Cindi Ross Scoppe

First Wes Hayes, now Larry Martin: a Senate diminished

If there was an important meeting in the SC Senate in the past decade, Sen Larry Martin was in the middle of it.
If there was an important meeting in the SC Senate in the past decade, Sen Larry Martin was in the middle of it. tdominick@thestate.com

IT’S HARD TO think of a smart reform the Legislature has passed in the past decade that hasn’t had Larry Martin’s fingerprints all over it.

It was the Pickens County Republican’s tenacity and determination that brought ethics reforms back from the dead this year, and got us the income-source reporting and independent investigations of legislators that his fellow senators seemed to have killed last year, and the year before that, and the year before that.

And although he had to accept some crippling amendments, it was Sen. Martin who pushed legislation through the anti-reform Senate to wrest appointment power of the state Transportation Commission away from small groups of legislators and give it to the governor.

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When the video gambling industry threatened to make a comeback early in this decade, it was Sen. Martin who outsmarted opponents and muscled through the bill to stop it. It was Sen. Martin who fought repeatedly to strengthen our anemic DUI law. Sen. Martin who shepherded legislation to fix a problem in our State Grand Jury law that had nearly allowed a judge to shut down the corruption investigation of then-House Speaker Bobby Harrell.

Sen. Martin was key to passage of bills to let gubernatorial candidates pick their running mates and control the state’s central administrative agency. He engineered a rules change to reduce the power of the single-senator veto. (It didn’t work, but it’s the only serious attempt anyone has made.)

He spearheaded this year’s effort — killed by a House horse-trading deal gone awry — to make police obey the law that requires them to release videos of police shootings. In fact, he has been a consistent supporter of an array of efforts to make more public information available and accessible to the public.

And in Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff, people who claim to be the real reformers, the real conservatives — yes, those are opposites, but in this state in today’s tongue, they often refer to overlapping constituencies — took him out. They replaced him with a former House member whose accomplishments couldn’t fill a thimble to Sen. Martin’s overflowing cup.

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Sen. Martin’s biggest problem was the gun crazies who had been gunning for him for five years. By “gun crazies” I do not mean people who wanted to carry their concealed weapons into bars; Sen. Martin helped them pass that ridiculous law. Nor do I mean those who believe untrained Georgians should be able to carry their concealed weapons into our state; Sen. Martin helped pass that ridiculous law. Nor do I mean those who support the right of criminals to buy guns if the feds can’t prove their criminality within five days; Sen. Martin is the reason that change wasn’t even considered.

No, by “gun crazies” I mean the people who were outraged because he supported letting judges temporarily take guns away from wife abusers and killers, as part of their punishment.

I mean the people who were incensed because they never could enlist Sen. Martin’s aid in their quest to carry any sort of guns they want anywhere they want, with no background check or license or other regulations. (They like to call this “constitutional carry,” which is masterfully Orwellian since, if the Constitution actually promised it, they wouldn’t need a law.)

Gov. Nikki Haley said she wanted to use this year’s Republican primaries to change the Senate, and boy did she succeed. Just not in a way that will benefit her, or any of the less ideologically reform-minded among us. We should be grateful that Sen. Martin was able to push through some ethics reforms this year, because the governor pretty much guaranteed us a 2017 Senate that wouldn’t pass them. The good senator will be replaced as Judiciary chairman by Sen. Luke Rankin, who was no fan of ethics reforms or of dismantling the parochial Transportation Commission. No doubt he is even less of a fan since the governor employed her out-of-state cash to try to take him out in the primary.

Of course she failed, just as she failed to take out Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, who likewise opposed those reforms.

Gov. Haley did support the effort to get rid of one of the most disruptive senators, the guns-and-bathrooms fetishist Lee Bright, although it’s unclear how much if any credit she deserves for that. Her only clear win was defeating Mr. Ethics, York County Sen. Wes Hayes, who was on her side far more often than not and whom she seems to have targeted so she could claim one victory.

Losing Sen. Hayes hurts our state almost as much as losing Sen. Martin — and I can’t help wondering what would have happened if instead of fixating on her enemies list, Ms. Haley had put some serious effort into saving one of her best friends. That would be Sen. Martin.

What’s clear is that the two most powerful committees in the Senate now will be chaired by the two men the governor tried hardest to defeat. Somehow, I doubt they will be as noble about that as Sen. Hayes, who spent the day after his loss convincing his colleagues to pass the ethics measures she had championed.

The governor deserves every bit of their wrath. The rest of us do not.

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

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