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Powerful longtime S.C. state Sen. Hugh Leatherman dies at 90

Published: Nov. 12, 2021 at 8:48 AM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. - South Carolina’s oldest and most powerful state lawmaker, Hugh Leatherman, passed away early Friday at the age of 90.

Since 2001, Leatherman had effectively controlled South Carolina’s budget as the Senate finance chairman and was considered one of the most powerful people in South Carolina politics.

He negotiated the deal to bring Boeing to South Carolina in 2009 and secured funding for the deepening of the Charleston Harbor in 2011.

The governor’s office said flags would be ordered to be lowered in honor of Leatherman’s service to the state once funeral arrangements are announced.

State Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, released a statement on Leatherman’s death: “I, along with members of the entire Senate Majority Caucus, join the Leatherman family in mourning the passing of our colleague, Senator Hugh Leatherman. With four decades of service in the South Carolina State Senate, Senator Leatherman - better known to many as Mr. Chairman - will have a long legacy marked in every corner of the state and mirrored through the Senate chambers for decades to come. His warm smile, commitment to community, never-stop work ethic, and resolute focus will forever be remembered.”

The state senator had been receiving hospice care since October after the discovery of what colleagues describe as an inoperable cancer.

A GOP senator told The Associated Press in October that Leatherman’s staff notified a handful of lawmakers the 90-year-old Florence Republican had been hospitalized after experiencing severe abdominal pain.

Leatherman was first elected to the chamber in 1980, representing a district anchored in Florence County, and served as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which has sway over the state’s budget.

He was elected president pro tempore of the state Senate in 2014. But when President Donald Trump appointed Nikki Haley to a United Nations ambassador position in 2017 and then-Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster became governor, the state Constitution required that the President Pro Tempore of the Senate become the next lieutenant governor.

Leatherman resigned his position as Senate president pro tempore to avoid the lieutenant governorship, which many consider a politically weak role in the state so that Sen. Kevin Bryant could be elected in his place and then rise to become McMaster’s lieutenant governor.

Leatherman was then re-elected as president pro tempore of the Senate by a 28-16 vote. In 2019, after voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution that eliminated the president pro tempore position in favor of a president of the Senate, the Senate passed a resolution to give Leatherman the ceremonial title of president pro tempore emeritus in recognition of his many years or service.

Leatherman called it “the honor of a lifetime” serving as president pro tempore of the Senate.

Before 1996, Leatherman was a member of the Democratic Party and switched parties.

South Carolina GOP Chairman Drew McKissick issued this statement:

“Senator Leatherman dedicated almost half of his life to serving the people of Florence County and South Carolina. His commitment to the Port and so many other initiatives propelled our state forward. We’re grateful for his decades of service, and our prayers are with Mrs. Jean and the rest of the Leatherman family.”

The South Carolina Democratic Caucus called Leatherman “an effective leader, a true statesman, and an influential changemaker.”

“He has undoubtedly left a permanent mark on South Carolina — a legacy that will long live on in the many people he inspired, the lives he touched, and the profound work he did over 40 years in office. We are sincerely grateful for all he did to make our state a better place,” the caucus said.

Gov. Henry McMaster released a statement on Leatherman’s passing Friday:

“A powerful force for the progress and prosperity of our people has left us. For over fifty years, Hugh Leatherman poured his life into our state and we are the better for it. He loved his work and kept his word. He never quit. We will miss him. May God bless him and his family.”

From reports by WRDW/WAGT and WCSC