Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster is in line to become governor by early next year – and if that happens, he would bring a notably different style as the state’s top elected leader.
A veteran of South Carolina politics since the early 1980s, the former attorney general is well known for a friendly, easygoing demeanor that both critics and supporters say likely would help him in dealing with the state Legislature on highly charged issues, such as a new roads bill.
McMaster, the country’s first statewide officeholder to endorse President-elect Donald Trump, has long been interested in becoming governor. Trump’s appointment of Gov. Nikki Haley as United Nations ambassador paves the way for that.
“He’ll be a terrific governor,” said former Republican Attorney General Charlie Condon. “He is a consensus builder, while remaining true to his principles – which are conservative.”
Haley has been widely praised on an array of fronts, ranging from economic development to her handling of Hurricane Matthew and the Confederate flag, which she pushed successfully to remove from the capitol grounds.
“I think it’s a win-win,” said Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, who served as the state director of Trump’s campaign during the primary.
“The (Trump) administration gets a highly dedicated, experienced and energetic ambassador; a person who will be, basically, ambassador to the world,” Merrill said. “And South Carolina gets a new governor who is not only experienced and prepared for the job, but also happens to be good friends with the new president of the United States.”
Haley, at times, approached the Legislature with an edgier style than the 69-year-old McMaster would, several lawmakers and political observers said. She has been criticized as quick to blast those who don’t agree with her.
Retiring state Sen. Joel Lourie, a Democrat who often clashed with Haley, said McMaster has a history of listening to others.
“When he was attorney general, he was very accessible and easy to talk to,” said Lourie, who grew up in the same area of Columbia as McMaster and has known him for years. “He has always appeared open to pragmatism, open to hearing both sides of an issue.”
Rep. Joe Neal, also a Columbia Democrat, said he has been impressed with some things McMaster has done through the years. As attorney general, he took positions that were friendly toward the environment, Neal said. McMaster surprised some African-Americans by showing up at an event at a historically black college several years ago, Neal said.
J.T. McLawhorn, who heads the Urban League in Columbia, said he has political differences with McMaster but likes him and believes he would do well as governor. McMaster, while attorney general, was an impressive speaker at a Martin Luther King Day breakfast the Urban League was involved with, McLawhorn said.
“I’ve been able to find common ground with him,” McLawhorn said.
McMaster, whose family has long-standing roots in Columbia and is one of the most well-known politicians in the state, was unavailable for comment. Assuming Haley is confirmed as U.N. ambassador by the U.S. Senate, he would become governor unless McMaster took a job in the Trump administration.
McMaster issued a statement through a spokeswoman praising Haley for being named ambassador to the U.N. But the early supporter of Donald Trump’s bid for president did not address becoming governor.
State Sen. John Courson, a Columbia Republican, said McMaster has told him he would accept the governor’s job if it became vacant. Courson had lunch Tuesday with McMaster and said nothing discussed during the meal indicated he would not take the job.
Moving into the governor’s mansion potentially would give McMaster an advantage in his expected run for a full-term as governor in 2018.
ON THE TABLE
In replacing Haley as governor, McMaster would have plenty to deal with next year – particularly whether South Carolina will raise taxes to fix its battered road system.
Many legislators have been pushing for a gasoline tax increase to fund road improvements, but Haley resisted the plan unless it included an offsetting tax increase.
The state also must wrestle with how to pay for billions of dollars in pension system debt as well as deal with the budget. Hurricane Matthew, which slammed the state in October, will create financial challenges in the upcoming budget, as will wildfires that have prompted state efforts to contain the blazes.
Many interviewed Wednesday about McMaster said that he’s unlikely to shift political direction very far from the conservative agenda Haley set as governor. He is considered a mainstream Republican, but McMaster also is a party loyalist and champion of GOP candidates.
Still, some of his work as attorney general could provide a glimpse of issues McMaster might view as important while governor.
One of those is the environment.
As attorney general for eight years, he blasted state regulators in 2007 for keeping a nuclear waste dump’s pollution records secret; sued North Carolina over water rights along the shared Catawba River; pushed to toughen prosecution of criminal polluters; and issued a legal opinion that protected salt marsh islands from unchecked development.
Late last year as lieutenant governor, McMaster also broke with many Republicans – including Haley – in opposing oil drilling off the South Carolina coast. The Obama administration later abandoned the plan amid an outcry from coastal governments that said the oil industry could pollute the ocean and hurt tourism. But plans to drill for oil along the South Atlantic could resurface under Trump, based on the president-elect’s campaign statements.
Haley, who pushed an economic development agenda, generally was viewed as indifferent on environmental issues.
“I don’t see Henry making drastic changes” from Haley’s agenda, said Ann Timberlake, a longtime acquaintance of McMaster’s who recently retired as director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina. “But we already have a relationship with Henry. We just feel a little more connected.”
McMaster, as attorney general, also has been interested in cracking down on domestic violence in a state with a history of problems. He unveiled a plan in 2003 that encouraged private lawyers to volunteer as prosecutors in domestic violence cases in magistrate court, where many cases were heard at the time and prosecuted by police officers. The effort didn’t change the state’s reputation as a haven for domestic violence, but he drew praise for the effort.
In addition, McMaster championed the creation of a task force that tackled internet crimes against children, said Laura Hudson, one of the state’s staunchest crime victims advocates.
“I guess Henry’s greatest gift is his ability to work with everybody.” Hudson said. “I fully expect him to use the bully pulpit for criminal domestic violence and crime victims’ issues.”
A PARTY REGULAR
McMaster has extensive experience in the law and in Republican Party politics.
After working in his family’s legal practice, McMaster served as U.S. attorney for South Carolina under GOP President Ronald Reagan. He was Reagan’s first U.S. attorney appointment. While serving as U.S. Attorney in the early 1980s, McMaster headed the “Operation Jackpot” investigation that sent rings of coastal drug smugglers to prison.
He later headed the state Republican Party, worked as a fund-raiser for the University of South Carolina and served on the State Ports Authority board. He was elected state Attorney General in 2002 and lieutenant governor in 2014.
McMaster has in the past been involved in some controversies, including presiding over the state Republican Party when its bank account ran in the red. Some Republicans blamed McMaster for allowing the state party to fall $276,000 in debt while he was the leader. McMaster told The State in 2002 that he chose to put the party’s funds into winning elections first, then paying bills later.
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.
He and his wife, Peggy, have two grown children and live near the USC campus, where McMaster graduated in 1969. His father, John Gregg McMaster, served in the state House of Representatives.