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  • Hugh Leatherman, powerful SC budget chairman from Florence, dies at 90

Hugh Leatherman, powerful SC budget chairman from Florence, dies at 90

on Friday, 12 November 2021. Posted in News

Hugh Leatherman, powerful SC budget chairman from Florence, dies at 90

COLUMBIA (AP) _ Hugh Leatherman, South Carolina’s oldest lawmaker who for years held immense power and influence over state spending and government, died Friday morning, his office confirmed. The Florence Republican was 90. Leatherman had been receiving hospice care at home after the discovery of inoperable cancer. Prior, he had not been seen at legislative hearings for weeks and had undergone surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina to address an intestinal blockage but was allowed to return home.

As the oldest lawmaker and considered the most powerful inside the State House in part because of his chief role over the state’s purse strings and important committees, Leatherman was highly respected throughout the Legislature and beyond. It was a power that often stirred critics, who viewed his grip over state government as too much for one person. 

Though his Senate career influenced all of South Carolina, Leatherman was most loyal to the Pee Dee region and particularly his home, Florence County, where he helped use his influence to lure economic development and expand investment particularly for Francis Marion University. Leatherman was in his 11th term — serving from 1981 to 2021 — a tenure that few in South Carolina’s history attain. “It’s been a good ride and I think I’ve had a positive impact on the state and particularly on the Pee Dee,” Leatherman said in 2017, when the Senate unveiled his portrait, showing the senator with a Francis Marion pin, a Boeing 747 and plans for the Port of Charleston. “I know it sounds sort of corny but I’ve always said I want to leave this state in a better shape than when I came in. We’ve got more work to do, in the Florence area and across (the) state.” 

Born and raised on a cotton farm in Lincoln County, North Carolina, Leatherman graduated from North Carolina State University with a degree in civil engineering. He moved to Florence County to start his own company, Florence Concrete Products. He still drew a salary from the company, his 2020 statement of economic interests showed. 

His political climb began in 1967, when won a seat on the county’s Quinby Town Council. He stayed on the small community governing body until 1976, serving the majority of those years as mayor pro tempore. He ran for the Senate in 1980 as a Democrat, joining the upper chamber the next year. Six years later, in 1986, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor, securing just 9% of the vote in the primary. Leatherman’s political party switch in 1995 as part of a wave of southern Democrats in response to the 1994 Republican revolution didn’t hurt the senior senator’s ability to gain clout and power in the 46-member chamber. Some Democrats didn’t mind, particularly those on the Senate Finance Committee. “I’m actually glad he did switch parties, because if he had not, somebody else would have been in that position as chairman of Finance, other than Hugh Leatherman,” said state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland. “And I’m not sure that would have worked out as well for South Carolina.” An official portrait of Florence’s Sen. Hugh K. Leatherman Sr. was unveiled in the Senate’s Chambers on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017 at the Statehouse in Columbia. 

Many, from a former governor to his own colleagues, tried but few were ever able to reduce Leatherman’s power and influence. In 2014, Leatherman was elected as Senate president pro tempore, presiding over the chamber, after then-Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, resigned his seat to become College of Charleston’s president. Three years later, Leatherman briefly resigned his presidential position to avoid becoming the lieutenant governor — a powerless job, which the Legislature ultimately did away with, giving it to the governor as a running mate — after then-Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster was elevated to governor when former Gov. Nikki Haley joined the Trump administration.

He was a “tough-as-nails negotiator,” said Leatherman’s counterpart, House budget chief Murrell Smith, R-Sumter. “What I will remember most about him was his unwavering integrity,” Smith said. “He was old school in that his word was his bond and he would never change his mind once he’d committed to something.” In 2016, Haley endorsed Leatherman’s primary challenger Richard Skipper, aiming to completely remove the legislator. “He’s a nice man, but my job is not to go and help respectful and nice people. My job is to make sure that we have fighters who help the people, not their own pockets,” Haley said in a 2016 stump speech for Skipper. “I will tell you, the hardest part of my job these last five years has been Sen. Hugh Leatherman.” Haley was unsuccessful, and Leatherman won the three-person primary with 54% of the vote. 

Leatherman’s tenure in the Senate helped lure serious companies to the state, from Boeing’s North Charleston manufacturing site to Honda in his home county. And it gave him centralized influence over the earmarking process — often referred to as pet projects or pork — doling out state dollars to help specific projects in lawmakers’ districts. It was a practice which often bristled some colleagues, even up until his final year in the State House. 

Leatherman also took a key role after the now-defunct SCANA and state-owned utility Santee Cooper abandoned the construction of two nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer nuclear site in Fairfield County. Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey was among senators Leatherman had tangled with in past years, mostly over Leatherman’s “concentration of power,” the Edgefield Republican said. The two eventually reconciled, finding common ground on the multi-billion-dollar nuclear scandal — a sizeable state endeavor that has led to the downfall of a utility company, lawsuits and jail time for former utility leaders. “I think he realized he could trust me and I could trust him,” Massey said. “He was very straightforward and direct with (now defunct) SCANA and its leadership at the time, and they were pushing back on the Legislature getting involved. Looking back on it now, they were bluffing about a number of things. He read the situation very well.” 

But it was Leatherman’s ability to compromise that colleagues say was his greatest political gift. State Sen. Jackson described Leatherman as “wise as Solomon and slick as a fox.” 

“He helped the whole state. He was a good man,” said state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington. “We may not agree on something, but his one thing was just tell him the truth.” Part of that may have been helped by Leatherman switching political sides in the ‘90s. As Senate Finance Committee chairman, unusual for a Republican with GOP in the majority, Leatherman named Democrats to chair key subcommittees. 

It was Leatherman’s role over spending state dollars — arguably his most important legislative job — where he could often find enemies, who, in turn, often became allies. “He was a capable ally on some issues and a worthy opponent on others. We locked horns on more than a few things,” said former Gov. Mark Sanford, famous for trying to slash spending. “He knew how to wield power.”

South Carolina was a large focus but Florence County was Leatherman’s home. Beyond his work to develop the Port of Charleston — which includes a terminal named after him — and luring Boeing, Leatherman was a large proponent of Francis Marion University, and he helped to secure millions of dollars to ope buildings, a medical complex and performing arts center. Two building on the campus are named for Leatherman. Fred Carter, Francis Marion’s president and Leatherman’s close friend, said said every building was built with a view toward workforce development and satisfying critical work needs in the area and across the state. And any development, he said, was secured also with local money from community partners, Carter said. 

“Almost every appropriation, the senator’s question began with us, ‘What can you bring from other commitment sources from inside the community?’” Carter said. Carter and Leatherman knew each other for for 33 years. When Carter was diagnosed and underwent surgery for colon cancer five years ago, Leatherman was by his side, calling Carter after every chemotherapy infusion. “I’m proud of my friendship with Sen. Leatherman, but I also know I’m not the only person in this community that got (that) kind of attention and got that kind of support,” Carter said. “This community has an enormous amount of affection for Hugh Leatherman and it’s not predicated exclusively on what he can bring here. It’s predicated to a large extent on the kinds of calls that would come in the afternoons after you had a chemotherapy infusion.” 

After his own cancer diagnosis, Carter said Leatherman continued to talk about how he could leave South Carolina better off. Once the receiver of frequent visits, Carter visited Leatherman when he returned from the hospital after his cancer diagnosis. All Leatherman wanted to talk about, Carter said, was whether lawmakers could use federal American Rescue Plan Act money to address mental health issues in rural areas when the Legislature returns to Columbia in January. “He’s talking about his passion,” Carter said, “and his passion is that policy continues.”

Leatherman is survived by his wife of more than 40 years, Jean, and six children and five grandchildren. 

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