File photo | Credit: Sean Rayford file photo

Sumter Republican Rep. Murrell Smith has a big leadership challenge if he is elected next speaker of the S.C. House in December as expected.

Brack

It won’t be about a conservative policy here or a white paper proposal there. It will be about what the House of Representatives will become — whether it will better reflect the chamber’s traditional Chamber of Commerce conservatism or embrace the blooming Republican dance with wingnuts.

There’s no debate that South Carolina has become more partisan in recent years thanks to redistricting 10 years ago. Earlier this year, House Republicans pushed through a new, more gerrymandered election map that created even fewer truly competitive House districts. When a Democrat or Republican has a fairly equal chance at winning a seat, both candidates generally default to mainstream appeals to voters. But when a noncompetitive district tilts to candidates of just one party, extremists get more attention — and get more extreme to get more attention. As a result, all candidates are pushed toward the margins, which makes the whole chamber more partisan. Recent years have seen an exodus of moderates of both parties.

Strong leadership at the top may be able to steer some of the nuttiness that grows from overly partisan redistricting. If not, it won’t be too long before South Carolina House members rubberstamp any crazy idea that comes along. Just look at what’s become of legislatures in Texas and Florida.

On the day before the March 16 opening of filing for House races, Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, announced he wouldn’t run for re-election after 24 years, including eight as speaker. In a few hours, it was clear that Smith is the only real Republican consensus candidate to be new speaker. The second and third members in the House GOP leadership didn’t want the job. Speaker Pro Tem Tommy Pope, R-York, has said he wanted to stay in his slot, while House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, is retiring like Lucas.

So it falls to Smith, who like Lucas, is perceived as a consensus builder — someone who listens to Republicans and Democrats. The major difference, insiders say, is that Smith nixes some ideas, while Lucas has sometimes let the wingnuts have their way in setting the policy agenda.

“[Lucas] was collaborative with all members,” one seasoned Statehouse veteran said. “He changed the tenor of the conversation. On a one-on-one basis and the way he treated his members, he listened and was much more genteel than his predecessors. He’s a genuinely nice person.”  

Lucas will be remembered for being a calming hand in the House after a 2014 disgrace in which then-House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, resigned after being indicted for misconduct. In the years that followed, Lucas steered ethics reform and updated House rules to open the legislative process. He helped to create a massive income tax cut this year and boost teacher pay, but didn’t ever get the big education overhaul he dreamed of.

Smith, seen as a vanguard of old-time Republican business values, is expected to lead more decisively, said another elected House member who asked to remain anonymous.  

“Murrell has no problem saying ‘no’ to people,” the member said, indicating that Smith would bring people together collaboratively like Lucas but with a more defined direction.

Still, Smith will have to balance radical members of his Republican caucus with those who want to return to more mainstream values associated with the pre-Donald Trump days.  

“These people who are getting all of the attention are in the minority, but they are the loudest,” one of the observers said. “I keep waiting for the vocal majority to be heard and give voice to what they think. And until that happens, we’re going to be right here with the lunatics running the asylum.”

Congratulations to Lucas for a long, successful House career and good luck to Smith as he prepares to take over.

Andy Brack is publisher of Charleston City Paper. Have a comment? Send to:  feedback@charlestoncitypaper.com.