- Associated Press - Monday, November 28, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s most powerful politician is refusing to become lieutenant governor - a job no senator seems to want - if Gov. Nikki Haley becomes ambassador to the United Nations.

Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman said Monday he will not leave his Senate seat “under any circumstances.”

“I would like to make it very clear that I have no ambition for statewide office,” said the 85-year-old Florence Republican, who was re-elected in November to a 10th term after winning a three-way primary in which Haley backed the second-place finisher. “I will not leave my Senate seat to serve as lieutenant governor. For me, there is no greater honor than serving in the South Carolina Senate.”

Leatherman’s unwillingness to give up his role as Senate leader to temporarily occupy a largely ceremonial position comes as no surprise. Monday’s statement makes it official without indicating any of the political chess moves that could occur in the coming weeks to fill a job considered part-time.

Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster will replace Haley as South Carolina’s governor if the U.S. Senate confirms Donald Trump’s pick for his Cabinet. It’s a job that McMaster - the nation’s first statewide officeholder to endorse Trump - has long wanted. Haley says she’ll remain governor until then.

The state constitution has called for the Senate president pro tem to become lieutenant governor.

But some argue a 2014 referendum approved by voters allows McMaster to choose his replacement. The question may ultimately be decided by the state Supreme Court.

When former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard pleaded guilty to campaign violations in 2012, then-Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell reluctantly resigned his Charleston seat of 32 years to fulfill what he called his constitutional duties. A stickler for the rules, McConnell said then he could not have looked at himself in the mirror if he tried to circumvent the Constitution’s line of succession.

But when McConnell later quit the lieutenant governor job to be president of the College of Charleston, his successor as pro tem, Sen. John Courson, resigned the post rather than be forced to leave the Senate. The GOP-controlled Senate then chose a Democrat as pro tem, immediately pushing him into the lieutenant governor’s spot, since no Republican senator wanted that job. The voters elected McMaster five months later.

To prevent another such scenario, the Legislature asked voters in 2014 whether the governor and lieutenant governor should run on the same ticket, and, if the No. 2 spot becomes vacant, the governor should choose the replacement.

While voters approved the changes, many point to the opening clause of the ballot question, which specified changes were to begin “with the general election of 2018.” It was the Senate that required the delay before approving the question.

The stipulation infuriated Haley, who said at the time that it ensured the restructuring she’d pushed for since her 2010 campaign won’t take effect until she’s out of office. If confirmed as ambassador, the term-limited governor will be leaving office two years before her tenure expires.

Leatherman is expected to be re-elected as president pro tem when senators meet in a post-election organizational session next week.

He indicated in a letter emailed to senators Monday evening that he’s not willing to let another senator temporarily win the role until Haley is confirmed.

“I am moving forward to seek re-election as president pro tempore,” Leatherman wrote. “I would again ask for your consideration and support for re-election to this position.”

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said Leatherman’s continued candidacy puts senators “in a really bad position.”

“He is asking the Senate to give him a job while telling us upfront he is not going to fulfil the constitutional obligations of that job,” said Massey, R-Edgefield, one of only two senators to oppose Leatherman’s election as pro tem in 2014.

At the time, he said Leatherman already had too much power for any one legislator.

Leatherman’s power comes from multiple positions, which only expanded when senators elected him in 2014 to lead the chamber. He still controls the state’s purse strings as chairman of the Senate’s budget-writing committee, and sits on various state financial oversight boards.

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