State Senate Democrats named Nikki Setzler of Lexington County their new leader on Monday – a week after Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and her allies spent thousands of dollars in an failed attempt to defeat him.
Setzler will succeed state Sen. John Land of Clarendon, who is retiring. State Sen. John Matthews of Orangeburg was named assistant minority leader.
A state senator for 35 years, Setzler is a moderate Democrat who campaigns as a “caring conservative” in Republican-rich Lexington County. He faced a fierce challenge from Republican Deedee Vaughters of Aiken during the Nov. 6 general election. Gov. Haley, a former Lexington state representative, campaigned for Vaughters, and a political action committee affiliated with the governor spent thousands of dollars on pro-Vaughters advertisements.
Setzler won the election with 60 percent of the vote.
“We congratulate Sen. Setzler on his new appointment, and we look forward to working with him,” Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey wrote in an email to The State. “Campaign season is over.”
If Setzler wants revenge, he will have plenty of opportunities. As the Senate minority leader, he has influence over which Democrats are named to conference committees that craft legislation before it is sent to the governor for her signature. Haley’s priorities for the 2013 legislative session include ethics reform and creating a Department of Administration, which died in the Senate earlier this year on the last day of the legislative session.
Setzler said Haley’s opposition in his re-election bid had “absolutely nothing to do” with Democrats choosing him to be their leader in the Senate.
He pledged to work with the governor’s office. “I am about helping people in a bipartisan approach.”
In January, Democrats will hold 18 of the state’s 46 Senate seats – one less than they had earlier this year, after Democrat Dick Elliott retired and was succeeded by Republican Greg Hembree. The Senate is the one place in state government where Democrats have power. They often vote as a block, joining with moderate Republicans to form a majority. That block elected moderate Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, as Senate president pro tempore.
“In order for us to be effective in the Senate, we need not to be as partisan,” said state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland. “We need to be able to work together with people on the other side of the aisle. I don’t know anyone who does that any better than Nikki Setzler.”
Setzler said Senate Democrats have not decided on an official legislative agenda, but it will “be all about jobs, education and creating an environment for economic development.”
Jackson said one big issue will be whether to accept millions of federal dollars to expand South Carolina’s Medicaid health-insurance program for the poor and disabled.
“Medicaid funding will be a major issue for us, to try to make sure that we don’t leave millions and millions of dollars on the table and, more importantly, deny people an opportunity for better health care,” Jackson said.
Senate president Courson said Setzler’s election is “a tremendous plus for the Senate.”
“He’s very bright, very knowledgeable on educational issues and is willing to work across party lines,” he said.