Politics & Government

From Reagan to Trump to a war on drugs, what you need to know about Henry McMaster

In and around S.C. politics for decades, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has served as U.S. attorney, S.C. attorney general and chairman of South Carolina’s Republican Party.

The 71-year-old former lieutenant governor, who became governor in 2017 with Nikki Haley’s confirmation as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wants to position the state for an economic explosion. He promises lower taxes, fewer regulations and a leaner, more efficient state government.

McMaster is seeking his first full term as governor. He faces state Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, in the Nov. 6 election.

Here’s what else you should know about the Republican incumbent:

He’s been in the public eye for decades. McMaster graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1973 and went on to work for the late U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond. He was appointed U.S. attorney for South Carolina by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. He won the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1986 but lost to incumbent Democrat Fritz Hollings. In a debate between the two, Hollings famously told McMaster he would take a drug test — as McMaster challenged — if his Republican opponent would take an IQ test.

McMaster then was defeated in the 1990 lieutenant governor’s race by Democrat Nick Theodore. He chaired the South Carolina Republican Party from 1993 to 2002, when he resigned to successfully run for S.C. attorney general. He was re-elected in 2006 and ran for governor in 2010 but was defeated by Haley in the Republican primary. He was elected as lieutenant governor of the state in 2014.

Young Henry Dargan McMaster with President Ronald Reagan, who appointed him U.S. Attorney in 1981 at the recommendation of Sen. Strom Thurmond. McMaster coordinated the Operation Jackpot investigation and prosecution, with an investigative task force formally formed in 1982. Gov. Henry McMaster’s web page

He comes from a well-known family. McMaster’s family is widely known in Columbia and has long-standing roots around town. The second oldest of six brothers, McMaster attended A.C. Flora High School for two years before transferring to a North Carolina prep school. His father, John Gregg McMaster, served in the state House of Representatives.

He led an early war on drugs. McMaster, as the state’s top federal prosecutor, oversaw “Operation Jackpot,” an $850 million drug-smuggling saga that rocked the South Carolina Lowcountry in the early 1980s. The high-profile anti-drug campaign resulted in more than 100 convictions. The federal investigation launched McMaster’s public career as a young, ambitious U.S. attorney.

Then U.S. Attorney Henry Dargan McMaster at a news conference showing cash confiscated in the Operation Jackpot investigation in the early 1980s. Only the Best :-)) Courtesy of Jason Ryan

He’s an avid Trump supporter. McMaster was the country’s first statewide officeholder to endorse Donald Trump’s successful 2016 presidential bid. He leaned heavily on his close relationship to the president to prevail in a primary runoff to secure the GOP nomination for governor earlier this year.

Democrats and others, though, argue the S.C. governor has little to show for his close relationship with the president — especially on important issues like offshore drilling, tariffs and nuclear waste disposal.

McMaster insists his relationship with Trump has helped the state. He has cited South Carolina getting $49 million from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deepen the Charleston Harbor to increase cargo capacity at the Port of Charleston. And McMaster worked with the state’s congressional delegation to get an exemption from Trump’s tariffs for Fairfield County TV-maker Element Electronics.

President Donald Trump, right, listens as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster speaks at Airport High School on Monday, June 25, 2018, in West Columbia, South Carolina. (Tracy Glantz/The State) Tracy Glantz kmartin@thestate.com

He was one of the first attorneys general to sue over Obamacare. As S.C. attorney general, McMaster helped lead a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, after its passage. McMaster joined his counterparts in roughly 20 other states in suing to strike down the law as unconstitutional.

He oversaw GOP takeover of the General Assembly. As state GOP chairman, McMaster led the party to Republican majorities in South Carolina’s House and Senate. Some at the time blamed McMaster for allowing the state party to fall $276,000 in debt. McMaster told The State in 2002 he chose to put the party’s funds into winning elections first, and paying bills second.

He’s been dogged, but not defeated, by link to indicted political consultant. McMaster has been slammed by his opponents for his relationship with his longtime, former political consultant, Richard Quinn, who was indicted in the State House corruption probe. The charges against Quinn later were dropped as part of a plea deal with Quinn’s son.

McMaster has said he had no involvement in the pay-for-influence schemes in the General Assembly alleged by a state grand jury. He also has backed strengthening the state’s ethics laws.

Two Republican prosecutors who have worked on the investigation endorsed McMaster, vouching for his honesty.

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Richard Quinn Sr. watches the hearing Tuesday to get solicitor David Pascoe disqualified from the prosecution of his son, Rep. Rick Quinn. Tim Dominick / tdominick@thestate.com

He’s a major landlord. McMaster and his wife own 20 rental properties in downtown Columbia, which they largely rent to University of South Carolina students. The governor earned $322,292 in income from those rental properties in 2016, according to his tax returns. Rental income he reported in 2017 was not immediately available.

McMaster, in Thursday’s debate, was knocked over the rundown condition of some of his properties.

“Students act like students … They break a lot of things, and we fix them as fast as we can,” McMaster said in Thursday’s debate, arguing photos published by the Charleston paper showed “things under renovation now.”

He’s a member of Forest Lake Country Club. The governor has been a member of the exclusive formerly all-white club for more than three decades. He has repeatedly refused calls to give up his membership.

McMaster declined to renounce his membership in 2014, when then-Democratic state Rep. Bakari Sellers, now a CNN commentator, brought the issue up in their race for lieutenant governor. S.C. voters seemingly didn’t care. McMaster handily defeated Sellers.

He’s a bulldog lover. The only person more famous than McMaster in the governor’s mansion has to be his English bulldog Little Mac. As a child, McMaster grew up with five bulldogs. He said his first memory in life is crawling to the porch and riding atop the family’s bulldog, playfully biting it on the back of the neck and getting a mouthful of hair.

The only breed of dog ever owned by Governor Henry McMaster is the English Bulldog. His current dog, Mac, lives in the Governor's mansion. Tracy Glantz tglantz@thestate.com
Tom Barton: 803-771-8304, @tjbarton83
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