Haley’s successor a familiar face and change of pace
COLUMBIA, S.C. | If South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is confirmed as President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for United Nations ambassador, her successor will be an entrenched veteran of the state’s GOP, a former attorney general who decided not to prosecute then-Gov. Mark Sanford for his spending after his notorious disappearance to rendezvous with his mistress.
Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, a 69-year-old known for his ability to disagree affably, would get the job he’s long wanted in the governorship. His leadership offers a sharp contrast in style if not in substance from Ms. Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants and the nation’s youngest governor at 44, who hasn’t hesitated to publicly bash legislators who differed with her.
Mr. McMaster also was the nation’s first statewide officeholder to back Mr. Trump for president, in an endorsement before the state’s first-in-the-South presidential primary. The move stunned political observers, but Mr. McMaster’s support never wavered despite Democrats’ calls to withdraw it.
He said in an interview last month he never regretted the endorsement.
“The more it went on, the more confident I was he was the man for the job,” he said in his characteristic genteel drawl. He’s revealed little about what he would do as governor, and his office said he wasn’t available for an interview.
But as a savvy political insider, Mr. McMaster has forged strong relationships statewide.
He’s “a common-sense conservative — very reasonable, never abrasive,” said state House Judiciary Chairman Greg Delleney, a Republican from Chester. “He’s a realist, and he’s a gentleman, and I think he’s going to work with the General Assembly to get things done.”
Legislators hope Mr. McMaster’s entry could finally lead to passage of a comprehensive road-funding bill. Ms. Haley’s threats to veto anything with a gas tax increase stymied efforts for years.
Questioned by reporters after a meeting earlier this month, Mr. McMaster said, “We will make progress, great progress,” but gave no specifics.
In the 2010 GOP primary, Ms. Haley trounced Mr. McMaster and two other better-known men partly by running against the “good ol’ boy” network. Yet days after taking a 32-percentagepoint beating, Mr. McMaster endorsed Ms. Haley with an exuberant “I’m all in!” and has been a close ally since. Beyond campaigning with her statewide, he arranged a series of private meetings between Ms. Haley and skeptical business leaders a week after she publicly chided the state Chamber of Commerce as a fan of bailouts and corporate welfare.
Bakari Sellers, a Democrat who lost to Mr. McMaster in the 2014 lieutenant governor’s race, contends Mr. McMaster is a staunch defender of the “status quo.”
“Courageous and visionary are not adjectives you use to describe Henry McMaster,” said Mr. Sellers, a former state House member.
Other longtime political adversaries applaud Mr. McMaster’s impending move.
“If a good ol’ boy means somebody who remembers his friends and has a genial approach to governing, then I would take that as a compliment,” said former state Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian.
Mr. McMaster began his political career in 1973 as an aide to then-U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond. He led the state Republican Party for 10 years, while the GOP took control of the state legislature.
He frequently boasts of being President Ronald Reagan’s first appointment for U.S. attorney in 1981 and launched “Operation Jackpot,” an investigation into international drug smuggling that resulted in more than 100 convictions. As state attorney general, he created a task force of officers posing as children to catch online sex predators and built an attorney network to prosecute criminal domestic violence. In 2010 he helped lead a multistate challenge of President Obama’s health care overhaul that allowed states to opt out of its intended Medicaid expansion — as South Carolina has steadfastly done.
But just a month after saying he would not pursue criminal charges against Mr. Sanford in 2009, Mr. McMaster lost his primary battle with Ms. Haley.
Legislators say his decadeslong relationship with many of them is an asset. GOP Senate Education Chairman John Courson, who met Mr. McMaster while at the University of South Carolina in the 1960s, said it helps that Mr. McMaster “understands the personalities in the Senate.”
“Across the board, among Democrats and Republicans, everybody is excited about him coming in — with the belief that he will have a desire to get things done and the ability to do so,” said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, a Democrat from Columbia.
Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster is the presumed inheritor of the Statehouse in South Carolina if Gov. Nikki Haley is confirmed as President-elect Donald Trump’s pick as ambassador to the U.N.