Lawmakers were stunned Friday by the news that state Sen. John Courson, a Richland County Republican, had been indicted on charges of misconduct in office and using campaign money for personal expenses.
The Columbia senator, a 32-year veteran of the Legislature, fits the central casting requirements for a classic S.C. politician — a 72-year-old, iced-tea sipping Marine veteran who reveres GOP greats, naming his dogs for conservative politicians, including Ronald Reagan and Strom Thurmond.
At the State House, Courson is known for his aversion to raising taxes, and his advocacy for public education and conservation. He also helped pass the original Confederate flag compromise in 2000 and supported bringing the banner down in 2015.
“I’m certainly surprised,” said state Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster. “I hope that, when everything is brought to light, that he’ll be exonerated.”
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Gregory — who has taken road trips to baseball stadiums across the United States with Courson, another passion of the Richland Republican — said he always has known Courson to conduct himself with the utmost integrity
“Courson is one of the most loyal people I know,” Gregory said. “Ultimately, that may prove to be the origin of the indictment.”
Senate leader Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said he was shocked by the indictment.
“He’s the last person in the world I would have thought would have had allegations, such as this, made against him,” said Leatherman, who has been in the Senate with Courson for decades.
Courson, who briefly was Senate leader before Leatherman, always has had the good of the state at heart, particularly on education issues, Leatherman said.
Courson chairs both the Senate’s K-12 education committee and the budget subcommittee that decides higher education spending. In that role, Courson has been an ally of the University of South Carolina, which is in his district and is his alma mater.
A military buff who has been to nearly every Civil War battlefield, Courson was a staunch supporter of displaying the Confederate flag at the State House. But he supported its removal in the wake of Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine Charleston church-goers, including state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Jasper.
“It’s almost like Lee at Appomattox,” Courson said in 2015 of his decision to vote to move the flag. “It’s just time to get it over with.”
One of the leading conservationists in the Legislature, Courson routinely was endorsed by environmentalists. He annually holds a briefing that gives environmental groups a chance to tell senators their legislative priorities.
In 2009, the Conservation Voters of South Carolina recognized Courson with its Senate conservation leadership award. In 2016, the S.C. Coastal Conservation League honored Courson for his efforts to fight development of a fragile, storm-prone spit at Kiawah Island.
Courson’s advocacy for schools and the environment — issues that appeal to Democrats — helped him hold onto his state Senate seat even as District 20 became more and more Democratic. Courson’s re-election efforts also were aided by redistricting, which redrew the district to include parts of GOP-heavy Lexington County.
Longtime government watchdog John Crangle said he, too, was stunned by Courson’s indictment.
“I couldn’t be more shocked,” Crangle said. “If I had to list 170 legislators most likely” to be indicted, Courson would be at the bottom.
“He doesn’t have any outward appearances of somebody who is living off of political money. He’s driving the same beat-up car, living in the same house the past 20 years. What’s he spending the money on? … His lifestyle is a very modest one.”
“The news is unbelievable,” said longtime GOP Sen. Harvey Peeler of Cherokee County. “John Courson, of all people. I couldn’t be more shocked if you hit me with a stun gun.”
Local Democrats also were surprised.
"I'm stunned," said state Rep. James Smith, a Columbia Democrat and chairman of Richland County’s legislative delegation. "John Courson? I don't know what to say.
“He's always been a stand-up guy, and he's served our state honorably. My thoughts and wishes are with him and his family."
State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, who worked with Courson when the Confederate flag was removed from the State House dome in 2000 and its grounds in 2015, said the Republican “has always been a fair leader and just someone who has gotten along with people on both sides of the aisle.”
Staff writers Sammy Fretwell, Clif LeBlanc and Avery G. Wilks contributed.
The Richland County Republican who was indicted
Residence: Shandon neighborhood in Columbia
Occupation: Keenan & Suggs insurance company vice president
Family: Married with three children