It was not one of Nikki Haley’s finest moments.

Standing before an elevator, staring straight ahead and silent while her handlers tried to deflect questions from former Post and Courier reporter Renee Dudley, Haley appeared less annoyed with the journalist than frightened.

It wasn’t the first time that Haley and Dudley had been at odds, nor does it matter what triggered the strange elevator standoff between the two. There’s really no point in revisiting the news article that Dudley had written which caused the then-first-term governor to call the reporter a “little girl.” Every politician is faced with questions that anger them, and it’s something that they all get used to. But at that time, Nikki Haley wasn’t up to the task. 

In the early days of her time in office, Haley was notorious for avoiding the press. She issued press releases and posted to social media instead of holding press conferences or sitting down with reporters. The governor and her staff regularly deleted emails to and from their state accounts, a violation of South Carolina law and a clever way to sidestep the Freedom of Information Act, which allows the press access to the governor’s emails. Heck, her staff was even caught on at least one occasion trying to physically block a reporter from speaking with Haley. 

Much of this was to be expected. At the time, Nikki Haley simply wasn’t cut out to be governor, and her staff, largely comprised of twenty-somethings, didn’t have the experience to manage a ravenous press and a thin-skinned governor who was prone to lashing out at her critics in passive-aggressive Facebook posts.

Haley’s anger was understandable. She was no more corrupt than any other politician in Columbia, in particular the high-ranking men in the state House and Senate. Yes, she had used her position as a legislator to nab a cheery fundraising post at a hospital and a consulting job at an engineering and construction firm; the latter did business with the state while the former benefited from a vote Haley and her fellow legislators cast. The problem was that Haley was terrible at deflecting, much less hiding these connections. 

And then there were those affair allegations, allegations that she had apparently broken her marital vows with two political operatives. It didn’t help that one of her alleged paramours was the most notorious political blogger in the state, Will Folks of FITSNews.

Haley wasn’t the first Palmetto State politician to be accused of infidelity, but she was certainly the first one to benefit so profoundly from it. In fact, many will argue that the allegations themselves pushed sympathetic voters her way, leading some to speculate that the accusations were actually designed to do that very thing. Regardless of their purpose or veracity, the rumors dodged Haley at every turn during her first year in office. I’ll be the first to admit that I was one of the last reporters to let them go. But we all did.

In part it was because finding an answer had become increasingly futile, and in part because Haley continued to bungle away her time in office. She removed powerful businesswoman Darla Moore from the Board of Directors for the University of South Carolina and put in a crony. Haley issued a bizarre edict that all state employees answer the phone with “it’s a great day in South Carolina.” She reportedly orchestrated a move that benefited the Port of Savannah over the interests of the state. She called a state Democratic legislator “the mayor of Five Points” after he complained about being denied entrance to a bipartisan barbecue at the governor’s mansion. And she included several bizarre claims in her memoir, “Can’t is not an Option,” including one in which she claimed to broker a playground detente between white and black children during a game of kickball in the third grade.

But as Haley entered her second term, something happened. The bungling stopped. The mistakes disappeared. The governor’s thin-skinned narcissism toughened up. She refrained from spouting unfounded Pollyanna pronouncements. She became more poised and dignified. Increasingly, Haley was absent from the news except to make an appearance in the sort of mundane stories that we expect our governors to wind up in.  

Then the massacre at Mother Emanuel occurred, and for the first time in Haley’s political career she actually appeared compassionate. More than that, she finally abandoned the colorblind, post-racial BS that far too many members of the GOP subscribe to and to which far too many minority Republicans go along with. This was a Haley who acknowledged our state’s racial woes and was willing to assert that the Confederate flag was a divisive and hurtful symbol. 

In the days after the Emanuel AME shooting, Haley attended every funeral for every victim. As an observer it was impossible not to see that something fundamental had changed inside her. 

And so we have the Nikki Haley of 2016, a potential GOP running mate and the deliverer of the Republican response to the State of the Union, bashing the angry rhetoric of Donald Trump and the politics of division that have long been the stock in trade of the Southern Strategy GOP and right-wing radio. It is this Nikki Haley that wants to show blacks, Latinos, Muslims, and other minorities that they have a place in the Republican Party.

Personally, I believe the transformation is genuine. And I choose to see the evolution of Nikki Haley as a sign that the GOP is finally willing to cast aside the fear and hatred that has guided it for far too long.

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