Early this summer, Pat McKinney met with his family friend, Gov. Nikki Haley, whom he'd helped get elected almost four years ago. After receiving a clean bill of health from his doctor following a three-year battle with lymphoma, the 63-year-old retired Charleston developer began thinking about a new direction in life. He decided he was going to run for lieutenant governor as a Republican, and he wanted Haley to know.
The governor told him to be cautious.
"As a friend, she just basically said, 'Just please make sure you know what you're getting into. It's ugly out there, and it's hard on you," McKinney says. "'When the negative things start coming ... you've just got to be prepared.' "
Over the next few months he quietly started planning for a run. He hired the son of a family friend to help him out and signed up with the high-profile Lexington political consulting firm Starboard Communications. He then met with one of the state's star GOP fundraisers, Sunny Phillips, and retained the legal services of Haley's personal lawyer Butch Bowers. In August he filed formal campaign paperwork and has since raised about a quarter of a million dollars for his effort, using a bank loan to inject another quarter million into the campaign. But McKinney's bid was largely a stealth machine that evaded the traditional political news stream in Columbia and elsewhere. That was until last Monday when he made it official, announcing his candidacy in an online video.
The part-time job of lieutenant governor in South Carolina is largely ceremonial and comes with little real power. The lite guv, as it's sometimes called, presides over the Senate in a purple robe and oversees the state's Office on Aging, which deals with issues involving the state's elderly population. However, the lieutenant governor also breaks ties if the Senate deadlocks on a vote.
McKinney's entrance into the 2014 election scene comes with an interesting twist. Next November will be the last time voters elect a lieutenant governor separately from the governor. Voters approved a ballot measure last year allowing both candidates to run together on the same ticket, but it won't go into effect until 2018. And the state already has a Republican lieutenant governor, Glenn McConnell of Charleston. Last year he was elevated from perhaps the most powerful position in state government, Senate president pro tem, to the No. 2 spot when ex-Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned amid a campaign finance and public corruption scandal. Bamberg Democratic Rep. Bakari Sellers, a young rising star in the party, is expected to formally announce his own lieutenant governor bid soon.
Over breakfast recently at the Marina Variety Store on the Charleston harbor, McKinney laid out his case for why he should have the job and why he's decided to enter statewide politics so late in life. It's the first time he's ever run for office of any kind. He came dressed in the classic uniform of the retired laid-back Charleston businessman: light blue patterned button up shirt, khakis, and a head of well-groomed salt-and-pepper hair. Before taking the first bite of his muffin, he bowed his head in prayer.
McKinney's pitch isn't fire-in-the-belly stuff. It's doubtful he'll be doing any barn burners. He tepidly offers a polite critique of McConnell as someone who hasn't been fully behind the governor, and says it's just time for a total supporter of hers to hold the position. (Haley, it should be noted, is likely to face a rematch against Camden Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen; McKinney speaks as though Haley's re-election is assured.)
As a supporter of the governor, he feels the state shouldn't have to wait for four years before they can elect a team ticket.
"We've just had a succession of situations where they just didn't appear to have a close working relationship," he says. That's true. There were years when the state had a GOP governor and a Democratic lieutenant governor. While they were both Republicans, ex-Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and Mark Sanford were never really pals or ideologically simpatico. The same goes for McConnell, who as president pro tem of the Senate, publicly fought Haley early in her term. He even successfully sued her for trying to bring the legislature back into a special session to pass one of her agenda items.
These days, the Haley-McConnell rift has been repaired, says McConnell's longtime advisor Richard Quinn. Furthermore, Quinn says McConnell plans to seek re-election but won't make a formal announcement until next year. While Quinn's comments could be viewed as an advocate putting on a brave face for his client, McConnell's staff transferred about a quarter of a million dollars from his Senate war chest into his lieutenant governor's campaign account. To do that he had to ask for written permission from every donor. It took awhile. Quinn says McConnell will have some fundraisers in the near future.
"Fortunately for us, while money is very important, knowledge of the office and qualifications to serve and a record of service still matter more than money," Quinn says. However, the possibility exists that the lieutenant governor's office might not be McConnell's long if he did run and win. He's been talked about as a possible successor to outgoing College of Charleston president George Benson and is interested (for more information on CofC's search for its new president, see p. 16). As a lawyer, he's also someone who might run for the job of state Supreme Court chief justice within the next couple years.
For his part, McKinney says he and McConnell are friendly. He met with the current lieutenant governor a few months ago to tell him he was gunning for his job. "I'm not out to attack him, and it's not about him," McKinney says.
Instead, McKinney's vision for why voters should elect him, beyond having a staunch Haley ally in the state's No. 2 slot, is so he can champion her economic development goals from a statewide post.
"It's generally perceived to be a part-time job, and I'd like to take what I think is an entrepreneurial spirit that I have and invest more into it in the area — in addition to focusing on our seniors — of economic development and promoting the resources of our state," McKinney says.
The inappropriate TV ad
Democrats and political reporters have been quick to point out that McKinney is not some wealthy businessman emerging from the ether to offer himself as an advocate of the state's seniors for the lieutenant governor's job.
McKinney is a member of Nikki Haley's inner circle. He's a campaign donor who was on her transition team once she was elected and currently serves on her re-election effort's campaign finance team. Haley has rewarded McKinney by appointing him to a position on the State Ports Authority. They are personally close. The Haley family attended his daughter's wedding, and McKinney's young son-in-law has served in both the Governor's Office and on Haley's re-election campaign.
His efforts in boosting Haley's political profile, however, haven't been without controversy.
Back when Haley was running for governor in 2010, McKinney was the chairman of ReformSC, one of several nonprofits left over from the Sanford administration that supported the former governor's policy agenda with TV advertising. McKinney got involved in the group around the spring when the relatively unknown Rep. Haley was pushing for on-the-record voting in the Legislature. She was also in last place in a four-person race for governor. ReformSC spent $400,000 on a TV ad showing Haley at a Tea Party rally, and it urged voters to get on board with her proposal, although it was hard not to see the commercial as a Haley campaign ad. Political observers have long credited that commercial for giving Haley a needed boost during the campaign.
"I was chair of Reform South Carolina and we chose to highlight that [roll-call voting] issue, and we thought it was very important in the upcoming election," McKinney says of the ad.
But one of her gubernatorial rivals, Upstate Congressman Gresham Barrett, complained that McKinney's group had improperly coordinated with Haley's campaign to run the ad. Third-party organizations like ReformSC aren't supposed to get involved in elections, and critics saw the commercial as a campaign ad in disguise. A judge ordered an injunction, pulling the ReformSC ads from TV two weeks after they hit the airwaves. "We were very firm and we sought legal advice ... they were legal," McKinney says about the ads. "All they were able to get was an injunction until it could be heard, and then after the election, they asked that it be dismissed. As I recall, less than half of what was planned ran. We complied immediately." These days McKinney chalks up the controversy to hardball South Carolina politics.
Last week, when he announced his candidacy, Democrats were steamed at initial news coverage that didn't mention McKinney's close ties to the governor. Lowcountry Democratic operative Tyler Jones, for instance, strongly believes Haley or her political team recruited McKinney to run for the job because of her beef with McConnell. Haley's team has denied it.
"Are we really supposed to believe that one of Nikki Haley's biggest donors and allies decided to run against the sitting Republican lieutenant governor without any encouragement from the governor?" he asks. "I was born at night but not last night. This is quintessential Nikki Haley."
McKinney says it's just not the case. It was his idea to run, he says, and he approached the governor about it. "I'm not looking for this as a career," he says, and he's not expecting any help from his good friend the governor.
"This is something I need to do on my own," says McKinney. "If I can't stand on my own bottom, then I don't deserve to be in this thing."