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Bethea betting on lottery's future

Paula Harper Bethea has taken the helm of the S.C. Education Lottery.
Paula Harper Bethea has taken the helm of the S.C. Education Lottery.

New education lottery chief Paula Harper Bethea faces the expectation that she will be able to keep more than $1 billion a year in revenue flowing into the state's lottery games.

Bethea, 54, last week became the second executive director in the S.C. Education Lottery's seven-year history.

The former McNair law firm executive takes the games' helm after its profits have poured more than $2 billion into public education since 2002.

Despite the recession, the lottery has wrapped its second-highest year ever in gross revenue, pulling in more than $1 billion in sales for 2008-09 and transferring $262 million to education.

"I do worry about it going down ... more than ever, the state needs what these dollars can provide," said Bethea, a native of Hampton County.

"The fact that we would transfer a whole lot more than we transfer now is probably not realistic," she said. "But we would like to sustain ourselves in the best way.

"South Carolina needs us. Education in South Carolina needs us."

CASTING ITS LOT

In naming her as the lottery's new $226,829-a-year chief, the state Lottery Commission shunned a closed-door executive session to cast its lot in a public discussion of Bethea's credentials.

Bethea brings to the table a resume of civic leadership spanning more than 30 years, including a stint as board chairwoman of United Way of America, the nation's largest charity.

A University of South Carolina graduate, Bethea's first job out of college in 1975 was with McNair. After a year, she went to work for former House Speaker Rex Carter of Greenville. In 1977, she married William Harper Jr. and moved to Hilton Head Island.

Bethea grew up in Estill, a town of 2,300, in Hampton County.

"What I have found over my 54 years is that there is no substitute for being born to loving parents, and I was," Bethea said.

Bethea's mother was an English teacher at Estill High School. Her father, who died on New Year's Day when she was 17 years old - "a very defining moment" - was an International Harvester dealer and, later, a salesman.

The youngest of three children, Bethea lost her sister to cancer 19 years ago.

Loss, she said, has been a great teacher, leaving her the lessons of setting priorities, having and showing appreciation, and building relationships.

"I've tried to take life lessons that were mine in Estill, South Carolina, and those that have come to me since I left, and integrate them in everything I do, and that is who I am," Bethea said.

"I was very fortunate to be able to marry a man who has encouraged me, inspired me, supported me, let me stand on his shoulders - and so, in every way that anyone can be blessed, I've been blessed with the things that really matter."

When Bethea chaired the United Way of America board in 1996-97, she flew out of Hilton Head three to four days a week, traveling to all but five states. While previous United Way board chairmen flew in corporate jets, she traveled on U.S. Airways at an excursion rate, which she and her husband paid for, not the United Way.

"I was able to touch Fortune 500 CEOs to the neediest among us and that taught me a lot about the human spirit and human character," Bethea said.

Bethea also chaired the board of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce for two years "through some fairly critical times in the state" and was awarded the Order of the Palmetto by the late Gov. Carroll Campbell Jr.

Bethea has long been connected in political circles, where records show she has made campaign contributions to Republican U.S. Sens. Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham, President George W. Bush in 2004 and GOP presidential nominee John McCain in 2008.

"Paula Harper Bethea is an accomplished business woman who has always taken an active role in improving her community and our state," said House of Representatives Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.

"I am confident Paula will do an excellent job leading our educational lottery and will work very hard to support and improve the many scholarships and programs it supports."

SOMETHING TO PROVE AND IMPROVE

Bethea's elevation to top gun of the lottery, which employs 140, makes her one of the top executives in the Palmetto State.

The Lottery Commission, appointed by Gov. Mark Sanford, Senate President Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, and House Speaker Harrell, decided against its plans for a national search for a new executive director after June 9, when it asked Bethea to serve as interim director.

Her no-search hiring has been criticized by some.

McConnell could not be reached for comment on the move, but Sanford's office said the governor wishes Bethea well.

Bethea was a commissioner of the lottery when it decided then-state Sen. Ernie Passailaigue, who also had not run a lottery before, would head the S.C. startup.

Bethea is quick to acknowledge challenges for the games lie ahead but says she will not be alone in meeting them.

"I've got to prove (the commission) made the right decision, and I can't do that by spending time worrying about criticism," Bethea said. "I do that by rolling my sleeves up and working arm-to-arm with my partners. ...

"This is a business, an economic engine for South Carolina," Bethea said. "When you can transfer $2.2 billion, when you can establish 708,000 scholarships in seven-and-a-half years, that's a business. That's an economic engine.

"I don't think we were going to be totally satisfied with just maintaining the status quo."

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