Politics & Government

Why city leaders say SC Gov. McMaster’s win is a ‘revolutionary’ boost for Columbia

SC Gov. Henry McMaster makes a promise to South Carolina

SC Gov. Henry McMaster beat Democratic nominee state Rep. James Smith to win the 2018 gubernatorial election Tuesday Nov. 6, 2018.
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SC Gov. Henry McMaster beat Democratic nominee state Rep. James Smith to win the 2018 gubernatorial election Tuesday Nov. 6, 2018.

For the first time in more than a century, Columbia will have a homegrown son — rather than an adopted outsider — in the S.C. Governor’s Mansion.

That could give Richland County a political and economic boost in the Palmetto State, local leaders say.

“It’s huge,” former longtime Columbia mayor Bob Coble said. “We’ve seen governors from the Upstate (and) governors from the Lowcountry,” but few from the Midlands in modern history.

Republican incumbent Henry McMaster — Columbia-born and -bred, and a fixture in the city for decades — secured his first full term in office Tuesday over fellow Columbia native, Democratic state Rep. James Smith.

The 71-year-old former lieutenant governor became governor in 2017 when then-Gov. Nikki Haley resigned to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Haley was born and raised in Bamberg but lived in nearby Lexington before her election.

Richland County natives have been S.C. governors before.

Democrat Duncan Clinch Heyward, born in Richland County in 1864, served two terms as governor from 1903 to 1907. Prior to that, James Hopkins Adams, also a Democrat from Richland County, served as governor from 1854 to 1856. Democrat James Henry Hammond, born in Columbia in 1807, was governor from 1842 to 1844.

“Having a governor from the Columbia area is revolutionary,” said Columbia public relations consultant Bob McAlister, a McMaster supporter who was a top aide to then-GOP Gov. Carroll Campbell, a Greenville native, in the 1990s.

“And with that comes, essentially, a signal that the Midlands belongs in the same conversation as the Lowcountry and Upstate as a political power to be dealt with,” McAlister said. “(Since the 1970s) the Midlands was known as a lesser political force because we weren’t seen as being a cohesive element.”

Compared to the Upstate’s social conservatives and the Lowcountry’s libertarians, the Midlands is more diverse and fractious. Richland County, the largest in the Midlands, is solidly Democratic and very diverse; neighboring Lexington County, the second largest, is solidly Republican and less so. And, at times, both counties have been quite willing to point out the shortcomings — perceived or real — of the other.

“There’s something about a community’s identity and community pride having a governor for the first time in 100 years,” McAlister said. “And, maybe, with that will come more cooperation across the river, both ways, because the opportunity might be a little bit better for the Midlands to be able to expand in a way economically that maybe hasn’t been available in the past.”

Having a governor — like McMaster — who has been a successful in attracting private investment into the state who also is familiar with Columbia and its selling points — including the University of South Carolina — bodes well for positioning the Midlands to attract new business, particularly high-tech research and development jobs, McAlister said.

Other S.C. governors certainly have sold their regions in the past.

BMW parked in Campbell’s Upstate in the 1990s, for example. And Boeing landed in Charleston County while Mark Sanford was governor.

However, McMaster’s “legacy will be created by the fairness and honesty he extends to all 46 (S.C.) counties,” Carl Blackstone, chief executive officer of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement.

McMaster already is promising goodies to other areas of the state, promising the Grand Strand that Interstate 73 will be built — at a cost of billions — and Charleston County that Interstate 526 will be extended — costing hundreds of million.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, a Democrat, said he looks forward to working with Republican McMaster.

“Carroll Campbell was prolific in economic development …. and that benefited the Upstate significantly,” Benjamin said. “Mark Sanford ... brought a great deal of attention and resources to the Lowcountry (such as Boeing). Having a governor from Columbia, with a strong relationship with the president of the United States, I hope would inure to the benefit of the people of the Midlands.”

For example, Benjamin would like McMaster’s help to securing federal money to repair the Columbia canal, the main source of drinking water for 188,000 people in the Capital City. Damaged during the 2015 flood, city officials continue to lobby the Federal Emergency Management Agency for money to pay for permanent repairs, estimated to cost $169 million.

“Governor McMaster is proud to represent all of South Carolina,” McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said. “He will continue to work tirelessly to take advantage of the tremendous momentum South Carolina’s economy is experiencing, and recruit jobs and capital investment to every region, county and city in the state.

“The governor will continue to work with local officials across the state, as he has in the case of the Columbia canal, to develop solutions to the issues they may face.”

Tom Barton: 803-771-8304, @tjbarton83