S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley rose from a political newcomer in her first term as governor to dominating national headlines for her handling of state tragedies.
The announcement Wednesday that Haley will be nominated for U.N. ambassador by President-elect Donald Trump means Haley’s S.C. legacy is drawing to a close — for now, at least.
Haley, a Bamberg native and the daughter of Indian immigrants, was a state representative in 2010 when she beat out more well-known Republicans in that year’s gubernatorial primary. That fall, she was elected the state’s first female and minority governor.
Haley, 44, has been recognized for her compassionate handling of state tragedies — signing a bill requiring police officers to wear body cameras after a white North Charleston officer was charged with fatally shooting a black motorist, and successfully pushing to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds after the shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Her legacy will include industry recruitment, most notably Swedish carmaker Volvo to Berkeley County and Giti Tire of Singapore to Chester County. Both companies are building major manufacturing plants.
Still, Haley didn’t always build bridges, especially with legislators, with whom she often clashed.
Just six years ago, Haley was a little-known state representative from Lexington.
“South Carolinians bestowed upon me the greatest honor of my life,” Haley said in Wednesday’s statement. “They took a chance on a little-known, 38-year-old, minority, female governor – something our state had never done before. I will be forever grateful, and I expect I will never again receive a higher honor.”
In the GOP primary that year, an endorsement by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin helped Haley win the most votes — 44.9 percent. She handily won the runoff with 65 percent of the votes against former U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett.
Haley went on to beat Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Kershaw County in the general election, making history as South Carolina’s first minority and female governor.
Haley later faced an ethics investigation into whether she misused her position as a state representative while consulting with the Wilbur Smith engineering firm. Those ethics charges were eventually dismissed by the state Supreme Court.
In 2014, Haley again beat Sheheen in the general election with a margin of more than 14 percentage points. Haley won re-election largely by securing out-of-state donations, making education a priority, and focusing on economic development.
Just last week, Haley’s office announced an economic development milestone. A company committed to creating jobs in McCormick County, the final county to land additional jobs during her administration.
“We made South Carolina's economic development the envy of the nation and brought new jobs to every county,” Haley said in her statement on Wednesday.
Lewis Gossett, of the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance, said that when Haley took office in 2011, she confronted the lingering effects of the Great Recession, which hit all of South Carolina’s industries hard.
“She was and has been one heck of a salesperson for the state of South Carolina,” he said.
Legacy of handling tragedies
Haley’s administration will perhaps be remembered most for her handling of several tragedies.
In June 2015, South Carolina was rocked by the killings of nine black worshipers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, allegedly by a white supremacist, Dylann Roof of Columbia.
In response, Haley called for removing the Confederate flag from the State House grounds. After an emotional debate, the General Assembly agreed.
A few months later, Haley led the state’s response to historic flooding in several areas, including the Midlands.
Last month, weather again ravaged parts of South Carolina when Hurricane Matthew blew down trees and flooded many areas along the coast and in the Pee Dee.
“Our state has also persevered through some of the most difficult times,” Haley said in Wednesday’s statement. “Nature damaged many of us with the thousand-year flood and Hurricane Matthew. Our hearts were broken for those we lost when tragedy struck . . . Yet through it all, the greatness of our people overcame those tragedies, even coming together to heal the old wounds represented by the Confederate Flag on the State House grounds.”
Relationship with the Legislature
As governor, Haley has often clashed with state lawmakers.
In her first term, Haley gave lawmakers report cards. She also once told a real estate group to “take a good shower” after visiting the State House, and she often takes to her Facebook page to urge lawmakers to vote a certain way on legislation.
This year, she targeted three sitting state senators in their primaries, successfully ousting one. That effort included an unsuccessful campaign against Senate leader Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.
In an indication that Haley’s priorities would have little weight in her last two years in office, Leatherman at his primary night victory celebration referred to Haley as not just a lame duck, but a “dead duck.”
Still S.C. politicians were singing Haley’s praises on Wednesday. State Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, who has often criticized Haley’s stances, applauded her.
“We’ve watched as she dealt with companies and dealt with the media (during tragedies) and always put a positive spin on South Carolina and seemingly put South Carolina’s interest above her own,” Rutherford said.
Haley administration highlights
Gov. Nikki Haley recruited carmaker Volvo to build a manufacturing plant in Berkeley County. The company aims to create 4,000 jobs and invest $1 billion at the plant by 2030, according to the company’s contract with South Carolina officials. The company must create 2,000 jobs by Dec. 31, 2023, and invest $600 million. South Carolina offered more than $200 million in incentives to win over Volvo.
In the aftermath of the Charleston church shooting, when nine black parishioners were killed, Haley called for lawmakers to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds. "One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, the time has come," she said.
Haley led the state during historic flooding that destroyed homes and washed out roads and bridges in October 2015. She was put back in the disaster management role last month when Hurricane Matthew passed along the South Carolina coast. The Pee Dee suffered from devastating flooding as a result.