SC House Speaker Lucas leaving after 8 kinder, gentler years
South Carolina House Speaker Jay Lucas said Tuesday that he will not run for reelection this year after running the chamber for eight years, opening up a big leadership gap in a chamber the Republican has worked hard to make less divisive and more cooperative.
Lucas gave a short speech, keeping his composure until the end, when the chamber erupted in thunderous applause and Democrats and Republicans from all over the political spectrum gave him long, heartfelt hugs as he tried to make his way back to the office.
"You have graciously bestowed upon me one of the greatest honors of my life and I hope I was up to the job," he said tearfully.
Lucas was elected Speaker in 2014 after Bobby Harrell was indicted on campaign finance violations. Harrell played favorites, ignored Democrats and wasn't very receptive to different opinions. The House's relationship with the governor suffered, but in no small part because of Gov. Nikki Haley, who was occupying the mansion at the time.
Lucas had a different approach. He ran a kinder, gentler House and seemed to know the families, likes, dislikes and proclivities of each of the other 123 members.
Under his leadership, the legislature achieved big successes, including successfully ushering a gas tax increase through a Republican-dominated chamber after businesses said the state's roads were so bad they couldn't expand or relocate. And Lucas also made sure the Confederate flag was removed from the Statehouse lawn in 2015.
The speaker also steered the House as it responded to the billions of dollars South Carolina Electric & Gas wasted on two nuclear power plants that never generated a watt of power, angrily denouncing the way executives treated ratepayers and lawmakers. The House also passed a $1 billion tax cut package he has wanted to see almost his entire legislative career.
But years of working on a comprehensive education reform package withered away as COVID-19 wrecked the session during which the proposal was to be completed. And this year has seen an increase in partisan bickering, with some Republicans upset that more of their agenda isn't being pushed through.
Lucas said he is still trying to figure out what he will do next.
Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter was wiping away tears as Lucas spoke. The Orangeburg Democrat is one of only six current House members to serve longer than Lucas.
"Jay has a good heart. He's a good person," Cobb-Hunter said. "I wish his caucus fully appreciated what a good person he is. He liked to please everyone and you can't please everyone in this business."
Lucas was first elected in 1998. Rising quietly through the ranks, he was known as a hard worker willing to take up whatever task leadership gave him. He became speaker pro-tem — the second highest leadership position in the House — in 2010. That made him a natural choice to be Speaker and repair the chamber's reputation and feelings after Harrell's indictment.
After years of governors being at odds with House leadership — Lucas was in the chamber when then-Gov. Mark Sanford brought pigs to the chamber doors to protest what he called the House's pork spending — Lucas sought to work with governors, forging a close working relationship with Gov Henry McMaster.
"I have been fortunate enough to call him a friend for all of those years," McMaster said of Lucas' 24 years in the House. "Our work together has been close and constant and his leadership has produced unprecedented growth and prosperity for all the people in our great state."
The leadership issues before Lucas' election led the House to limit future speakers to five two-year terms, meaning if Lucas had run for reelection this year he would have been a lame duck next session.
No one immediately stepped up to run for speaker. House Majority Leader Gary Smrill also plans to step aside at the end of the session after 30 years, leaving a substantial leadership vacuum among House Republicans.
House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith said he hasn't decided whether to run for speaker or who he might support if he doesn't.
But the Sumter Republican said he hopes the kinder, gentler House that is Lucas' legacy isn't abandoned.
"He does it with respect and kindness and humility — with humor, and he even has a zinger every once in a while," Smith said.
Known for his love of movies and music, Lucas often sprinkled his speeches with lessons he said he had learned from both. He used several lyrics, including those of Pink Floyd's "Time," in his speech Tuesday.
"And you run and you run to catch up with the sun. But it's sinking, racing around to come up behind you again. The sun is the same in a relative way, but you're older; shorter of breath and one day closer to death," Lucas said, quoting a verse of the song he memorized when he was a teen.
"It's a hard truth the song tells."