When Gov. Nikki Haley takes her second oath for the state’s highest office Wednesday, she will stand as a survivor of a sometimes turbulent first term, having outlasted many of her opponents and controversies.
Powerful legislative leaders who fought the Lexington Republican’s priorities have left the General Assembly. Foes who took Haley to court and challenged her at the ballot box failed to knock her out of office. Scandals, including the worst data hacking of a state agency in U.S. history, did not cause lasting damage.
“In politics, you can go down from a big body blow or die from 1,000 cuts,” said Bob McAlister, a former chief of staff for Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell. “She has managed to avoid both.”
Haley’s second four-year term begins with an easier path for the nation’s youngest governor.
She will have a more supportive set of S.C. House and Senate leaders. Her opponents pose no immediate threat. And voters — more focused on the improving economy than any missteps — sent Haley back to the Governor’s Mansion with a 14.5-percentage-point victory margin, three times greater than 2010.
“I’m a believer that right always wins,” Haley told The State.
Since her first inauguration, some of Haley’s chief foes have gone offstage:
• House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a Charleston Republican who Haley said punished her for pushing roll-call voting while she was in the House, resigned after pleading guilty to misusing campaign money last fall. Harrell’s successor, Darlington Republican Jay Lucas, says he wants to work with Haley.
• Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, another Charleston Republican who opposed roll-call voting and efforts to give more power to the governor, now is president of the College of Charleston. Haley does not always see eye-to-eye with new Senate leader Hugh Leatherman, but she acknowledges she can work better with the Florence Republican.
• State Sen. Jake Knotts, a Lexington Republican who criticized Haley and called her a “raghead,” was knocked out of office in 2012 by a candidate backed by $400,000 from a political group that supports Haley.
• Former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, whom Haley said in her biography relished rumors about her alleged extramarital affairs when they both ran for governor in 2010, was trounced in a GOP runoff for a congressional seat in 2012. Haley campaigned for his opponent.
• GOP activist John Rainey, whom Haley said made racist remarks to her, has not made ethics allegations stick against the governor, who was cleared by the House Ethics Committee in 2012.
“She has always been one step ahead of her opponents,” McAlister said. “She took weakness(es) and made strengths out of them. Ethics is Exhibit A.”
Haley became an ethics crusader after the House hearings. She rolled out plans to boost disclosure of legislators’ income and seek independent investigations of lawmakers, now investigated by their colleagues.
Ethics reform, which failed to get a final vote on the last day of the 2014 session, now is a priority in the Legislature. And, this week, a S.C. House panel delayed voting on a plan to pay for road repairs until the end of the month – when Haley expects to unveil her proposal.
“The changes in the General Assembly are good for her,” McAlister said. “Things are already shaping out that way for her.”
‘I went around them’
That wasn’t the case four years ago.
Haley, a back-bencher in the House, won the GOP primary for governor over established Republicans because she was the fresh face at the height of the Tea Party wave. She also was seen as a disciple of her predecessor, Mark Sanford, who fought with the General Assembly.
Then, new Gov. Haley was caught in controversies over removing the University of South Carolina’s biggest benefactor from its board, ethics scrapes over use of state planes and vehicles, the theft of taxpayer information from the Department of Revenue and mismanagement at the Department of Social Services.
Haley won over doubters — from voters to lawmakers — with her laser-like focus on luring jobs in the wake of the Great Recession and streamlining government.
“If (my opposition) got in the way, I went around them,” Haley said. “That’s the thing about politics ... you can either decide you’re going to fight for what’s right no matter how bad it hurts or you can go along to get along. I have never been the type to just go along.”
Haley says arrogance doomed some of her opponents.
“They took everything personally, and I never did,” Haley said. “Sometimes, when arrogance comes into play, people do things to themselves. That’s not uncommon at the State House.”
Harrell declined comment this week. Rainey, who sent ethics-related complaints about Haley to 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson last fall, also did not want to talk.
“I don’t think about it” these days, Bauer said of Haley and politics.
McConnell’s departure, while not as controversial as some of the others, might have had something to do with the political shift in Columbia under the 42-year-old governor, one of Haley’s key advisers said.
“I don’t think that stuff happens by accident,” said Tim Pearson, who ran Haley’s two campaigns for governor. “When you change a culture in a state and, maybe it’s different for people who have been around for a while, they don’t want to push back any more.”
Efforts to reach McConnell were unsuccessful.
Knotts has had a change of heart. The former state senator, who was criticizing Haley as recently as her re-election bid last fall, now gives Haley credit for becoming a better ally with legislators.
Haley is taking a more global view in her positions, Knotts said. She no longer opposes economic incentives, like she did with Amazon’s distribution center in Lexington County, that can help the state land jobs.
“She was trying to prove something right after she got elected,” Knotts said. “She has matured a lot in her style of governing. She started being a governor and stopped being a politician. She’s gained the trust of the General Assembly. That could have been done a long time ago.”
‘Great year for all of us’’
Timing helped buoy Haley, too.
Haley benefited from the improving economy and South Carolina becoming a deeper Red State, said Warren Tompkins, a political consultant who was chief of staff for Gov. Campbell.
“The state is becoming increasingly conservative, and her politics match up with what people’s expectations are,” Tompkins said.
Haley also stayed on top with some finesse, Tompkins added, deflecting blame for controversies that, a generation ago, might have taken her down during her re-election run.
“It also shows how weak the Democratic Party has become,” Tompkins said. “They could not make these issues stick.”
Haley’s opponent in the November election — state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw — fared worse in his second try to beat Haley. In addition to losing by a wider margin than four years earlier, the Camden attorney also raised less money.
Former S.C. Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian said Haley has been lucky.
Harpootlian blames less scrutiny by the media and Haley’s ability to take credit for the economic recovery that started under Democratic President Barack Obama. “She ought to give credit for all those jobs to Obama,” Harpootlian said.
Haley has not moved the state forward as Campbell did, luring BMW to Greer; as GOP Gov. David Beasley did, fighting the Confederate flag; or as Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges did, starting the lottery, Harpootlian said.
Instead, Haley’s legacy is getting caught up in scandals, the Democrat said. But Haley was able to shove aside those issues by raising a record $8.4 million – almost half from out-of-state donors — to win re-election.
“With $8 million, you can convince people chicken poop tastes like chicken salad,” Harpootlian said.
Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon offers a different explanation for Haley’s ability to win a second term.
“She’s standing up there because she did not steer the ship of the state into the ground,” he said. “She had to govern from a defensive position in her first term. Now, she has the freedom to pursue a broader agenda.”
With Lucas running the S.C. House, fellow Republican Haley has a leader willing to be more of a partner.
Her relationship with Leatherman is more complicated.
They have agreed on economic-development issues but recently clashed over helping S.C. State University get out from under a $7 million deficit. Last month, Leatherman pushed through a $12 million bailout of the Orangeburg school over Haley’s objections.
“It depends on the day and depends on the issue,” Haley said of her relationship with the new Senate leader. “He doesn’t agree with a lot that we’re trying to do, but that doesn’t stop us.”
Also, Haley has allies in the next two most influential GOP senators after Leatherman — Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, and Judiciary Committee chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens. Martin, for example, is pushing an ethics bill that contains many of Haley’s reform proposals.
“We’ve got friends in the Senate now,” she said. “We can move things in the Senate. ... I’m looking forward to seeing some more progress made.
“I think it will be great year for all of us.”