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Leatherman hangs on to powerful post; Bryant becomes Lt Gov

January 25, 2017 GMT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Sen. Hugh Leatherman managed Wednesday to keep his position as South Carolina’s most powerful lawmaker, despite opposition from fellow Republicans who accused him of sidestepping his constitutional duties.

Senators voted 28-16 to return the president pro tem title to Leatherman, a day after he resigned the leadership post to avoid becoming lieutenant governor.

All 16 who voted for Leatherman’s challenger, Sen. Harvey Peeler of Gaffney, were Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, who nominated Peeler, called Leatherman’s moves to retain power “a shameless and obvious game of musical chairs.”

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While most people probably have no idea who leads the state Senate, Massey said, “I am absolutely confident people understand politicians not playing by the rules. They understand when other politicians cover for their friends who don’t play by the rules.”

The state constitution calls for the Senate’s leader to fill a lieutenant governor vacancy. But Leatherman refused to leave the Senate for the largely ceremonial position. The 85-year-old Florence Republican resigned minutes before then-Gov. Nikki Haley was confirmed as President Donald Trump’s U.N. ambassador, which promoted then-Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster.

Prior to re-electing Leatherman, the Senate technically voted to make Sen. Kevin Bryant the chamber’s leader, knowing he’d keep the president pro tem title only momentarily. Bryant, first elected to the Senate in 2004, was sworn in minutes later as lieutenant governor.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Luke Rankin, who then nominated Leatherman to be leader again, said senators knew when they re-elected him as president pro tem in December — in their post-election organizational session — that he would not become lieutenant governor. By that time, Trump had already nominated Haley for the job in his Cabinet.

“In courtesy and out of transparency, he made that announcement before we elected him. There were no surprises,” said Rankin, R-Myrtle Beach. Noting voters just re-elected Leatherman, Rankin added, “His pledge was to those folks who elected him to remain as their senator.”

Leatherman said his actions didn’t violate the constitution.

“We didn’t do anything the Senate hasn’t done before,” he said.

Leatherman’s predecessor, Sen. John Courson, resigned from the leadership post in 2014. Senators then chose Democratic Sen. Yancey McGill to momentarily become pro tem, then lieutenant governor. Leatherman was then elected pro tem, adding to the power he already had as chairman of the Senate’s budget-writing committee and various financial oversight boards.

While the GOP-controlled Senate was willing to put a Democratic colleague in the No. 2 job for six months — knowing voters would soon elect McGill’s replacement — that wasn’t a possibility for the remaining two years of Haley’s term.

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Bryant, who helped found the chamber’s libertarian William Wallace Caucus, was the only Republican who wanted the job. The 49-year-old Anderson pharmacist said he made the decision after much prayer and he’s “honored to assume this new role.”

Massey, who also argues no legislator should be able to amass as much power as Leatherman, reminded senators that former Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell felt it his duty to leave the Senate after former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard pleaded guilty to campaign violations in 2012.

Massey showed video of McConnell’s reluctant resignation speech.

Soon after McConnell became lieutenant governor, legislators passed a law to put a question on the ballot they thought would prevent another senator from facing such a decision.

Voters passed a constitutional amendment that November to have the governor and lieutenant governor run on the same ticket and change the lines of succession. But the ballot question specified the changes wouldn’t start until the 2018 election.