look good in purple,” state Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, said, referring to the robe worn by the lieutenant governor.
McGill’s successor as Senate president pro tempore was greated with more controversy.
Sen. Hugh Leatherman, a Florence Republican who also chairs the Senate’s powerful Finance Committee, started gathering support from senators to become the Senate leader last week. But the 34-year Senate veteran ran into resistance from Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, who said giving the leadership post, which carries the power to make Senate committee appointments, to the Finance Committee chairman, who already controls the purse strings on state spending, was “dangerous.”
“It is way too much power to put in the hand of any one legislator,” Massey said. “Everyone knows that. ... I can’t help but feel like we’re moving back to a time long past when very few had input into the decisions being made.”
In a speech that stunned the Senate, Massey accused Leatherman of participating in a “hit” and a “well-orchestrated coup” against Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, who resigned as president pro tempore two weeks ago to avoid automatically becoming lieutenant governor on McConnell’s resignation.
Massey accused Leatherman of working with McConnell to force Courson from the leadership post after the Richland Republican fought their efforts to fast-track a bill that would make the College of Charleston a research university.
“We're accessories to a hit,” Massey said.
The two-term senator added Leatherman, a sometimes opponent of fellow Republican Haley, has fought efforts to modernize government and was behind secret budget deals, such as the one crafted this year with House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson.
“No one know what's in the budget except (Leatherman),” Massey said.
Nonetheless, the Senate voted 42-2 to elect Leatherman as president pro tempore. Massey and Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, cast the only dissenting votes.
Speaking after he was sworn in, Leatherman said he would work with all senators. “I will treat all of you with respect and fairness.”
While he said he did not feel like he was a coup victim, Courson said the push to get the College of Charleston bill passed cost him his leadership job. The bill never passed.
Massey’s dispute with Leatherman came on a day when senators put aside partisanship to send McGill to the lieutenant governor’s office.
McGill’s party affiliation rankled some Republican senators and state GOP party leaders. Sen. Paul Thurmond, a Charleston Republican and son of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, considered running against McGill.
But McGill, a Kingstree real estate broker and home builder, has earned the respect of colleagues on both sides of the political aisle during his quarter century at the State House. Senate GOP leaders and Haley said they had no concerns about his temporary promotion.
The alternative would have been to leave the office of lieutenant governor vacant until January, when a newly elected lieutenant governor takes office. The office has remained open for lengthy periods six times since the late 1800s.
But Haley and McConnell, who ended his three-decade career in political office Wednesday, insisted someone has to sit in the lieutenant governor’s office.
“The importance for South Carolina to have a lieutenant governor cannot be understated, and I want to personally thank Yancey McGill for making this sacrifice,” Haley said. “I know his legacy as a statesman will only grow in his new role.”
As lieutenant governor, McGill said he wants to help the state Office on Aging, which the post oversees, and to work with local governments to gain more autonomy from Columbia. He also plans to visit senior centers in all 46 S.C. counties and plans to meet with the state departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Parks, Recreation and Tourism to discuss partnership opportunities.
“I spoke with Lt. Gov. McConnell, and he knows you can make a difference in seven months if you have the (work) ethic and knowledge of the state budget and resources,” said McGill, a former Kingstree mayor who took over the Senate seat held by his father, Frank.
A Democrat has not held the lieutenant governor’s office since Nick Theodore in 1995. The last Democrat to hold a statewide seat was Superintendent of Education Jim Rex in 2011.
Staff writer Jamie Self contributed