Politics & Government

March 17, 2014

EXCLUSIVE: SC lieutenant governor’s office could go vacant

The S.C. lieutenant governor’s office could be vacant for a half year if Glenn McConnell starts work as College of Charleston’s next president on July 1.

The S.C. lieutenant governor’s office could be vacant for a half year if Glenn McConnell starts work as College of Charleston’s next president on July 1.

Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, next in line to become lieutenant governor, told The State that he would not take the office if school trustees choose McConnell from three finalists. A decision could come as early as Saturday.

That means South Carolina would not have a lieutenant governor until January when the winner of the November general election takes the oath of office.

Going without a lieutenant governor, however, is not unusual in South Carolina.

Nothing in the state Constitution or law requires the Senate president to assume the vacated lieutenant governor’s office, which has much less power than running the State House’s upper chamber.

The office has been vacant for long stretches – six times since 1879 – after lieutenant governors succeeded governors, according to state records. The openings, created when governors have become U.S. senators or taken federal appointments, have lasted from five months to two years. The last vacancy stretched from 1965-67, when one of state’s most powerful Senate presidents, Edgar Brown, declined to ascend to the lieutenant governor’s seat.

“I don’t see any danger to the republic,” said Neal Thigpen, a retired Francis Marion University political scientist.

McConnell became lieutenant governor in 2012. The Charleston Republican, who had been Senate president for a decade, took the office after then-Lt. Gov. Ken Ard’s resignation. McConnell has said he took the less influential job out of a sense of duty. He is the third Senate president pro tempore to become lieutenant governor since 1870, according to state records.

Courson, however, said he prefers to remain in the General Assembly, where he has been a member for 29 years. The Richland Republican said he has started raising money to seek a ninth Senate term in 2016.

Courson’s decision to stay put, if McConnell gets the College of Charleston job, does not change the chain of command in South Carolina. The Senate president is next in the line of succession after the governor and lieutenant governor should both be unable to serve out their terms.

In fact, two Senate presidents have became governor when the lieutenant governor’s office was vacant. Thomas Jeter spent three months as governor in 1880, after Gov. William Simpson was elected chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court. Richard Jefferies became governor in 1942, when Gov. Joseph Haley died after four months in office.

The lieutenant governor’s main task is presiding over the Senate during its session, slated to end June 5 this year.

“It’s on automatic pilot after the session,” Courson said. “I could fulfill any duties (of lieutenant governor) if they arise and do it at no additional cost to taxpayers.”

Thigpen predicts the public would not see Courson, 69, taking a pass at becoming lieutenant governor as a big deal since the job, which pays $46,545 a year, is considered part time.

“He’ll be able to get away with it,” Thigpen said. “It’s a job nobody wants.”

This year’s election is the last time that candidates for lieutenant governor will run for the office alone. Starting in 2018, the governor and lieutenant governor will run on the same ticket, like the president and vice president.

The lieutenant governor’s office has five state employees. But the lieutenant governor also runs the state Office on Aging, which employs 41 with an annual budget of $37.8 million in federal and state money.

What will happen to those operations if McConnell resigns is unclear.

The state attorney general’s office said it has never been asked for an opinion about how a state constitutional office would operate for an extended time without its elected leader.

S.C. political experts said they expect staff leaders would oversee the two offices until McConnell’s successor arrives next year. Debra Hammond is McConnell’s chief of staff. Tony Kester leads the Office on Aging.

“(McConnell) has everything well organized,” said Jack Bass, a retired College of Charleston political scientist. “The office would not stop without him.”

McConnell, 66, has no plans to return to politics. He chose not to run for a four-year term as lieutenant governor this year to try to become the president of his alma mater.

He is one of three finalists for president at the College of Charleston along with retired Harvard University professor Jody Encarnation, 61, and former University of Southern Mississippi president Martha Saunders, 65.

McConnell is considered a favorite because of his backing from lawmakers in the State House, who elect college trustees and where McConnell has served for three decades. He also gets support from Charleston-area business leaders, some of whom see him as the best candidate to help the college become the state’s third full-fledged research college.

However, some faculty leaders oppose McConnell’s candidacy, citing his lack of academic experience. African-American community leaders also oppose him, citing his ties to Confederate historical causes.

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