The Many Missteps of Nikki Haley

The South Carolina governor is in trouble because she hasn't actually governed.

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South Carolina Governor-elect Nikki Haley at the Republican Governors Association meeting Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010, in San Diego.
South Carolina Republican Governor Nikki Haley

CHARLESTON, South Carolina – South Carolina, like many states, has a governorship that is at best weak. Nearly every aspect of how this state runs is controlled by the General Assembly, where Republicans control the House with a 32-member advantage and the Senate by a 10-vote majority. Simply put, the Republicans hold all the legislative cards. That leaves the sitting governor without much of an agenda.

The current governor down here is former state Rep. Nikki Haley. She was elected in 2010 by a slim four-point margin over Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen. That's right, a Republican only won by four points in South Carolina. But wait there's more. Haley was endorsed by "you betcha!" Sarah Palin and had huge backing from the so-called tea party wing of the GOP at a time when it began its nascent ascendancy across the country.

Nikki Haley's comet was in full and fast ascent. So she settled into the governor's mansion up in Columbia with a clear vision: to work with and against the GOP-controlled assembly and to do anything she could to lower the state's 10.8 percent unemployment rate. Haley has definitely succeeded at the former. She has a habit of verbally beating up her former Republican colleagues from her ground floor suite of offices as they sit upstairs in their respective chambers. Her favorite target these days? That would be GOP Speaker of the South Carolina House Bobby Harrell. We call this "dog eat dog" down here in S.C., and there just isn't any better theater to be honest. She's even gone so far as to give her former colleagues in the state legislature "report cards." Somebody needs to give her a collection of  Norman Vincent Peale's books, and quick.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

No one in the state will deny Haley loves power, and frankly she's both talented and smart. You don't become the chief executive of an entire state by accident, not even here in South Carolina. The bigger question most folks have down here is does she have the ability to govern. I mean, she is the governor, right?

Most South Carolinians also agree that the governor really only has one thing to do and that is to use her office as a bully pulpit. When you look at the amount of power she actually has versus the amount of press coverage she actually gets, there's no match. Recognizing her own official limitations, Haley has taken the governorship to a new level, even beyond the stunts of her predecessor Mark Sanford (I just can't go there). And that's where her bigger problems come from – her inability to stay out of the news for missteps.

Several hiccups are noteworthy.

While Haley blasts her "bestie" Speaker Harrell for ethics violations, she's been accused and burned on more than one occasion for her own set of ethical lapses. She's currently trading barbs up and down the state with Sheheen over dueling ethics reform proposals. It's like watching some horrid Harry Potter Quidditch match with rebel flags substituted for the venerable House of Gryffindor. Such a shame actually.

Then there's the little problem with 4.5 million South Carolinians' social security numbers being compromised. Yeah, that happened. Someone hacked into a state database, which wasn't actually encrypted, and stole them. I think I'd be pissed about this regardless of political affiliation. And it's not like she can blame her Democratic predecessor because, well, South Carolina hasn't had one of those in over a decade.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the tea party.]

Then there was the issue of TB. That would be tuberculosis. Apparently, the head of the Department of Health and Environmental Control refused to allows a county superintendent of education to warn parents that there was a TB scare within his schools. Who does the head of the department answer to? Well, the governor. Optically, Haley just can't win.

Her judgement is now being called into question. Case in point: Just a few months ago, Haley chose to send funding to the Port of Savannah instead of the Port of Charleston. A little geography lesson: Savannah is in Georgia and Charleston is in South Carolina. Now if she were somehow miraculously the governor of both states, I could understand making a choice. Sadly, she's not. And what's worse, she apparently chose the Savannah port after attending a fundraiser in Georgia where she received $15,000 in campaign contributions. I mean, if you're going to sell out your own state, shouldn't it be for a hell of a lot more?

Perhaps the most egregious misstep was when she fired Darla Moore from the Board of Trustees for the University of South Carolina and replaced her with a Haley donor. The governor has the limited power of applying a certain number of trustees to the boards of state-supported colleges and universities. Moore, a self-made financier who's tougher than nails and perhaps the wealthiest philanthropist in the state, had been on the board since 1999. Then one day, she wasn't. The neat little secret in South Carolina is that girl-on-girl fighting just ain't acceptable. Haley took it public and in the process ticked off a lot of sweet southern ladies down there.

So is the Haley name dirt now? Her latest poll numbers aren't "purdy," as we like to say. She's sitting at 44 percent approval statewide, but only sitting at 65 percent with fellow Republicans. That's not a good number to be sitting at a year out from re-election. While those are poll numbers, something more telling just happened a couple of weeks ago that raises both of my eyebrows.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Sarah Palin.]

Columbia voters went to the polls to decide a referendum on whether to hire a city executive or leave the current mayor of Columbia as the part-time CEO of the capitol city. A week out, the referendum was well on its way to passage. All polling showed it winning comfortably. Now you nor I care about this referendum, with all due respect to the residents of Columbia, but what I thought was strange was Haley's endorsement of the referendum a week out. Then something funny happened. Of the 74,120 eligible voters in Columbia, a mere 11,739 showed up to defeat what was supposed to win in a landslide. So what happened and why should Haley care?

By all accounts, Haley's endorsement killed the measure. In other words, her endorsement is now a liability. Democrats hate her. Establishment Republicans dislike her and her shenanigans. Of late, Haley endorsed Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and now the dwindling tea party is beyond furious with her. I've been home the last three weeks for the holidays and I have to be brutally honest: Not a single Republican I've talked to is going to vote to re-elect her. Not one.

So let's summarize, shall we? You have a weak governor to start with, who has major ethics problems, no legislative accomplishments after nearly four years in office, screwed over the only other woman in the state with real power, scared every parent in the upstate into thinking their kid had TB, tells her former colleagues in the House and Senate how much they suck and then picked Georgia over South Carolina (and I ain't talking football folks).

Bottom line: Nikki Haley is in trouble and she has less than 365 days to right this ship. She better pray that ship ain't sailing into the Port of Charleston, since it lost its dredging money to the folks next door in Georgia.

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