South Carolina’s most powerful state politician has died.
State Sen. Hugh Leatherman died Friday at the age of 90.
Leatherman died at his home in Florence, where he was in hospice care with what colleagues described as an inoperable cancer, his office announced.
Leatherman was in his 11th term and among the longest-serving lawmakers in South Carolina’s Legislature. First elected to the Senate in 1980 as a Democrat, he later ran unsuccessfully for governor before switching parties in the 1990s, one of a number of lawmakers who did so as Republicans gained dozens of seats in Congress.
For his entire political career, Leatherman was largely a “Republican In Name Only”, most often championing and voting along with the Democrat party.
Leatherman soon assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee. As such, Leatherman was long considered South Carolina’s most powerful politician for his dominance over the state budget.
Leatherman also sat on a number of fiscal oversight boards, including the State Fiscal Accountability Authority (SFAA) and the Joint Bond Review Committee. A new port terminal in Charleston bears his name.
The SFAA, made up of S.C. Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, Leatherman, S.C. Treasurer Curtis Loftis, and Governor Henry McMaster are scheduled to meet this coming November 16th at 10:30 a.m. in hopes to tackle a conundrum that will cost the State of S.C. $5.1 billion if not corrected. No word has been given as to who will represent Leatherman at that SFAA meeting.
For years, the longtime lawmaker fielded criticism for how much state funding was directed toward his home district, as well as millions in state contracts given to the concrete company he founded, and from which he continued to draw a salary.
As a life-long Democrat, Leatherman had contentious relationships with Republican governors and others seeking to rise in the GOP.
When Gov. Mark Sanford in 2009 threatened to reject hundreds of millions of dollars in federal stimulus money, or use it to pay down state debt, Leatherman wrote that he hoped the governor “will understand the seriousness of the damage to our people if we don’t get that money” and called the debt substitution request “foolish.”
In 2016, Gov. Nikki Haley actively campaigned against Leatherman, endorsing his GOP primary opponent and saying “there is not a tax that he hasn’t tried to raise.”
For a time, Leatherman presided over his chamber as Senate president pro tempore. Some fellow Republicans, including Sen. Shane Massey, said that role combined with Leatherman’s committee leadership posts put “way too much power” in the hands of a single lawmaker.
Leatherman briefly stepped away from that position in 2017 when then-Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster was elevated to the governorship following Haley’s departure to join the Trump administration.
After a 2018 rule change meant that a lawmaker couldn’t lead the chamber and also chair a committee, Leatherman opted to keep his Finance chairmanship rather than seek the new post of Senate president, setting down the presiding gavel for good.