Cindi Ross Scoppe

How Henry McMaster can be the governor South Carolina needs

HENRY McMASTER was not my first choice for attorney general. That was Jon Ozmint, and our editorial board agreed, so I wrote the endorsement.

Mr. McMaster wasn’t my second choice either, or my third — of the four candidates who ran that year.

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It wasn’t that I thought Mr. McMaster would be a bad attorney general; I just thought those other candidates would be better.

Eight months after he won his third straight election over a candidate I had endorsed, I looked up one day and realized that I had forgotten Henry McMaster was our attorney general. Because unlike his predecessor, the king of controversy and self-promotion, he hadn’t been splashing his name across the front page of the newspaper every day; he had just been quietly doing his job. I thought how nice that was, and I said so in a column.

And 15 years after we first met, Henry McMaster and I began having long conversations — in my board room, in his office, in my office, over lunches. (I hate having lunch with sources, but he always made it so hard to say no: “I’ll pick you up in front of your office in 15 minutes,” he’d say when he finally managed to get me on the phone.)

Hard work, tough calls

As I got to know Henry McMaster, I discovered someone who had a deep and abiding respect for the rule of law, and who leaned heavily on the advice of career prosecutors and legal experts in his office. Someone who fixated on rewriting the rules for letting private attorneys file lawsuits in the name of the state, a perennial political problem for attorneys general, to make sure that it was the state that benefited rather than the attorney general’s re-election campaign — and that justice was served.

I discovered someone who worked across party lines to fight criminal domestic violence and made it his cause. Who worked tirelessly with judges, lawmakers and victim advocates developing and promoting a plan to divert first-time, nonviolent offenders to a “middle court” that would mix carrots and sticks to turn them into productive tax-paying citizens — and transform our corrections system from tough on crime to smart on crime.

Most impressively, I discovered the first attorney general I had known who fully appreciated that his job was to defend the constitution, not the government — so much so that he sided with a plaintiff who sued over lawmakers’ dangerous and unconstitutional practice of stringing unrelated matters together in a single bill, even personally arguing in court against the all-powerful Legislature’s attorneys.

It was Mr. McMaster too who laid out the legal roadmap that allowed the Legislature to bypass then-Gov. Mark Sanford’s refusal to accept federal stimulus funds, and sent his assistant to court to defend that approach. He did this because he was asked what the law required and then sued over the resulting law — certainly not because it would help him get to the right of the libertarian governor he hoped to succeed.

Mr. Persistence

Except when it was politically risky, this was quiet, behind-the-scenes work. Work that wasn’t generating headlines, wasn’t winning him any votes. The common thread was a seriousness about public service that we don’t see as often as we used to — or as often as we need to.

So by the time he ran for governor in 2010, I was a full-fledged Henry McMaster fan. Not someone who agreed with him on all the issues; far from it. Someone who respected him. Respects him. Someone who recognizes that he has the qualities our state needs in a governor.

My relationship with Mr. McMaster is a microcosm of South Carolina’s. It was in this same way that he transformed himself over three decades from the butt of Fritz Hollings’ jokes (“I’ll take a drug test if you’ll take an IQ test”) into South Carolina’s 117th governor: slowly, building personal relationships, latching on to dry, mundane issue after dry, mundane issue, doing hard, hardly glamorous work, demonstrating dependability and integrity. And just sticking to it. Persistently.

People who haven’t followed his career as closely as it has been my job to do still joke about him. In their minds, he’s still the cowboy U.S. attorney who landed that position before he developed the gravitas that should accompany it; a goofball Boy Scout, you might say. (He’s still goofy, but in an endearing sort of way.) Someone who was soooo over his head when he tried to unseat Sen. Hollings in 1986. Someone who still carried enough baggage that he couldn’t even defeat Nick Theodore the first time he ran for lieutenant governor — when he had Carroll Campbell at the top of the ticket and a new U.S. attorney exposing the corruption of the state’s political establishment.

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Read my 1990 profiles of Henry McMaster:

‘If you want to throw the rascals out, then throw me in’

‘Aim high, write it down, do it now’

And a column from 2010: Henry McMaster’s boundless optimism

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• • • 

Awful, horrible flashback to the day Henry McMaster became the only politician who has ever made me sick to my stomach. Literally. Twice.

It’s October 1990, and I’m spending a day with Henry McMaster for one of the pair of profiles I’m writing on the candidates for lieutenant governor. We fly to Anderson, where he’s giving a quick lunch speech. Mr. McMaster and the pilot sit up front, and I sit in the back of the single-engine puddle-jumper with Trey Walker, the candidate’s then gofer, today chief of staff.

After a short drive across town, we arrive at the restaurant just in time for me to run to the ladies room and throw up from the bumpy ride.

I splash cold water on my face, slip into the back of the restaurant and take a seat while Henry delivers his speech. Then we’re back on the tiny plane for the trip back to Columbia. The clouds are darkening and the bumps are getting bumpier as we fly over Lake Murray. Trey hands me a paper bag that we are all grateful he found.

Escape from the wilderness

Nick Theodore wouldn’t be the end of Henry McMaster. He was the beginning of the new Henry McMaster. The effervescent optimist who took over as chairman of the state Republican Party and spent a decade building it from the gang that couldn’t even unseat the epitome of an entrenched good ol’ boy in the middle of a federal corruption sting into the party that controlled six of nine constitutional officers. And the House. And the Senate.

Whether this was strategy or serendipity, it was during this decade that Mr. McMaster developed so many of those personal relationships that helped change his public image. And those personal relationships — as much as the hard work and integrity — are what make him an entirely different kind of governor than South Carolina has had through 14 years of Mark Sanford and Nikki Haley.

And just in time.

Whatever their good points — and Gov. Haley had a fair share — our state desperately needs a relationship governor after these 14 years in the wilderness. We desperately need a governor who starts out not just with relationships but with good relationships with legislators, who still hold the power in this state. A governor who doesn’t go out of his way to antagonize legislators. A governor who believes with all of his being that the key to moving our state forward is bringing people together to work collaboratively toward creative solutions to difficult problems.

Because our state needs to move forward, a lot faster than it has. Our state needs to find a way to provide a decent education for all children, and protect those children from abuse and neglect. Our state needs better roads and bridges and dams and cleaner water and air and better health and a better ethics law and a smarter tax system and governmental structure and more and better jobs.

Our state needs to be the kind of place where companies want to locate and expand and provide good-paying jobs and our children and grandchildren will want to live out their lives.

And it can be. With the right kind of leadership.

Not concession, but consensus

We’ve had relationship governors before, back before Nikki Haley and Mark Sanford. A lot of them. And we’ve had stagnation more often than significant progress. The other essential is what a governor does with those relationships: A governor needs to get along with the Legislature — but not go along with the Legislature.

For all of the good instincts and good ideas that some of our legislators have, they can also have some very bad ideas. They can be painfully parochial. They can be unwilling to take on the difficult challenges, much less make the difficult decisions. They need — our state needs — someone with a statewide perspective, and a vision, to lead them. That’s why we have a governor: to provide that leadership.

Ironically, it was Gov. Haley who most recently demonstrated how this can work. On the one occasion when she broke out of her mold — when she worked with legislators instead of against them, treating them as partners instead of punching bags — she asked them to do the hardest thing she ever asked them to do. And they did it: They removed the Confederate flag from the State House grounds.

Our state desperately needs a governor who understands that we can make tremendous progress toward any goal when he makes it a priority and then pounds away at it, day after day, talking with experts and with other leaders, engaging in a free exchange of ideas, reaching a consensus that incorporates the best ideas from across the political spectrum, and then seeing it through.

The opportune time

During all those weeks when it looked like he was about to become our governor, Mr. McMaster wisely avoided talking about what he would do if it really happened. But when he ran for lieutenant governor in 2014, I asked him what his priorities would be if he suddenly found himself moving into the Governor’s Mansion. His answer was sound:

• Ethics reform.

• Comprehensive tax reform (“We’re going to have to have tax reform; one thing here, one thing there doesn’t work”).

• Economic development (“More people working; more people happy”) with significant support from higher education (“We need to get those technical colleges going full blast”).

• Improved public education (“We ought to explore all the options, but a strong public education is the backbone of progress in the state.… We agreed early education was not minimally adequate. It ought to be excellent. It’s got to be better. We’ve got to educate the children. That’s the way out of poverty.”)

He also talked about improving our roads, although all I can tell from my notes is that he spoke highly of House Speaker Jay Lucas’ approach to roads, which is open to interpretation 28 months later but sounds to me like a smart place to start.

During that same conversation, Mr. McMaster lamented the fact that our state is “not meeting our potential, often for the dumbest of reasons” and then channeled former Clemson President Jim Barker’s campaign to drown out the people who keep saying we can’t accomplish anything because we’re such a small, poor state.

“We’ve got strong, smart people, but we’re being held back for no reason other than a lack of leadership, a lack of vision,” Mr. McMaster said. “This is the opportune time to get it right.”

Today, those same challenges remain. Those same opportunities remain. The time remains opportune. And now the moment is Henry Dargan McMaster’s to seize.

Our state awaits his leadership.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571, follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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