After 14 years of combative Govs. Mark Sanford and Nikki Haley, S.C. lawmakers are ready for a deal-maker.
They think they have one in soon-to-be Gov. Henry McMaster, a Ronald Reagan Republican, former U.S. attorney and state attorney general known for using his deep Southern drawl to build a consensus.
“He’s pragmatic,” said state Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester. “He gets people together to reach compromises. He doesn’t dig into one position, and you’re either with him or you’re not.”
Publicly, S.C. lawmakers offer mostly guarded assessments of Haley and their optimism about McMaster, who will ascend to the governor’s office once Haley is confirmed as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in a few weeks.
Privately, however, some are giddy to trade in Haley – a 44-year-old Republican who bashed lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Legislature on Facebook and in their hometowns, offered failing “grades” to those who disagreed with her and told a real estate group to “take a good shower” after visiting the State House – for McMaster, a GOP governor they think will work with them.
An S.C. Republican Party mainstay over the past four decades, the 69-year-old McMaster has stayed silent on the top issues facing South Carolina since Haley’s nomination as U.N. ambassador. He declined to comment for this story through a spokesman.
But lawmakers hope a different approach in the governor’s office proves to be the missing ingredient to finding solutions to the state’s crumbling roads, improving the education of rural S.C. students and fixing the state’s underfunded pension system.
Some say they look forward to working with McMaster, a governor with no future political aspirations or need to appease outside groups that could help him climb the ladder to higher office.
“You think sometimes the 40-year-old governor is a breath of fresh air,” said state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg. “Having somebody who actually has seen government from many different aspects and has watched over the years, I think he’s got an opportunity to be a great governor.”
Lines in the sand
While some lawmakers already are drafting their wish lists, most say they have not heard from the lieutenant governor about the issues he might champion this year.
State Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, said McMaster indicated in a recent conversation that he wants to tackle the roughly $20 billion in unfunded debt in the state pension system. But that talk was void of specifics, Bryant said. “That is definitely a priority of his and the Legislature.”
However, McMaster’s stance on a proposed gas tax increase to repair South Carolina’s crumbling roads is a mystery. State Rep. Gary Simrill, a York Republican and outspoken advocate of a gas tax hike, said he plans to speak with McMaster soon about a roads fix, but hasn’t yet.
Some lawmakers say they hope for a governor who will not draw lines in the sand, as Haley did in announcing she would veto any gas tax increase that did not come with a much larger income tax cut.
“When the governor made the remarks she made a couple of years ago in the State of the State, it kind of took the wind out of the sails of us accomplishing what we hoped to accomplish with an infrastructure bill,” said state Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter.
Democrats also hope McMaster, a former legislative aide to the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, will be more open than Haley to other ideas, such as a bond bill to pay for college repairs and buildings.
“Gov. Haley was very clear on what she would and would not do,” said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg. “I am hopeful that Gov. McMaster might not be as rigid in his thoughts about direction and what public policy issues we ought to deal with or not deal with.”
‘He can sit down and talk about issues’
Lawmakers say they have reason to hope.
McMaster is no longer the political novice who vowed to break up the “good ol’ boy” network in his unsuccessful 1990 campaign for S.C. lieutenant governor.
A near-decade running the state GOP, eight years as the state’s attorney general and two more as its lieutenant governor have molded the Columbia native into a deal-maker, legislators say.
“He understands the nuances, he understands the personalities, and he has relationships that I think will be important,” said state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland.
McMaster has been approachable and a good listener as president of the Senate during the past two years, legislators say.
For example, when Sen. Hutto asked if he could bring a class of USC students to meet the new lieutenant governor, McMaster agreed.
McMaster set out milk and cookies, and spoke to the students about his political career – President Ronald Reagan, who named McMaster as the U.S. attorney for South Carolina, and Operation Jackpot, the flamboyant anti-drug campaign McMaster oversaw as the state’s top federal prosecutor, resulting in more than 100 convictions.
“He spent a ton of time with the students, and they really appreciated it,” Hutto recalled.
As evidence that McMaster can collaborate, lawmakers point to his work in 2013 co-chairing a Haley-appointed ethics task force with former Democratic Attorney General Travis Medlock.
“They all sat down and they worked together,” said state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington. “He can sit down and talk about issues. ... He thinks things through before just saying it. I don’t think he’s going to get on Twitter and tweet at us,” as Haley did.
One of McMaster’s best qualities, according to former S.C. Democratic Party chair Dick Harpootlian, is that he can “disagree without being disagreeable.”
“In all my dealings with him as chairman of the party, where we were publicly antagonistic, we had a good time traveling around and playing off each other,” Harpootlian said. “Never a mean word, never any finger pointing. He’s a good guy.”
Harpootlian predicted McMaster will spend more time talking shop with legislators, possibly at the Governor’s Mansion or at ball games, rather than giving them report cards or jabbing them by bringing pigs into the State House, as Sanford did to protest what he said was pork-barrel spending.
“He’s a warrior,” Harpootlian said of McMaster. “He knows how to make a point. He knows how to work a jury. He knows how to persuade people.”
‘He’s going to try to govern’
McMaster has long wanted to be governor.
That could become one of his greatest strengths, some lawmakers say.
A white-haired governor with no desire to move up the political ladder owes nothing to outside groups who can help with that climb, they say.
“He doesn’t have any hidden agendas other than what’s best for the people of South Carolina,” Rep. Delleney said. “You have Gov. Haley, who has aspirations for higher office. We had Gov. Sanford, who had the same things at the time. But, with Henry, we’ve got someone who is pragmatic, knows how to get things done, and I think we’ll get things done with him.”
Being governor is McMaster’s end game, some say.
“He’s going to try to govern,” Harpootlian said. “There’s no other job he can run for or would run for. He’s got the job he’s always wanted.”
S.C.’s lieutenant governor, who will become governor if Nikki Haley is confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to the United States
Education: University of South Carolina, bachelor’s and law degrees
Family: Married to Peggy McMaster, two children
2014-present: S.C. lieutenant governor
2010: Unsuccessfully ran for S.C. governor
2003-2011: S.C. attorney general
1993-2002: Chairman of S.C. Republican Party
1990: Unsuccessfully ran for S.C. lieutenant governor
1986: Unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate
1981-1985: U.S. attorney, appointed by President Ronald Reagan
1973-1974: Legislative aide to U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond
Henry McMaster: S.C.’s perennial best man
In his political career, S.C. Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster often has been the Palmetto State’s best man, not its bridegroom.
The infamous drug test
After being appointed U.S. attorney for South Carolina by President Ronald Reagan, McMaster challenged incumbent Democrat Fritz Hollings for the U.S. Senate. At the time, Republicans were not South Carolina’s dominant party, and McMaster – hoping to capitalize on his reputation as a drug-busting prosecutor – challenged Hollings to a drug test. Hollings replied, “I’ll take a drug test when you take an I.Q. test.” Hollings won re-election easily.
Failed run for lieutenant governor
McMaster fared no better in 1990, losing to Democrat Nick Theodore in the lieutenant governor’s race.
Elected S.C. attorney general
Finally, in 2002, McMaster succeeded politically, winning the first of two consecutive terms as S.C. attorney general by defeating Democrat Steve Benjamin, now mayor of Columbia. McMaster was unopposed when he won re-election.
Failed bid for governor, successful endorsement
In 2010, however, McMaster placed third in the GOP primary for governor. Before the Republican runoff, however, McMaster endorsed the front-runner in the GOP primary, then-state Rep. Nikki Haley, who went on to win election. Subsequently, Haley appointed her supporter to co-chair a high-profile committee on ethics reform, one of her highest priorities.
Beating Haley’s candidate
In 2014, McMaster ran again for lieutenant governor, taking on Haley’s favored candidate for the post, developer Pat McKinney. McMaster won the GOP nomination in a runoff and defeated Democrat Bakari Sellers – more recently, a CNN commentator – in the general election, 59-41.
Another successful endorsement
As lieutenant governor, McMaster proved once again he could pick a winner, becoming the first statewide-elected politician to endorse Donald Trump for the GOP presidential nomination. Subsequently, Trump named McMaster to deliver a presidential nominating speech for the bombastic billionaire at the GOP convention. Then, Trump cleared the way for his supporter to become S.C. governor, nominating Haley – a onetime outspoken Trump critic – to become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.