State Rep. Kenny Bingham keeps in his office a copy of a newspaper article touting a program that provides intensive therapy for children with autism.
The Lexington Republican’s name is mentioned nowhere in the article, written years after his push to find state money for the program. But that’s not the point, said Bingham, who is retiring from the S.C. House after this session – his eighth.
“It makes you feel good about the work that you’ve done,” Bingham said. “My name is not in that article. I don’t want my name in that article. But the point is: I know my involvement. I know what happened. I know the back story on it, and those are the types of things that make a big difference.”
Bingham, 53, says he isn’t the type to lean back in his office chair and wax nostalgic about the past 16 years in the House. But his colleagues say the lawmaker will be missed in the State House – and in the Lexington County delegation.
“It’s going to be a tremendous loss in the House,” said House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington. “Kenny is an outstanding House member. There is never anything you give him that he doesn’t give it 110 percent.”
State Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, agreed.
“He is so diligent on all of the legislation he worked on. He never was in a situation where he got up on that podium and didn’t know what he was going to do and was 100 percent honest about it.”
Bingham said he needs a break – he doesn’t like the word “retire” – after more than two decades in public office, starting on the Cayce Planning Commission and Lexington 2 school board. As a House member, Bingham was known for working long hours, including weekends, and pushing to reform state agencies and K-12 education.
Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, called Bingham’s departure a “huge loss for South Carolina.”
“One of the most tireless, fearless, conscientious advocates in the chamber,” Smith said. “He’s devoted to the people of South Carolina and gave everything he had every day of his service. There are just too few Kenny Binghams in the House and in the Senate.”
Bingham, who chaired the House Ethics Committee and a budget-writing subcommittee on public education, said he has given little thought to what comes next, other than spending more time with his family and working at his engineering business.
“I don’t like a lot of free time,” Bingham said. “I don’t like a lot of down time. I am pretty much a Type-A individual in terms of getting things done. I am organized. I’m a planner.”
Fellow lawmakers attest to that.
Some credit the former House majority leader with restructuring and restoring public trust in the House Ethics Committee. Scarred by the spending scandal that ensnared former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, that committee now conducts voluntary audits of House members’ spending and is in the process of starting random audits.
“His brand of leadership helped bring that group together and stay focused on the mission of arriving where we are today,” said Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, who is on the Ethics Committee. “His straightforward message, his straightforward approach and his integrity as chairman of that committee has helped put the perception of impropriety to rest.”
Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland, said she looked up to Bingham as a freshman House member, trying to emulate the traits that made him an effective leader.
“He’s well prepared. He uses a lot of reasoning. He’s not quick to make a judgment. He’s well thought out, and he listens to all opinions and takes it into consideration,” said Bernstein, who is on the Ethics Committee. “As a chair of a committee, that means something.”
Bingham’s ability to work with Lexington County Council to push local bills and projects through the Legislature also made him valuable, said state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington. Bingham sponsored tax-break exemptions that helped lure a new Amazon distribution center to Cayce in 2011.
“He’s been here long enough that he knew all the players, and I think it helped,” Shealy said.
Lawmakers say they will miss a legislator who always gave his best effort, fought for issues he cared about and seldom, if ever, became angry.
But Bingham said they likely haven’t seen the last of him.
“Whatever door opens, that’s the one I’m going to walk through next,” said Bingham. “I’ll always be involved in public service, but I don’t have to be elected to do public service.”
Sen. Joel Lourie’s farewell speech
Joel Lourie’s last speech before the state Senate started with a call for unity and ended with a roast.
The Richland Democrat filled the Senate chamber with laughter as he called out fellow senators.
State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, for example, caught flak for his habit of wearing a tan suit that made him look “like a stale banana.”
To Democratic state Sens. Ronnie Sabb of Williamsburg and Thomas McElveen of Sumter: “Ronnie, you’re like a great bottle of wine. You get better with age. ... Thomas, not so much.”
To conservative firebrand Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg: “I came into this chamber as a Jewish, pro-choice Democrat. I am leaving this chamber as a Jewish, pro-choice Democrat. But I appreciate you trying to change me on both.”
As Lourie recalled his proudest legislative accomplishments – including passing a seat-belt law, Emma’s Law, and a cigarette tax hike – he noted all required bipartisan cooperation.
"The common denominators on all of these issues were us coming together as Democrats and Republicans, and working together for the betterment of this state,” he said.