Politics & Government

Haley stresses dollars, sense

COLUMBIA,SC,5/14/09 Rep. Nikki Haley,[R]-Lexington, announced Thursday, said  today she is launching a bid to become South CarolinaÕs first female   governor.  Photo by TIM DOMINICK/tdominick@thestate.com,
COLUMBIA,SC,5/14/09 Rep. Nikki Haley,[R]-Lexington, announced Thursday, said today she is launching a bid to become South CarolinaÕs first female governor. Photo by TIM DOMINICK/tdominick@thestate.com,

At 13, Nikki Haley became the bookkeeper for her family's Bamberg clothing store, in charge of payroll, taxes and more.

By 16, she went though her first audit, passing with flying colors.

"At the time, I didn't know it wasn't normal (for a teenager to have that much responsibility)," said Haley, who was assigned the role of bookkeeper by her mother, an Indian immigrant who eventually turned the family's small retail store into a multimillion-dollar clothing company.

"Now, I know (my mother) didn't want me to know limitations," Haley said. "She didn't want me to know the limitations of age. She didn't want me to know the limitations of gender. She didn't want me to know the limitations of being Indian."

Today, state Rep. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, sees her quest to become governor through her mother's eyes, refusing to be deterred by the odds against her.

They're piled high.

Haley is not well known outside of her Midlands district.

Her fundraising is far below the top two Republican contenders.

And she's running for governor in a state known for its paucity of female lawmakers. South Carolina is currently the only state with no female state senators.

Haley, assistant executive director of the Lexington Medical Center Foundation, shrugs it all off.

"When I'm passionate about it, I won't stop," she said.


In her first State House run in 2003, Haley squared off against a 30-year incumbent.

Haley was so underestimated she struggled to find someone to run her campaign.

Once the race got under way, it quickly turned nasty. Anonymous ads questioned her faith. While raised a Sikh, Haley is a Methodist.

She won and, in 2008, was re-elected with the widest margin of any House member in a contested election.

Another seemingly insurmountable challenge came last session when Haley pushed for more on-the-record votes by House lawmakers.

It was a change that House leaders originally opposed.

"She was not going to be told you can't do something when she thought it was the right thing to do," said state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, who successfully fought alongside Haley to get the bill passed.

"She'd do it again even though we got punished for it," Ballentine said, adding he and Haley were reassigned to less-influential committees by House leaders after the fight.

But Chip Felkel, a longtime S.C. political strategist, said Haley's approach to getting on-the-record voting passed damaged her reputation with lawmakers who could now be helping her win the governor's race.

"While I agree (on-the-record voting) is a good idea, there's a better way to get it done than poking the House leadership in the eye, than flying around the state with the governor (touting on-the-record voting)," Felkel said. "Politics is about building relationships and working with others."

Felkel said the vote left some lawmakers with the impression that Haley, like Gov. Mark Sanford, is a loner who can't or won't work with the Legislature.


Haley contends her gubernatorial leadership style would be very different from Sanford's, less reactive, open to compromise and willing to work with lawmakers from the committee level up to get good bills passed.

Her goal, she says, is to get lawmakers to think in dollar signs like small businesses do.

"I don't think government knows the value of a dollar," said Haley, who advocates starting each state agency's budget at zero every year and justifying every dollar, audits of each agency on a rotating five-year cycle and the elimination of the income tax on small businesses. "Each one of those bills that crosses the (House) desk, those are real dollars."

While Sanford has yet to endorse a successor, he's made it known he likes the idea of Haley running. The two are of the same libertarian political ilk, advocating smaller government, lower taxes and more transparency.

Prior to this summer's Sanford scandal, the governor's endorsement was a brass ring for GOP contenders. Sanford had a loyal base of donors and a nearly $1.7 million war chest that could be used to bolster the prospects of his favored candidate.

Then, the bottom fell out.

First, the married Sanford admitted to secretly leaving the state to visit his lover in Argentina. Next came an Ethics Commission investigation into his use of campaign and state resources, including one high-priced overseas trade mission that included Haley.


Haley's fundraising bears the scars of Sanford's missteps.

She raised more than $359,000 in the last quarter compared with $1 million raised by the top two GOP contenders - U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett and state Attorney General Henry McMaster.

Haley admits the Sanford scandal temporarily handicapped her fundraising ability. But she said she can recover.

"It's that (fundraising) frame of mind of: 'Who do we know who knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody?'" she said. "You go that far into how creative can you get."

Others are less optimistic Haley can escape the Sanford scandal's shadow.

"It's not going away," Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop political scientist and pollster, said of voters' interest in the scandal and impeachment efforts, which will fire up again when the Legislature returns in January.

"The constituency she has to reach now, these are the people who are going to participate in the primary and the hard-core Republicans who are going to donate money," Huffmon said. "In both of those circles, her connections to Sanford are pretty well known."

Unless she can raise much more money, it will be nearly impossible for Haley to compete with the other GOP candidates: a congressman, the state's attorney general and its lieutenant governor, said Rich Bolen, chairman of the Lexington County GOP.

"She's doing well, but she's competing with people who have over a million dollars and lots of name recognition," he said.

Haley says she welcomes the challenge. "I've been an underdog all my life," she said. "It's all I know to be."