COLUMBIA, SC As Hugh Leatherman leaned against the base of a 43-foot column atop the State House steps for a photo shoot, the 83-year-old Florence senator joked that the picture would look “like I’m holding the building up.”
That’s not far from the truth.
Leatherman was already one of South Carolina’s most influential legislators after more than three decades in the General Assembly. He is a chief state budget writer and chairman of gate-keeping panels that can decide how much is spent on college projects and agency directors.
His new role as the leader of the Senate easily makes him the most powerful politician in a state where a local legislator can wield more power than the statewide elected leader, the governor. He was accused of being part of a coup to win his new seat, but his work to build support on both sides of the aisle left just two naysayers when the votes were tallied in the Senate.
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“He’s got a track record of being fair,” said Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee. “I’ve got every confidence that that is the type of leadership and respect (needed) for being president pro tempore of the Senate. I see it as a strength that will serve all of us well.”
The Palmetto State power broker grew up in North Carolina on a small cotton farm where he pushed himself into college and struggled his way to an engineering degree.
He entered South Carolina for good soon after college to launch a Florence concrete company and used the goodwill cemented with his business to land a seat on the town council of a tiny bedroom community.
Leatherman turned his frustration of being a backbench state senator into learning how to compromise –a skill that has led to leadership roles.
But some senators say that sharing power comes at a price.
“He has the checkbook, and he uses it,” said Sen. Shane Massey, an Edgefield Republican who has criticized Leatherman’s power grab. “It’s a whole lot easier to get your deals when you can give somebody a project for $50,000 or $100,000.”
‘No Strom Thurmond’
Leatherman’s clout was solidified when he became the Senate’s leader, or president pro tempore, in the final week of the Legislative session last month after a nasty fight among longtime Republican senators.
In late May, then-Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, who presided over the Senate, recognized Leatherman when other senators were standing. Leatherman tried to fast-track a bill that would make the College of Charleston a research university. McConnell was leaving soon to become president of the college. Then-Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson halted the bill along with Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, who had a small beef with Leatherman a couple of weeks before during a budget debate.
The public discord among the most-senior GOP senators was novel, and it was not over.
Then McConnell, a former Senate leader himself, suggested that he would leave early to start work at the college. That forced Courson to make a choice. He resigned his powerful leadership post to avoid the Constitutional mandate that he become lieutenant governor, one of the weakest jobs in the State House.
McConnell stayed after Courson resigned, and Leatherman gathered votes to become Senate president pro tempore.
But before Leatherman was elected, Massey took to the Senate floor and shocked his colleagues by accusing Leatherman of taking part in a well-orchestrated coup and a “hit” on Courson. Massey also spoke about Leatherman having too much say over matters with his new role.
Weeks afterward, Leatherman said Massey was entitled to his opinion.
“Apparently not many people shared that opinion, if I recall the vote was 42-2,” he said.
Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, joined Massey in voting against Leatherman.
“It’s a good idea to have power dispersed,” Davis said.
Massey’s opinions have not changed. He calls Leatherman the most powerful elected official in the state – more powerful than Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and Republican House Speaker Bobby Harrell of Charleston, especially since Harrell has a cloud of ethics allegations hanging over him..
“It’s dangerous to consolidate too much power in any one single individual regardless of who the individual is,” Massey said.
A look at Leatherman’s appointments reveals just how much influence he wields even before he added the Senate leadership job.
He chairs the Senate’s budget-writing panel that decides how $7 billion in state money is spent. He chairs committees that determine the salaries of some state employees and all agency heads.
He leads a bond review committee that review building requests, especially those at state colleges. He sits on the State Budget and Control Board that makes procurement decisions deciding who gets state money. He is a member of the State Infrastructure Bank that decides how to invest money for roads.
Now he is president pro tempore of the Senate, and third in line should anything happen to Haley or Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill, D-Williamsburg.
“Leatherman has just gotten his hands on the one piece of the power puzzle he didn’t have before,” said Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, a Libertarian-leaning think tank.
Massey said Leatherman might have the titles but not the legacy of other famed S.C. political figures.
“He’s no Ben Tillman. He’s no Jimmy Byrnes. He’s no Strom Thurmond. He’s certainly no (John C.) Calhoun,” Massey said.
‘Best sale I ever made’
Leatherman’s pursuit to push himself started in high school.
He grew up on a small family farm on about eight acres in Lincoln County, N.C., where he would join his father on trips to buy produce from the farmers market along Assembly Street in Columbia.
As a boy on those trips to Columbia he was unaware of how significant he would become as an adult in the S.C. capital.
Graduating from high school in a senior class of 33 students, Leatherman did not want the farm life.
He entered North Carolina State University, where he studied civil engineering.
“Why I chose civil engineering, I’ll never know,” Leatherman said, adding that he did not have any engineers in his family or even know what an engineer did at the time.
He had to overcame hurdles on the Raleigh campus. He had to learn algebra and geometry because they were not offered at his high school.
Two years after graduation, Leatherman landed in Florence where he and a business partner founded Florence Concrete Products. They chose the capital of the Pee Dee for a simple reason – that’s where a plant was available.
Through the company and his role as a senator, Leatherman helped build projects including a performing arts center, health sciences facility and the Florence County museum, area officials said.
“He tells you what he wants done and everybody listens,” said Dr. Eddie Floyd, a Florence heart surgeon and longtime University of South Carolina trustee. “He is respected to that point in this community – everybody loves him.”
Leatherman met his wife while building a hotel in Charleston. Chesterfield native Jean Helms was working for a furniture manufacturer and wanted to sell him furniture for the hotel.
“The best sale she ever made, and the best sale I ever made,” Leatherman said of his wife of 35 years. They have six children and three grandchildren.
Leatherman said he knows compromise is the key to any relationship, including marriage.
“Is there compromise in marriage? Yes. Is there compromise in life? Yes. Is there compromise on the floor of the Senate? Yes.”
Businessman to ‘statesman’
In the mid-1960s, Leatherman was living in Quinby – small community outside of Florence with a population of about 900 at the time that has not changed much over the years.
He said he saw he could make a difference people’s live so he got involved by running for Quinby Town Council.
For the same reason, he ran for the S.C. Senate in 1980.
Leatherman had to adjust to a new world of politics.
“In the business world, if you want to make something happen, you just do it and it happens,” he said.
Sitting in the back row of the Senate and not seeing anything accomplished, he grew frustrated.
Leatherman said he learned that he either had to adapt to the system or get out. That’s where he learned the value of compromise.
Leatherman’s mentor was Sen. Verne Smith, a Republican from Greenville whom he described as a plainspoken, fair person. The two had dinner together nearly every night when they were in Columbia.
“What you saw is what you had,” Leatherman said. “He knew how to work with people.”
Leatherman said he tries to be fair with people like Smith was.
When he became a senator, state spending was about $2 billion. That has more than tripled to $7 billion because the economy has grown.
He became Senate Finance chairman in 2001 and his top priority in the budget has been education.
“We’ve come a long way in educating our young people, we’ve got a ways to go,” he said.
He also used that ability to build bridges to help Florence even if it meant working with a former foe.
Prior to becoming mayor of Florence, Stephen Wukela, a self-described liberal Democrat, ran against Leatherman for his Senate seat in 2004. Leatherman won re-election easily with 66 percent of the vote.
Four years later after Wukela was elected Florence mayor, Leatherman reached out to work with Wukela.
Wukela remembers Leatherman’s reasoning: “Our people need things in this community, and you and I are going to work together to make sure those needs are met.”
The effort to cooperate was an unusual step in the current polarized political climate, and happened because Leatherman is a “practical statesman,” Wukela said.
Even in compromising, not everyone is pleased.
Leatherman, who switched to the Republican Party in 1995, has been criticized for working too closely with Democrats in the Senate.
“They’re a senator, just like I’m a senator,” Leatherman said.
But Massey, a Republican half Leatherman’s age, questions the Senate leader’s party allegiance based on the way he votes on contentious issues.
“Sen. Leatherman and I, more often than not, are on different sides,” Massey said.
Other Senate Republicans appreciate his efforts to compromise.
“He’s willing to reach across the aisle to work with folks,” said Alexander, who chairs the Senate’s Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee. “It’s his style of making sure that we try to improve South Carolina for all people.”
Massey said his compromises are easier because Leatherman uses the budget as incentive, citing his ability to withhold cash or dole out favors.
But Leatherman does not consider earmarking specific projects in lawmaker’s districts as pork – a term he bristles at.
“People have needs in their district all over this state and to them and their constituents those are real needs,” he said. “I don’t view anything in the budget as pork.”
Going forward, Leatherman said he intends to build back decorum in the Senate.
While some senators might point to senior members who publicly bickered over the College of Charleston bill or the impending lieutenant governor vacancy, Leatherman said he wants to ensure when a senator is speaking at the podium, others are not off in corners or sitting in their chairs talking to one another.
“I think that’s really disrespectful,” he said.
Massey was concerned about the future of the Senate with Leatherman’s new post.
“Leatherman will be less willing to listen to and to accommodate those who are outside his majority,” Massey said. “He will have his group of people, and I think if you are not in his group of people, you’re going to have less of a say in how things run on the Senate floor.”
Leatherman plans to talk to senators individually to be proactive in getting more respect between senators.
Alexander has confidence in Leatherman’s leadership.
“His life has been about building whether it’s in material things or in relationships with individuals,” Alexander said.
While he builds budgets, consensus, and even critics in the Senate, Leatherman builds and works on houses to relax.
He spent some of the past week working on renovating a home in Murrells Inlet for one of his daughters.
He had subcontractors look at the pool, and assess the house’s painting, electrical work and plumbing.
A few weekends ago, Leatherman helped another daughter put in a sprinkler system.
“To see things happen and see them work after you get through – that’s really what makes me tick.”