With McMaster as governor, who will be South Carolina’s second in command?

Gov. Nikki Haley delivers her State of the State address from the chambers of the South Carolina House of Representatives in January 2015 with Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster nearby.
Gov. Nikki Haley delivers her State of the State address from the chambers of the South Carolina House of Representatives in January 2015 with Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster nearby. tdominick@thestate.com

Gov. Nikki Haley’s appointment as U.N. ambassador sets up Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster to take over the state’s executive office.

But a 2014 constitutional amendment, approved by voters, raises the question of who will be South Carolina’s next second-in-command.

“I believe that the new law would require Gov. McMaster to choose a lieutenant governor and then have that person run the Senate,” said Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley.

“The entire point of the legislation was to have a governor and a lieutenant governor run on the same ticket, and that was to start in 2018,” Merrill said. “This speeds it up by a few months, but it’s not really that much of an unexpected change.”

Under that interpretation of the law, McMaster would be the first lieutenant governor-turned-governor in state history who would get to pick his successor. McMaster, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in the 2010 GOP primary, has said he will seek the governor’s office in 2018.

But other state legislators interpret the law differently and argue that it was General Assembly’s intent to have those changes take effect in 2018 – not before then.

Former Pickens Sen. Larry Martin, who co-sponsored the 2014 law, said it does not affect the current state executive office. He said even if the law is worded otherwise, it was not the Legislature’s intent to have it take effect before 2018.

“Everybody understood that the changes we were voting on became effective during the 2018 general election,” Martin said. “What is set in stone and what is operative is what we passed ... which clearly puts all of this in motion in the 2018 election.”

Current state law calls for the Senate president pro tempore to ascend to lieutenant governor if the position is vacant. Though Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, holds that position, the Senate is expected to elect a new president pro tempore when the chamber returns Dec. 6 for an organizational session.

Citing previous instances in which the Senate president pro tempore has ascended to lieutenant governor, House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, also said that command structure should remain intact through 2018.

“You can take it to court and let the court determine the intent of the Legislature, but I think it’s pretty clear,” Delleney said. “The old law would apply, where the president pro tem of the Senate automatically becomes the lieutenant governor.”

In 2014, when then-Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell resigned to become president of the College of Charleston, then-Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, was set to ascend. But Courson, who did not want to lose his Senate seat, resigned the pro tempore position, triggering a scuffle over who would become the state’s next second-in-command.

Former Democrat Yancey McGill ultimately volunteered to become the Senate’s president pro tempore and, consequently, lieutenant governor. He was the fourth Senate president pro tempore to become lieutenant governor since 1870, according to state records.

But the office has gone vacant at least six times in its history, after lieutenant governors succeeded governors. The last vacancy happened in 1965, when Robert McNair ascended to governor but the Senate’s president pro tempore, Edgar Brown, declined to become lieutenant governor.

The last South Carolina governor to resign was Donald S. Russell in 1965.

Russell resigned on April 22, just days after U.S. Sen. Olin D. Johnston of South Carolina died while in office. Hours after the resignation took effect, Russell – a Democrat – was appointed to Johnston’s seat by McNair.

Russell had served just more than two years as governor before resigning. His Senate career didn’t last that long, though. In 1966, Russell lost the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat to Ernest F. Hollings.

Hollings won the general election that year and remained in the Senate until deciding not to seek re-election in 2004.

Staff writer Paul Osmundson contributed.

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