I WAS WATCHING the Vincent Sheheen Show last week — also known as the gas-tax conference committee, which he was chairing — when I recalled a conversation I recently had with Sen. Sheheen.
We were talking about the role reversal in the past couple of years — the House now acting as the responsible, eat-your-spinach body while the Senate engages in self-indulgent, anti-government orgies. And he offered an explanation that was almost too simple to take seriously — except that it has such a strong ring of truth to it:
“It’s because you’ve got these guys in the House leadership who come from small towns, where everybody has to work together,” the Camden attorney said. The everybody-knows-everybody culture of small-town life doesn’t lend itself to the same sort of partisanship we see in larger communities, he argues, noting that “When I go talk to (House Speaker) Jay Lucas, he doesn’t care that I’m a Democrat.”
Truth be told, Mr. Sheheen might be an even more dramatic example of the pragmatic influence of small-town legislators. In a Legislature dominated by Republicans, the two-time Democratic gubernatorial nominee has played a leading role in what could become the two most important accomplishments of this session, co-chairing not only the conference committee that negotiated the gas-tax compromise but also the special joint committee that developed the pension reform plan that Gov. Henry McMaster signed into law last month.
But hold that thought for a moment, and let’s explore his premise first. Because I think it’s a useful way to understand what could become — if it holds — one of the most important legislative transformations in recent decades. Right up there with the Republicans’ takeover of the House back in 1994 and the growing influence those anti-government extremists are having on the Senate.
Everybody noticed when, practically overnight, we went from having Charlestonians in charge of the House and the Senate (and the governor’s mansion) to having the House and Senate controlled by Pee Dee lawmakers: Florence Sen. Hugh Leatherman as president pro tempore and Finance Committee chairman and Hartsville’s Mr. Lucas as speaker.
Less noted was the fact that the House leadership team was rounded out by Judiciary Committee Chairman Greg Delleney of Chester, Ways and Means Chairman Brian White of Anderson, Speaker Pro Tem Tommy Pope of York and House Republican Leader Gary Simrill of Rock Hill.
Granted, Rock Hill is more a Charlotte suburb than a small town, and Anderson is no Hartsville, though Mr. Sheheen insists that Mr. White was shaped by life in what was then small-town Anderson. And Reps. Delleney and White held their positions before Mr. Lucas became speaker in 2014. For that matter, it’s easy to focus on fiscal issues and forget that the House has hardly become a paragon of pragmatism. See, for example, those crazy gun bills it keeps passing.
But the geographical shift that culminated with Mr. Lucas’ ascension is unquestionable, and dramatic in a state whose population is moving so quickly in the opposite direction. And those fiscal matters on which the House is acting like the Senate used to act are the difference between a body that stands up and faces its obligations — either you raise taxes or else you make painful cuts — and, oh, Congress.
Now, about Mr. Sheheen, who suddenly seems to be the linchpen on every major issue at the State House. Bringing Democrats and Republicans together is nothing new for him; he started forming partnerships with Republican representatives even before he was sworn in as a freshman House member in 2000 and never slowed down. But more often than not those partnerships didn’t produce results.
And there was a time there, after his back-to-back losses to Nikki Haley for governor, when he become extremely disillusioned; it was worrisome, as was the impression I got that he was becoming less of a pragmatic moderate and more of an angry partisan.
Sometime during that period, I’m told, an insider who recognized both his potential and his frustrations suggested that he consider the career of Mr. Leatherman: 31 years ago, Hugh Leatherman ran for the Democratic nomination for governor and got clobbered, finishing fourth in a four-man field with just 8.5 percent of the vote.
But he didn’t go away. He stayed in the Senate. He became one of the conservative renegades challenging the old-guard Democratic leadership. And he worked his way up. And now a new breed of conservatives think of him as the devil incarnate, because the political pendulum has swung so far that he is no longer very far on the conservative side of center — if at all — and he holds tremendous power. Probably more than any other elected official in the state.
I doubt the same sort of transformation could occur for Mr. Sheheen, but at some point after that conversation, he clearly recognized that he didn’t have to be governor to be a force for good. If he would focus on finding solutions instead of making problems, he could use his own small-town talents to become an indispensable negotiator — a bridge not only between Democrats and Republicans but between the House and the Senate.
It could turn out that, with those same sorts of pragmatic grown-ups settling into power in the House, this was the year he slipped comfortably into that new role.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.