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Power shifts; Alexander now South Carolina Senate president

South Carolina Senate
Jeffrey Collins/AP
/
AP
A single rose sits in the late Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman's seat, which is draped in black on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, in Columbia, S.C. The 90-year-old Florence Republican died Nov. 12 after serving more than 41 years in the Senate. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The first president of the South Carolina Senate stepped aside from his role overseeing the entire chamber Monday, becoming instead the chairman of the powerful committee that writes the state budget.

For Sen. Harvey Peeler, now the chamber's longest serving Republican, controlling the state's purse is more influential than controlling debate enforcing rules and making some appointments in the GOP-dominated chamber.

Peeler turned over the purple robe and gavel on Monday to Sen. Thomas Alexander, the chamber's third longest serving Republican. Alexander from Walhalla was a unanimous choice.

The change in power was put into motion after the death last month of 90-year-old Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman.

The day started with tributes to Leatherman, who ran the budget-writing committee for 20 years and was only the fifth Senate Finance Committee chairman in nearly 80 years.

“He embodied the state Senate as well as anyone I have known, ” said Sen. Nikki Setzler, a Democrat from West Columbia who is the Senate's longest serving member at 45 years. He said staff used to jokingly call the two veterans “Thelma and Louise.”

After the tributes, Peeler, 73, then turned in his resignation as Senate president. The Gaffney Republican was the first senator to preside over the chamber in 2019 after that power was stripped from the lieutenant governor when voters chose to begin electing the governor and lieutenant governor as a ticket instead of separately.

“While serving as the first elected president of the body is and always will be one of the greatest honors of my life, my work on the Finance Committee will allow me to focus on the issues most important to our state, " Peeler said, citing fiscal conservatism and a state where families and businesses can thrive.

South Carolina awards committee chairmanships to members of the majority party based on seniority, while a rule put in place in 2019 to limit Leatherman’s power prohibits committee chairman from also being Senate president. Leatherman and Peeler were both elected in 1980 Ties go on alphabetical order, so Peeler had to wait 20 years.

Alexander, 65, was then unanimously chosen to be president. He has been in the Senate since 1994 and spent seven years in the House — first elected as a Democrat like many older Republicans— before heading across the Statehouse lobby.

Alexander isn't as outspoken as Peeler. He is a consensus builder who looks to compromise, praised as much by Democrats as Republicans.

“There is no tyranny in the simple majority and Sen. Alexander has always followed that,” said Sen. Gerald Malloy, a Democrat from Hartsville as he seconded Alexander's nomination as president.

Alexander took high fives and handshakes from his fellow senators before the session started. His wife held the Bible and helped adjust the purple robe after the Senate Majority and Minority leaders put it on him.

As president, Alexander will have to give up his chairmanship of the Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee. Sen. Tom Davis, a Republican from Beaufort, takes over leadership of that committee.

Alexander promised to enforce the rules and ensure decorum as president. Beyond that, he said, he wanted to take some time to figure out what other ways he can shape and change the office where he is only the second holder.

“I wanted to get elected," Alexander said to laughter as he spoke to reporters after Monday's session. "I purposefully have not looked at any of those things.”

Peeler's farewell speech lasted about a minute. “Brothers and sisters of the Senate. We have work to do. I’ll see you on the floor," he said, brining down the gavel one last time.

Peeler then took off his robe in a small room behind where the president presides. He sat on the nearly empty front row on the right side of the chamber. Desk No. 1 was draped in black with a single rose because it was Leatherman's seat, while Desk No. 2 was empty because Alexander was now front and center.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.