- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 30, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Two Republicans vying for House speaker left the race Tuesday, leaving Hartsville Rep. Jay Lucas the lone candidate for the powerful post.

Lucas has been acting speaker since Bobby Harrell suspended himself Sept. 11 following his indictment on nine misdemeanor charges. Lucas has been the chamber’s second in command as speaker pro tem since 2010.

First elected to the House in 1998, Lucas is set to become the first speaker in South Carolina’s history from rural Darlington County, and the first from the Pee Dee region since 1934. His rise means both chambers will be led by Pee Dee lawmakers, also thought to be a first. Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman of Florence became Senate president pro tem earlier this year.

GOP Reps. Kenny Bingham of Cayce and Jim Merrill of Charleston also were asking colleagues to support them as the House’s next speaker. But they jointly sent their colleagues a letter exiting the race and endorsing Lucas, who was considered the front-runner. Both Bingham and Merrill have served two terms as House majority leaders.

“I don’t think any of us feel a prolonged, protracted, contentious race is in the best interest of the body already going through pretty difficult times,” Merrill told The Associated Press.

Though suspended, Harrell is seeking a 12th term in November to represent his Charleston seat. He faces nine misdemeanor counts: two counts of misconduct in office, six counts of using campaign money for personal use and one count of falsely reporting campaign disclosures. Eight are punishable by up to one year in prison and a $5,000 fine; one of the misconduct charges can carry a sentence of up to 10 years.

Harrell has repeatedly said he did nothing illegal and previously characterized the allegations as politically motivated.

The House will officially vote during an organizational session after the November elections on who will be speaker for the next two years.

“The members of the House have displayed the kind of leadership this body needs right now, putting politics aside and focusing on the issues that matter most,” Lucas said in a statement.

Merrill and Bingham both said a deciding factor in their exiting the race was Lucas’ willingness to support their ideas for changing how the House operates.

“If Jay had not endorsed our suggestions on rule changes, I’d think we’d go to the very end,” said Merrill, first elected in 2000. “Reforming the way the House operates and diluting the power of the speaker was far and away more important.”

Bingham, currently

Last week, Lucas made 10 recommendations to start the first meeting of a panel he created to consider changes to House rules. They included term-limiting the powerful speaker’s position, taking away the post’s power to hire and set the salaries of every House employee, and dispersing who can appoint members to panels that work out legislative compromises.

Merrill and Bingham said those are among things they pushed for. Merrill said he also believes committee chairmen should be term-limited, though that wasn’t among Lucas’ suggestions. Bingham said another change he will seek is not letting the speaker make all five House appointments to a panel that screens judicial candidates.

“When Jay agreed to embrace changes we wanted, we agreed to step aside and give him an opportunity to prove himself,” said Bingham, first elected in 2000.

The House will also take up rule change proposals at its organizational session, set for early December.

Harrell has been speaker since June 2005, when former Speaker David Wilkins resigned to become the U.S. ambassador to Canada under President George W. Bush.

Wilkins, from Greenville, had been speaker for a decade. South Carolina’s longest-serving speaker was Rep. Solomon Blott, D-Barnwell, who wielded power from 1937 to 1946, then again from 1951 to 1973. The last speaker from the Pee Dee was Rep. James Gibson, D-Dillon, who died in 1934.

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