COLUMBIA — State Sen. Glenn McConnell stands to become the most influential South Carolina lieutenant governor in modern times, though it’s a job he never wanted.
The Charleston Republican, arguably the state’s most powerful lawmaker, will give up his posts as Senate president pro tem and Judiciary Committee chairman Tuesday, when he is sworn in to a role largely seen as ceremonial.
But his 32 years of experience in the chamber, constitutional knowledge and deep respect from lawmakers of both parties means he’ll truly be the president of the Senate that the constitution describes, veteran political consultant Richard Quinn said.
“Glenn has influence because of who he is, not the title,” Quinn said. “In some ways it’s a higher status. He has such knowledge of the institution, people are going to continue to look to Glenn McConnell for guidance.”
He predicts McConnell will play a larger role in shepherding legislation through the process and publicly weighing in on issues.
McConnell will step into the role reluctantly after Friday’s indictment and guilty plea of former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard for deceiving the public during his 2010 run with fictitious campaign donations and, after winning, using campaign money for personal use.
McConnell could have side-stepped the move, resigning as president pro tem long enough for someone else to become lieutenant governor – as many encouraged him to do. But the 64-year-old attorney chose not to out of a sense of duty to uphold the state constitution and its designated line of succession.
“Public service is public service. Sometimes it calls for sacrifice,” he said Friday. “The higher calling for me is to stand true to my principles. ... It was a hard decision, but for me, I can look at myself in the mirror and say I discharged my duty as the constitution requires.”
The last time the lieutenant governor’s office was vacated, in 1965, then-Senate President Pro Tem Edgar Brown, of Barnwell, simply refused to leave his post, and no one challenged the powerful senator. South Carolina went without a lieutenant governor for two years until the next general election.
A 1977 attorney general’s opinion made clear that the president pro tem must become lieutenant governor if the office is vacated.
“This move will be what Glenn McConnell will be remembered for 25 to 50 years from now,” said Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, who will take over as Judiciary chairman.
The benefit of McConnell’s move is that he’s not really leaving, Martin said, who considers that a relief.
“I’ll have the benefit of his wise counsel without him being too far away,” he said.
Sen. Jake Knotts said it shows McConnell is unlike other politicians who cite the constitution only when it works in their favor. He praised McConnell as someone who brought together not only Democrats and Republicans, but also factions within the same party, and gave concise, logical answers to problems that
could sway members to change their minds.
“He was always fair and a man of integrity,” said Knotts, R-West Columbia. “He brings reality and common sense to the issues.”
Rep. Chip Limehouse said McConnell will bring needed experience to the executive branch.
“I think you will see a paradigm change,” said Limehouse, R-Mount Pleasant. “I think you will see the most stalwart and strong lieutenant governor this state has ever seen before.”
Quinn said the perception of lieutenant governor as a ceremonial figure stems from a lack of serious leadership credentials for many who have sought the position in modern history.
Ard, a former co-owner of a truck body business founded by his father, served two terms on the Florence County Council before becoming lieutenant governor at age 47. His predecessor, Andre Bauer, served seven years in the Legislature before becoming the nation’s youngest lieutenant governor when he took office in 2003 at age 33.
Bauer sought to expand the role, resulting in the Office of Aging being added to the lieutenant governor’s duties. The only other legal duty is to preside over the Senate and vote to break a tie.
Some are pushing McConnell to run for his open Senate seat. If he won, he’d simply resign the post of lieutenant governor and return to the chamber as a senator. McConnell seemed to close that door, saying the constitution calls for the president pro tem to finish the lieutenant governor’s term, which would be 2014.
“I’m not going to try to spin it because of what I would personally like for me,” he told reporters in Columbia.
However, he noted he also took an oath to people of his Senate district and need to hear from them. He did not rule out running for his Senate seat when it comes open in four years.
McConnell’s predicament may clear the way for a measure that lets voters decide whether the governor and lieutenant governor should be elected on the same ticket, akin to the president and vice president. The idea was pushed by former Gov. Mark Sanford as part of his restructuring agenda, and is now pushed by Gov. Nikki Haley.
In South Carolina, the governor and lieutenant governor have very little interaction, and in recent years did not even like one another.
But the proposed constitutional amendment has died repeatedly in the Senate.
McConnell noted Friday he wouldn’t have to step down had the Legislature put the question to voters, and they said yes, because the lieutenant governor would no longer preside over the Senate in that scenario.
“It’s a good model that should be put to the voters of South Carolina,” McConnell said. “Hopefully that reform will go forward, but I have to deal with the constitution as it is today.”