COLUMBIA — A Democrat could occupy the lieutenant governor’s seat in South Carolina for the first time in two decades if a senator from Kingstree steps forward to take the job.
Sen. Yancey McGill, D-Kingstree, said Thursday that he will decide over the legislative break whether he’s willing to leave his Senate seat of 26 years to step into the state’s No. 2 position. The 61-year-old senator said he’s praying about the decision.
If he decides to proceed, McGill could be elected Senate president pro tem when the Legislature returns for a special session in two weeks. He would then step up to replace Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, who is resigning to take his new job as president of the College of Charleston. Voters elect the next lieutenant governor in November.
“The Lord might be providing an opportunity for something else,” said McGill, No. 6 in Senate seniority. “If I’m led to do it, people will continue to be proud of that office.”
When the session adjourned Thursday, legislators filed by McGill to offer their support, already referring to him as lieutenant governor. A Democrat has not held the seat since 1995, also under a Republican governor. A moderate Democrat, McGill considers himself a fiscal conservative and is chairman of a Senate Finance subcommittee.
The possibility arose a day after Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia, stepped down as Senate president pro tem to ensure he could keep his Senate seat and not be forced to temporarily become lieutenant governor.
McConnell had planned to resign Thursday, but after Courson resigned his position, he decided to hold off, saying he could not leave the state in a constitutional crisis. Without a lieutenant governor or Senate leader, there would be no one authorized in the Senate to sign bills approved by the Legislature. That’s an essential step to sending them to the governor.
McConnell’s new job as president of his alma mater starts July 1.
“I’ve got to go. July 1 is coming very fast, and I’ve got to transition into the college,” McConnell said in his nearly empty Statehouse office, which he said he packed up last week. “However, I’m not going to leave the state in a constitutional crisis, so – very reluctantly – I’ll stay as long as necessary for the ratification of acts.”
If the Senate elects McGill its president pro tem, McConnell will resign then.
Courson repeatedly said he won’t leave his Senate seat to temporarily occupy the state’s No. 2 spot, noting voters will elect McConnell’s replacement in just five months. He said the lieutenant governor’s staff can run the office until the election winner takes over in January. The job’s main duties are presiding over the Senate and overseeing the state Office on Aging.
But McConnell continued Thursday to insist that someone must take over his job in the interim. A lieutenant governor is needed, he said, to provide the governor’s office a budget request for 2015-16 – due in October – provide an accountability report to the Legislature, sign emergency repair orders, and be available to the governor. McConnell said Haley notifies him whenever she leaves the state.
“These are executive functions. You can’t be a legislator and be performing as a member of the executive branch,” McConnell said.
He denied senators’ accusations that his planned departure this week was a political game, aimed at pushing through a bill expanding the College of Charleston. Citing the political wrangling, Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler on Wednesday successfully argued to put a hold on the bill allowing the college to offer advanced degrees. A panel of House and Senate members will attempt over the next two weeks to reach a compromise.
But McConnell said the timing of his decision was because of the opposite reason – to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest over the bill. When a staff member told him people were talking about the potential conflict while he presided over the Senate, he said, he knew he had to go. McConnell has not presided this week.
“Once the issue got raised, I said right then, ‘This is it. I’m out of here,’” McConnell said. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”