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South Carolina House chooses Murrell Smith as new speaker

South Carolina Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, speaks after being chosen as speaker-elect on Thursday, April 28, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Jeffrey Collins/AP
South Carolina Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, speaks after being chosen as speaker-elect on Thursday, April 28, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

South Carolina Rep. Murrell Smith was chosen to be the next speaker of the House on Thursday with the Republican vowing to work with all members in a chamber where nearly two-thirds of the members are Republicans.

The unanimous election means Smith will take over leadership of the House when the General Assembly's regular session ends May 12, handling any special sessions. If he wins reelection to his seat, he'll have to be chosen speaker again for the 2023 session.

Smith was nominated by current Speaker Jay Lucas, who wanted an orderly transition. Smith sounded a lot like Lucas, who pushed for inclusion and respect, as he temporarily put on Lucas' purple robe and thanked his colleagues for choosing him.

"Each one of us are elected by the same amount of people in the state and every member deserves a voice in what we do here. I believe this body should operate with a spirit of collaboration and collegiality but most importantly with mutual respect for all," Smith said.

Smith said he learned the lesson that everyone deserves respect and a voice from his days as a public defender, fresh out of law school. He cited former President Ronald Reagan's quote "if we love our country, then we should also love our countrymen."

"I promise you today that I will not be the speaker for one party or one region of the state but for the entire House and all the people of South Carolina" Smith said.

Smith, 53, was first elected to the House in 2000 and steadily rose through the ranks. He was quickly elevated into leadership and Lucas' inner circle after Lucas became speaker when Bobby Harrell's indictment forced him to resign from the leadership position in 2014.

Lucas picked Smith to be chairman of the House's budget writing Ways and Means Committee, kicking off Harrell's choice.

How Smith will be as speaker is evident in how he treated the members of his key House committee knowing a group works best when every member is involved, Lucas said.

Lucas cited a Latin phrase used to describe the prime minister of Britain's role in Parliament as "first among equals."

"Our peers include a diverse collection of extraordinary public servants representing all of the state's citizens. And Murrell has truly distinguished himself in this body as a first among equals,"" Lucas said.

Lucas watched Smith's speech from a desk on the floor, his first trip among the body since 2014.

Lucas ran a kinder, gentler House after years of rancor with Harrell, whose leadership style was rough and tumble, tended to ignore Democrats and played favorites.

Smith, whose 13-year-old daughter Bee and his 8-year-old son Murrell III sat at his desk as they waited for his election, said he wants to follow Lucas' path. He refused to talk about specifics goals as speaker, saying he wanted to wait until the 125th House session starts in January.

Lucas isn't the only Republican leader leaving. House Majority Leader Gary Simrill also isn't running for reelection after 30 years. He is the only Republican currently in the House who served when Democrats were the majority in the chamber. Several other longtime members have decided to leave as well.

But the House will endure, Lucas said Thursday.

"When some of us leave this chamber and fresh faces arrive, the world will not stop. The issues our state faces will not disappear," Lucas said. "I invite this body to embrace its new chapter."