Less than nine months after taking office, Mike Gambrell is now the senior state senator from Anderson County.
He earned that distinction last week when Republican Kevin Bryant of Anderson became South Carolina's lieutenant governor after serving 12 years in the Senate.
"I had no idea that anything like this would unfold," said Gambrell, a Republican from Honea Path.
Gambrell, a former member of the state House of Representatives, was elected last May to serve the final months of Sen. Billy O'Dell's term. Gambrell then won a full four-year term in the seat in November. O'Dell, a Republican from Ware Shoals, died Jan. 7, 2016, after serving 27 years in the Senate.
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Four Upstate senators with a combined 83 years of seniority have left office since last year. Besides Bryant's departure and O'Dell's death, Larry Martin, a Republican from Pickens, and Mike Fair, a Republican from Greenville, lost re-election bids.
"Everything is based on seniority" in the Senate, Gambrell said Wednesday. "My fear is that the Upstate has lost some influence."
Last year, four of the 15 Senate committees were led by Upstate senators. Martin was chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee. Bryant led the General Committee. Fair was chairman of the Corrections and Penology Committee, and Sen. Thomas Alexander, a Republican from Walhalla, was chairman of the Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee.
Alexander, who retained his post, is currently the only Senate committee chairman from the Upstate.
The chairmen of Senate committees act as legislative "traffic cops" who decide which bills will be considered, said Bruce Ransom, a political science professor at Clemson University.
"It is the route to power and getting things done," he said.
As chairman of the judiciary committee, Martin played a pivotal role in passing legislation to strengthen domestic violence penalties and require legislators to disclose their sources of income. He also helped block a proposed coal-ash landfill in Pickens County and prevented a series of gun-control measures from advancing.
Martin said changing political winds led to his loss to former House member Rex Rice in a GOP primary runoff last year.
"There is a mindset that turnover is a good thing," he said.
Nine of the 45 members in the Senate have less than two years of experience in the chamber. Fair's Republican replacement, Sen. William Timmons, a 32-year-old lawyer from Greenville, was among seven freshmen elected by voters in last year's elections. Gambrell took office last year and Sen. Margie Bright Matthews was elected in October 2015.
The candidate filing period for Bryant's Senate seat will begin next week. The winner of the race probably won't cast any Senate votes until next year because the South Carolina General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn before the May 30 special election to fill the vacancy.
Rep. Anne Thayer, a Republican from Anderson, said supporters have urged her to run for Bryant's seat. But she has expressed reluctance to "start over" in the Senate after winning a fourth House term in November.
Thayer said she worries the Upstate's loss of seniority in the Senate could result in fewer grant dollars for the area.
"It is about bringing home the bacon, so to speak," she said.
Anderson County Administrator Rusty Burns agreed seniority "matters a great deal" in the Senate. But he cited two factors that may help offset the departure of experienced senators.
Burns pointed out that Rep. Brian White remains chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which crafts the first draft of the state's annual budget. He also said O'Dell's knowledgeable executive assistant, Kathie Marsh, is now working for Gambrell.
"She knows everyone's first name and last name and their children and their cousins," Burns said.
Alexander said the experience Gambrell and Rice gained serving in the House is another advantage.
"I believe that we can be successful working together," he said.