While growing up in a small Pee Dee town, Jay Lucas stuttered severely, not exactly a confidence-building experience on his way to becoming one of South Carolina’s most powerful politicians.
“I had a fear of speaking in public,” the newly elected S.C. House speaker said last week. “It threw my timing in life off.”
Lucas entered law school and politics a little later in life than some of his colleagues. But his childhood success in overcoming stuttering may have contributed to the trait most commonly used to describe the Hartsville Republican — humility.
“He did not have a lot of confidence at times,” said Lucas’ wife, Tracy. “A lot of lawyers and politicians have this big ego.
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“He’s never been that.”
Lucas, 57, takes over a S.C. House trying to emerge from the scandal of former Speaker Bobby Harrell’s fall and resignation, after the Charleston Republican entered a guilty plea to campaign finance violations.
Lucas, who spent the past three years as the House’s second-in-command, was a popular choice to succeed Harrell, who some House members say could be dictatorial. In response, Lucas has signaled that he will be more collaborative – for example, naming a committee to change the House’s rules, including limiting the terms of the speaker.
Lucas, who says he was not close to Harrell, promised a more inclusive leadership during his acceptance speech after he was elected speaker last week. “The day of, ‘Just trust me, it's fine,’ has passed its prime,” he said.
“I take Jay at his word, but I took that to mean that he is the speaker and running this body,” said Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland. “That doesn’t mean his party and the (Republican) majority leader are not going to have to do backroom deals to get stuff done. It’s not that politics all of a sudden are going to change.”
Still, Rutherford said of Lucas, “He’s probably the one person in here, (who) taking over as speaker, you know you’re going to see a difference.”
In part, that is because Lucas has managed to make friends in a business that often pulls people apart.
“He doesn’t make people feel shut out and run over,” said House Judiciary Committee chairman Greg Delleney, a Chester Republican who sat next to Lucas on the House floor for 14 years.
But last week, Lucas’ desire to please everyone ran into the realty of assigning 122 House members to committees. Lucas acknowledges that now, after making those assignments, he no longer has 122 friends.
“He doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or ... make anyone mad. I have seen that this week,” Tracy Lucas said. “It bothers him so much that he loses sleep over it. I told him, he’ll have to figure out how to deal with it.”
Tracy Lucas said that discomfort was part of her husband’s struggle over whether to take a leadership role in the House.
“But he felt like he had an opportunity to make a difference and get things back on track,” she said.
‘Doesn’t forget anything’
Hartsville Mayor Mel Pennington said Lucas’ small-town roots – the Darlington County town’s population is 7,900 – helped him develop a sense of accountability.
“When he goes to the grocery store, people know him, and he will be held accountable for policy decisions he made,” Pennington said. “When you’re brought up in a town where if you cut class, your mama knows about it when you get home, those traits are installed in you.”
The tests for Lucas started earlier.
His father, Bobby, suffered a debilitating stroke while traveling for a construction company.
Bobby Lucas was just 44. Expected to die within days, Lucas’ father lived for three decades. Lucas’ mother cared for her husband, who became known for his strolls around his Hartsville neighborhood and waving at passing motorists.
“Everybody knew him,” Lucas said. “He did this one thing that made people feel better. He could have quit from Day 1, but he fought. When you come from a background like that, it’s pretty hard not to be humble.”
Money was tight.
Lucas was able to go to college on a scholarship for families of disabled veterans, but he could not afford law school.
So, Lucas worked as finance director for Bennettsville and county administrator of Fairfield County to earn enough money to get a law degree.
Lucas was a second-year law student at the University of South Carolina when mutual friends set him up on a date with a Columbia dental hygienist.
“What attracted me was his sense of humor and that he likes to have fun,” Tracy Lucas said. “He’s good at relaxing people and making them feel at ease.”
Hartsville city Councilman Bob Braddock grew up going to Pee Dee shag dance clubs with Lucas. Braddock said he marvels at Lucas’ ability, even today, to recall specific events from their days of playing recreational softball.
“He doesn’t forget anything,” Braddock said. “It’s just way over my head.”
Delleney calls Lucas the smartest person in the State House. But Lucas does not show his smarts off, Rutherford said.
“You can tell he’s smart, but he doesn’t use it or beat you over the head with it,” Rutherford said. “He uses it to try and help you get your way, even if the two of you disagree.”
Lucas says he has found that being pleasant works.
“I don’t think you have to be rude to be effective,” he said.
The art of effectively, pleasantly working despite differences has aided Lucas, a lifelong Republican from one of the state’s stronger Democratic regions.
Lucas’ mother, Shirley, was a Republican. Lucas says he chose the GOP because of his socially conservative beliefs.
But that doesn’t mean his mother always agrees with all of her son’s choices.
“She is much further to the right than I am,” Lucas said. “She is a constant critic. She watches the votes and, when I vote differently from (the more conservative Delleney), she tends not to like that.”
Lucas’ interest in politics grew after law school. He went to work at the Hartsville law firm of longtime Democratic state Sen. Ed Saleeby.
Gene Warr, who had left Saleeby’s practice to work with future Gov. David Beasley, become friends with Lucas during visits to his former employer.
“He’s an entertainer,” Warr, now USC’s trustee chairman, said of Lucas.
Lucas went to work with Warr and Beasley in 1994. Lucas said he left Saleeby’s law firm, in part, because it was “tough to run (for office) as Republican out of Ed’s law firm.”
Soon thereafter, however, Beasley was elected governor and left his law firm.
Lucas, meanwhile, was waiting for his opportunity to run for office.
“In a small town, you don’t barge in and just run against somebody,” he said. “It’s not considered polite, unless the person was doing a terrible job. You wait for a vacuum.”
The vacuum was created in 1998, when Democratic state Rep. Michael Baxley left office.
Lucas ran for the seat.
“It might be my last chance for 15 years,” Lucas recalls thinking.
Warr tried unsuccessfully to talk his law partner out of politics.
“I didn’t want him to get involved in that world,” Warr said. “I’m glad he didn’t listen to me.”
Lucas won by 32 votes — earning the nickname “Landslide Lucas.”
After he was elected, Lucas took over another role from Rep. Baxley, driving Democratic Sen. Saleeby to Columbia for the legislative session “even though he worked against me.”
On the rides, Saleeby would share stories about his decades of being a lawmaker, dating back to the early 1950s. He also occasionally would chide Republican Lucas for some of his votes.
Republicans were making inroads in the General Assembly when Lucas was elected, having taken control of the House and on their way to taking control of the Senate.
Still, the 1998 class of new GOP House members was so small – three – that they did not have a group photo taken as the Democrats did.
Also, the GOP did not embrace the newly elected Republican from the Pee Dee. Lucas received little support from the House GOP Caucus for two terms.
The conventional wisdom was that Lucas would be a one-term lawmaker, losing to a Democrat in the next election. For their part, Democrats tried to get Lucas to switch parties.
Then, Lucas became the decisive vote to kill a bill that would have raised the daily prize limits that players could win from video poker games.
“There were threats: ‘We can take you out,’ and ‘You’ll never come back again,’ ” Lucas said. “(But) video poker had become a cancer on our state.”
Lucas said he was sure the poker vote would send him home after two years. He was shocked when he did not face major opposition in his re-election bid.
“I might have gotten some cover with Ed,” Lucas said of Democratic Sen. Saleeby. “He didn’t push someone to run against me.”
Or, Lucas figured, Democrats may have decided he could help them win Republican legislative votes for Pee Dee projects.
‘Never extremely close’
In becoming a House leader, Lucas again waited for a vacancy.
The House’s No. 2 seat, speaker president pro tempore, opened in 2010, when incumbent Harry Cato lost his seat.
Harrell did not back Lucas. Instead, the speaker supported Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington.
But Lucas prevailed.
“Bobby and I were never extremely close,” Lucas said. “The last two years were hard on everybody.”
Lucas says the pair did not talk much, outside of discussing S.C. House business. Lucas said he never offered Harrell, known for punishing foes, advice on managing lawmakers differently. He says he did not think Harrell would listen.
Still, Lucas appreciated that Harrell appointed him to joint House-Senate committees and let him preside over the House when the speaker stepped away from the podium – an opportunity not always given previous speaker pro tempores.
In the first week after Harrell was suspended in September, Lucas – who took control as acting speaker – admitted he was overwhelmed.
“You were now the person who makes all these different decisions,” he said. “I had done the fun part (presiding over the House) and now had to deal with all the problems.”
But Lucas also proved adept at House politics, locking up enough votes to win the post of speaker before his potential rivals – including Bingham and Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley — could do so. They dropped out of the race.
In addition to more transparency, Lucas pledges to cede more control to House committees over what the bills they consider.
“They don’t need to be the speaker’s issues,” he said. “They need to be the House’s issues.”
Lucas, a movie buff, used two film quotes in his acceptance speech last week to sum up his feelings about winning the influential job.
“What do you do when your real life exceeds your dreams?” he said, quoting from the 1980s classic “Broadcast News.”
The biblical passage from Isaiah that he used came from “Fury,” a World War II movie: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then I said, ‘Here am I; send me.’ ”