- Associated Press - Thursday, February 19, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Eleanor Kitzman insists she’ll remain independent of her longtime friend, Gov. Nikki Haley, if she’s confirmed as director of South Carolina’s public health and environmental control agency.

Kitzman faces a tough confirmation process in the Senate.

It opened Thursday with Democratic senators questioning why Kitzman was the lone candidate considered to run one of the state’s largest agencies, particularly when she has no background in either health care or environmental fields. Republicans countered that her managerial skills are what matters.

“I know there are concerns. Haley and I have been friends for 15 years. Neither she nor I would ever let that friendship stand in the way” of what’s best for the state, Kitzman told the Senate Medical Affairs Committee.

Kitzman said she knows nothing about the selection process - only that she told Haley last November she was returning to South Carolina and “talking to a couple of law firms and a consulting firm that hadn’t made any decisions.” Haley later asked if she’d be interested in leading the Department of Health and Environmental Control. When Kitzman said yes, Haley gave her name to the board chairman, and Kitzman emailed him her resume. Haley appoints all of the agency’s board members.

After a single meeting, the board announced Kitzman’s selection Jan. 12, just four days after Catherine Templeton announced her resignation.

Ann Timberlake, director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, said it sounds like Kitzman needed a job, and Haley found her one.

Kitzman began working at the agency Jan. 26 as “director of process improvement,” making $74. 50 an hour without benefits. If she’s confirmed, her salary will likely top $160,000.

Board chairman Allen Amsler is expected to testify when hearings resume next week.

Kitzman has contributed $4,750 total to Haley’s 2010 and 2014 campaigns. She acknowledged Thursday co-hosting a Haley fundraiser last September at Wild Dunes Resort.

Kitzman said the challenges she’s overcome in her life indicate she has the management and leadership abilities to run the agency. The Texas native dropped out of school in 10th grade, got married, had a child and became a single mom, but went on to earn a GED and later a law degree by age 30.

“I was determined not to be defined by missteps and keep moving forward toward my goals,” she said.

She called herself a business-friendly, creative problem-solver with regulatory experience that will fit well with DHEC.

Kitzman first came to South Carolina in 1997 as a lobbyist to advocate for a law removing requirements on vehicle coverage. After it passed, she moved to the state from North Carolina and founded Driver’s Choice, a company she grew to 50 employees before selling it in 2004.

She was South Carolina’s insurance director from 2005 to 2007, when she resigned over a disagreement with Gov. Mark Sanford on coastal insurance.

She ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2010, losing in a four-way GOP primary.

Haley has helped Kitzman secure a job before.

On Haley’s second day in office in 2011, the governor called it a huge victory when Kitzman was approved as director of the Budget and Control Board, the agency that oversees much of the state’s bureaucracy. Amid Haley’s push to eliminate the agency, Kitzman resigned six months later to lead the Texas Department of Insurance.

That job ended in May 2013 because Texas senators refused to confirm her appointment by then-Gov. Rick Perry. In December 2013, she was named vice president of Starr Insurance Holdings Inc. in New York.

Kitzman acknowledged Thursday she was sued for debts incurred during her unsuccessful 2010 campaign and has paid $50,000 to resolve that dispute. She also acknowledged defaulting on her student loan debt but said that’s been paid in full since 2004.

Kitzman also said she was charged about 31 years ago with writing a bad check but gave no details. While not directly answering a reporter’s questions, she later said in a statement she was speaking about the challenges she faced as a single mother putting herself through school and why they “made me a better manager, leader and person.”

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