COLUMBIA — Former Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell was sworn in Tuesday as South Carolina’s lieutenant governor, as senators praised his legacy of leadership and his decision to leave the job he loves to uphold the state constitution.
Senators then elected Education Committee Chairman John Courson as their new leader, on a 27-17 vote over Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney.
“This is a tremendously high honor. I’m deeply grateful,” said Courson, 67, of Columbia.
He told his colleagues: “I will be fair. I look at it as an institutional position and not a partisan position.”
There is a chance Courson, an insurance executive first elected to the Senate in 1984, could be the next lieutenant governor.
McConnell reluctantly gave up his position as the state’s most powerful lawmaker – as both president pro tempore and Judiciary Committee chairman, with 32 years of seniority – to assume a role largely viewed as ceremonial.
His new oath of office follows a tumultuous Friday in which Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned and pleaded guilty to scheming to deceive the public with campaign fraud.
The constitution calls for the president pro tem to become lieutenant governor if the office is vacated.
McConnell, R-Charleston, said he was under tremendous pressure to sidestep the move, to resign long enough for someone else to assume the duties. But as someone known for reigning in debate with his staunch defense of the constitution, he couldn’t do it.
“The standard I’ve applied to other things now I must apply to myself. Giving it up is indeed a sad moment for me. I’m standing here today a little somber and saddened for what I’m giving up,” he said. “I love this body serving the people of South Carolina. … Even when you know you’re doing the right thing, it doesn’t make the decision easy.”
McConnell, 64, could decide to run for his own open Senate seat. If he won, Courson would become lieutenant governor. McConnell said Tuesday he’s not sure what he’ll do.
He has until March 30, the end of filing, to make that decision. Many are urging him to do so.
For now, he said, he’s concentrating on moving into the lieutenant governor’s offices.
Both McConnell and Courson took their oaths of office from Chief Justice Jean Toal, who said McConnell will be remembered “as a man who upheld the rule of law and abided by the sacred nature of the oath he swore.”
“No matter what the personal cost, his courage, his integrity, his intense sense of duty is unwavering and unapologetic,” she said.
Courson noted both he and McConnell were “Reaganites,” as GOP National Convention delegates for former President Ronald Reagan. Courson said McConnell urged him Friday to run to be his successor.
Senators praised McConnell for his ability to bring sides together.
Sen. Robert Ford, who boasts of his dozens of arrests during the civil rights movement, talked of his “odd couple” close friendship with McConnell. The Charleston Democrat called McConnell one of the most influential people of his life, as someone who helped him see a different perspective.
The two worked together on a compromise that removed the Confederate flag from atop the Statehouse dome in 2000 and put it beside a Confederate monument on the grounds – a location still controversial.
McConnell, well-known as a devoted Civil War re-enactor and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, is not one to worry about political correctness. An attorney who helped build the state’s modern Republican Party for years ran CSA Galleries in North Charleston, which sold Civil War art and memorabilia.
Sen. Gerald Malloy said he didn’t expect to get along with McConnell when he was elected in 2002 but was surprised when McConnell showed him the African-American Monument on Statehouse grounds – a monument resulting from legislation McConnell pushed.
“Here I was getting the answers on African-American history from a senator from Charleston who was said to be a Confederate flag supporter,” said Malloy, D-Hartsville. “He taught us trust. I trust him. I appreciate the tutelage and mentorship but most of all appreciate what he offers this body – the decorum, the deliberative body.”
When the H.L. Hunley was discovered off the South Carolina coast in 1995, McConnell was instrumental in establishing the South Carolina Hunley Commission. He became chairman of the commission, tasked with raising and preserving the sub which was the first in history to sink an enemy warship. The hand-cranked submarine was raised in 2000.
McConnell’s move means he gives up his chairmanship of that commission. He said he worried what that would mean for its future, but those fears were alleviated when Courson assumed his spot. Courson already sits on the commission.
Other shuffling include Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, taking over as the new Judiciary chairman. Sen. Jake Knotts, R-West Columbia, takes Martin’s spot as Senate Rules chairman. And Sen. William O’Dell, R-Ware Shoals, becomes Invitations Committee chairman.