COLUMBIA — South Carolina has a Democrat in the lieutenant governor’s office for the first time in two decades.
Senators unanimously decided Wednesday to make Democratic Sen. Yancey McGill of Kingstree the Senate’s next president pro tem. He occupied that position only long enough for Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell to turn in his resignation. At that point, he replaced McConnell under the constitutional line of succession. McGill’s two swearing-in ceremonies were minutes apart.
Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, was then elected the Senate’s next president pro tem, though not without protest. The leadership role has been vacant since Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia, stepped down two weeks ago.
The 42-2 vote followed criticism from GOP Sen. Shane Massey that Leatherman already has too much power. He not only controls the state’s purse strings as chairman of the Senate’s budget-writing committee but also sits on various state financial oversight boards.
Leatherman “may very well be the most powerful elected official in the state, and now we’re about to add to that the power of president pro tem,” said Massey, R-Edgefield, stunning his colleagues in a chamber that takes pride in remaining polite even during debates. “It is way too much power to put in the hands of any one legislator and everyone knows that. It’s dangerous.”
Massey also faulted Leatherman for crafting budgets through a secretive, back-room process – particularly this year, when Leatherman negotiated the chambers’ budget compromise with the chairman of the House’s budget-writing committee, skipping the typical panel of House and Senate members.
“I can’t help but feel we’re moving back to a time long past when very few had input into the decisions being made,” Massey said.
Leatherman, second in seniority, has been a senator since 1981. The 83-year-old Republican did not address Massey’s comments but pledged to improve decorum.
“I will treat all of you with respect and fairness. To me, that’s the thing that makes the South Carolina Senate what it is,” he said after being sworn in.
McGill volunteered to become temporary lieutenant governor after other legislative leaders were unwilling.
McGill, who ranked No. 6 in seniority as a 26-year veteran of the Senate, will remain lieutenant governor until January, when the winner of November’s election will replace him. The last Democratic lieutenant governor left the office in January 1995.
GOP Sen. Luke Rankin of Conway nominated McGill for the temporary job.
“We have the opportunity and pleasure of elevating a person who knows state government, who has a heart for all people – black, white, child, adult or senior – who has a heart for doing what’s right,” Rankin said. “McGill can lead and will lead us with a great heart.”
Rankin noted he was a page for McGill’s father, Frank McGill, who served in the Senate from 1977 until his death in 1988. Yancey McGill, former mayor of Kingstree, was then elected to his father’s seat. A moderate Democrat, McGill chaired a Senate Finance subcommittee and considers himself a fiscal conservative.
Courson resigned as president pro tem two weeks ago in order to keep his Senate seat and not be forced to temporarily become lieutenant governor. Courson previously contended the lieutenant governor’s spot could go unfilled until January.
Massey said he’s convinced Courson was forced out because he stood in the way of a bill that would expand the College of Charleston to research university status. Courson, chairman of the Education Committee, protested the bill going straight to a floor vote, saying it should first be vetted by his committee.
“All of this was a not-so-veiled hit on Sen. Courson because he dared say no,” Massey said. With Wednesday’s vote, “I think this body sanctions the coup.”
Courson characterized the College of Charleston bill as the catalyst for why he had to step down as pro tem, a position he’d held since 2012.
“If I had let it go, I would not have had to resign,” he said.