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March 9, 2012

Turmoil at the State House

The State House was abuzz Thursday with the possibility that Lt. Gov. Ken Ard will resign over ethics violations – possibly as soon as today.

A resignation would spark a reshuffling of power in the state Senate and create a level of political theater not seen in decades.

One looming question is whether Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, will assume the post of lieutenant governor, as is outlined in the state Constitution, if the embattled Ard is forced to step down because of a state investigation into his 2010 campaign spending.

Questions also are beginning to crop up over the nonexistent role that voters will have in naming a new lieutenant governor should Ard resign.

Speculation has run high for weeks that McConnell would not want to exchange his current position – as the Senate’s most powerful member – for the post of lieutenant governor, a largely ceremonial position.

One theory is McConnell may resign his post before Ard resigns, then run for election as leader of the Senate again once that body selects a new president pro tem who will be elevated to become Ard’s successor.

McConnell offered no clue Thursday on what he will do, saying he would not make plans based on speculation. But many senators said they hope McConnell will continue in his Senate post.

“McConnell is our backbone while everyone else are the little vertebrae,” said state Sen. Jake Knotts. R-Lexington. “He can work things out with both sides of any issue. He gets things done.”

State Constitution vs. state history

Making the issue of succession more complicated, readings of the state Constitution vary. There are disagreements, for example, about whether McConnell would have to step down as Senate leader to avoid becoming lieutenant governor.

In 1965, then-Senate President Pro Tem Edgar Brown declined to take the lieutenant governor’s post when Bob McNair was elevated from lieutenant governor to governor, creating a vacancy. No one called Brown on his move.

The result? The state had no second-in-command for nearly two years until John West was elected lieutenant governor in November 1966.

“Nobody challenged it so we don’t have the precedent of a lawsuit. That’s the risk inherent in going that route. Someone could challenge it in court,” state Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens., said Thursday.

Today, it is unlikely the state would linger without a lieutenant governor, suggested Mark Tompkins, a political scientist professor at USC.

“Sen. Brown was a very powerful man,” Tompkins said. “Times are different. The State House is different. For Sen. McConnell to assume he could do the same would not be consistent with his devotion to operating by the rules.”

And it would not be consistent with a 1977 state attorney general’s opinion that says the Senate president pro tem will serve as lieutenant governor if the post becomes vacant.

“We believe (that opinion) remains an accurate examination of the law,” Mark Plowden, spokesman for the state Attorney General’s office, said Thursday.

Meanwhile, some voters are annoyed the lieutenant governor’s post will be decided by the state’s 46 senators – not voters – if a vacancy occurs.

“The public has no say in it at all,” said Talbert Black, founder of Palmetto Liberty, a group that advocates for smaller government. “Lawmakers are not asking what the voters think. It’s behind-the-scenes, inside baseball.”

And the next lieutenant governor is...

If McConnell steps aside, several state senators have expressed interest in becoming Senate leader just long enough to be elevated to lieutenant governor.

State Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, said Thursday he would seek the post if McConnell asks him to do so. “The people of this state deserve to have this process concluded,” Courson said.

Courson added he would not seek re-election if he becomes lieutenant governor.

Other possible contenders for the post include Sens. Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, and Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley. Neither man would confirm their interest Thursday.

Courson is expected to receive the backing of the Senate’s 19 Democrats, giving him an edge over other Republican contenders, even though the GOP controls the Senate 27-19.

The motive for Democrats to support Courson? In part, they think a Democrat has a good chance of winning his Senate District 20 seat.

Courson doubts that, noting his district, which includes parts of Democratic Richland County and Republican Lexington County, has gone Republican in every presidential race since the mid-1980s.

And, with 2012 a presidential election year, Courson expects Senate District 20 voters once again will pull the lever for the GOP presidential contender and the Republican state Senate candidate, whoever that is.

“A Democrat could win the district, eventually, but it would be unlikely to happen this year,” he said.

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