COLUMBIA - Former state Sen. Verne Smith, whose 2001 party switch to the GOP gave Republicans control of the state Senate for the first time since Reconstruction, is dead at 81.
Mr. Smith's son, Jeff, said his father died Sunday morning after a long illness that prevented his bone marrow from fighting infections. The condition, diagnosed after Mr. Smith had gall bladder surgery more than a year ago, kept him out of the state Senate for all of this year's session.
"He was ready to go," Jeff Smith said. "He had decided long ago he didn't want to go back to the hospital."
In July, Mr. Smith resigned the seat he had held since 1973.
"I thought it was my duty to resign so somebody could get out and get around" to represent the district, he said at the time.
Mr. Smith has a unique spot in South Carolina politics.
After the 2000 elections, the Senate was evenly split with 23 Democrats and 23 Republicans. Mr. Smith, with the urging of President Bush, bolted from the Democratic Party and gave Republicans control of the Senate and the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. Republicans had controlled the House since 1994.
"That was a tough decision," Jeff Smith said. But the senator though that he could best serve his constituents by switching parties and keeping a Senate committee chairmanship, he said.
Before resigning, Mr. Smith had risen to No. 2 in Senate seniority behind state Sen. John Drummond, D-Ninety Six. He was known as an advocate for the frail, elderly and children and worked to expand the state's Medicaid programs to help them.
"He had a tremendous impact on the Medicaid system in this state," Senate Democratic Leader John Land said.
The last few years, Mr. Smith pushed plans to increase what had become the nation's lowest cigarette tax to help Medicaid and health care programs.
The 3-for-1 federal match for state Medicaid spending made that an easy decision, Mr. Smith said at a 2002 Statehouse rally.
"When you can get three Yankee dollars for every dollar South Carolina puts in, it don't take a computer to figure that out," Mr. Smith said. "You can figure that out with a short pencil and a paper bag."
Mr. Land, now No. 2 in Senate seniority, noted that Mr. Smith had "seen a lot of shenanigans" in his 33 years in the Senate and "was not afraid to speak his mind when he saw silliness - as he called it - brought forward."
"You always wanted him on your side," Senate Republican Leader Harvey Peeler said.
Former House Speaker David Wilkins said his old Greenville legislative delegation member "really tried to helped the Upstate."
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