Cindi Ross Scoppe

Henry McMaster and the art of disagreeing without being disagreeable

SC Gov Henry McMaster joins House Speaker Jay Lucas, Rep Gilda Cobb-Hunter and Chief Justice Don Beatty along with and other state leaders at the funeral of state Rep. Joe Neal in February.
SC Gov Henry McMaster joins House Speaker Jay Lucas, Rep Gilda Cobb-Hunter and Chief Justice Don Beatty along with and other state leaders at the funeral of state Rep. Joe Neal in February.

THE MOST telling thing about our still-new governor came after the veto promises and the actual veto and after the quick and easy override of that veto. It came when reporters asked Gov. Henry McMaster’s office about those legislators who got up on the House floor and denounced him for playing politics, for mischaracterizing the facts, for ignoring the state’s needs, for not being a leader.

“For the governor, this is a simple policy disagreement,” spokesman Brian Symmes said of the bill to raise the gas tax and several road-related fees to pay for road improvements. “He doesn’t believe that raising taxes is the best way to address government’s inefficiencies.”

It’s one thing for a governor and legislators to get along when they agree on everything, or even when they disagree on minor issues. It’s another thing — a thing South Carolinians haven’t seen in more than 14 years — for them to be able to work together after the governor vetoes the Legislature’s signature legislation. And legislators deliver withering criticisms of the governor.

Mr. McMaster’s muted response to the criticism is just the most public display of how important he considers his relationship with the Legislature. And that attitude is why lawmakers I talked to last week were confident that the honeymoon is not over, that they will be able to work in partnership with the governor going forward.

Four days before he fulfilled his promise to veto the roads bill, Mr. McMaster told The State’s Jamie Self: “I’ve taken a very strong stand on it. You cannot get any stronger than a veto.”

Actually, you can. As governor, you can whip your supporters into a frenzy, with a constant stream of anti-gas-tax, anti-Legislature posts on social media. You can call on those supporters to flood the phone lines and inboxes of legislators, demanding that they 1) vote against the bill to start with and 2) vote to sustain the veto. You can threaten to campaign against legislators who vote to override.

Gov. McMaster did speak out, for more than a month, in opposition to raising the gas tax. He wrote a forceful guest column for The State and posted statements on his Facebook page spelling out his reasoning. But while he played fast and loose with the numbers, his argument was dispassionate. Even the video he shot announcing his veto stuck to that argument. This was about state policy, not about personal victory. No calling legislators corrupt or (worse) liberal. No attacking individual legislators.

It was, in short, the sort of battle you would expect from a person who understands that burning bridges is no way to accomplish anything.


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As a result, we didn’t see the explosive anger in the State House that we saw that time Gov. Mark Sanford vetoed the entire state budget. Or when he hauled the defecating piglets up the steps for a news conference outside the entrance to the House to denounce pork-barrel spending. Or when Gov. Nikki Haley suggested that members of an industry trade group would need a “good shower” after visiting the State House.

Lawmakers seemed more disappointed than angered by Mr. McMaster’s veto. House Speaker Jay Lucas did deliver some stinging criticism of the governor in his speech calling on representatives to override the veto. But it was leavened by kind words, and he concluded his remarks by saying, “Let’s vote” — a clear signal that he didn’t want the body wallowing in anti-McMaster speechifying.

A handful of House members missed that cue and followed with their own critical speeches, which for a time made it look as though the chamber was overflowing with animosity. It wasn’t. The bill’s supporters recognized, as one legislative leader told me, that Mr. McMaster could have made it a lot harder to override his veto.

The bill’s opponents recognized that too, and were not so appreciative of the restraint. Sen. Tom Davis’ statement in the Senate Journal explaining his vote to sustain the veto was nearly as critical of the governor as of the bill, accusing him of issuing a “drive-by veto.”

Sen. Davis complained that the governor didn’t lobby legislators to support his veto and, in his mind worse, “did not provide those of us willing to fight for taxpayers with the chance to do so in his absence; he simply ‘checked the box’ by vetoing the bill as quickly as possible and returning it to the General Assembly for an equally quick override, even though I and other reform-minded legislators asked him to delay issuing his veto so that we had a full two weeks to rally support for it being sustained.”

Mr. Davis said he was confident that extra time would have been enough to pick up the three votes needed to sustain the veto. And a House leader told me that several Republican supporters “would have withered under the attacks” and voted to sustain the veto if Ms. Haley had still been governor.

What that suggests is that while Mr. McMaster is willing to use the traditional tools a governor has to defeat a bill, he recognizes that there is more to being governor than passing or defeating any one bill. If so, that’s encouraging.

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