Nikki Haley's Pay-to-Play Politics
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s star has maintained a rather controlled burn across America’s conservative galaxy in the lead-up to the 2012 elections, and the national narrative providing much of its thrust has focused on her personal biography and the hypnotic allure of a new kind of identity politics in the Old South.
Increasing talk of this rapidly rising Tea Party governor—at 39 the youngest in the nation, and South Carolina’s first female and ethnic minority chief executive—as vice presidential timber is no surprise. Indeed, it’s been an easy sell: a suburban, stiletto-heeled daughter of Sikh immigrants from India takes on the good old boys, and, presto, we have a fresh-faced free-market force for the conservative cause. “I think I am very aware that I am the flavor of the month,” Haley said on a recent radio show when the talk turned to the GOP veepstakes.
And why not? Even before she moved into the governor’s mansion five months ago, the three-term state legislator had charmed the national press, earning hagiographic coverage in many of the nation’s leading magazines. Newsweek put Haley on its cover before her election as “The Face of the New South.”
But Haley has been navigating a series of land mines—IRS disputes, questionable business deals and appointments, multiple adultery allegations—any one of which threatens to blow up her political career. “I believe she is the most corrupt person to occupy the governor’s mansion since Reconstruction,” declared John Rainey, a longtime Republican fundraiser and power broker who chaired the state’s Board of Economic Advisers for eight years. A 69-year-old attorney, Rainey is an aristocratic iconoclast who never bought the Haley myth. “I do not know of any person who ran for governor in my lifetime with as many charges against him or her as she has had that went unanswered,” he told me on a recent afternoon at his sprawling horse farm outside the small town of Camden. “The Democrats got Alvin Greene; we got Nikki Haley. Because nobody bothered to check these guys out.”
Inside the Favor Factory
When Haley took office in January, her backbencher status gave her no support structure in state government. Since then she’s appointed a surprising number of cronies and loyalists to bureaucratic functions in order to construct such a network. Many state boards have staggered terms to prevent unilateral decimation of institutional knowledge, but because former Governor Mark Sanford left so many appointees in place when their terms expired, there was a glut of personnel for Haley to dispense with as she pleased. At an early stage in the bloodbath, the capital city daily newspaper, the State, pointed out that of the fifty-nine she had already replaced, twenty-six were donors to her campaign.
Such wholesale housecleaning was not only sharply at variance with what the last GOP governor had done when taking over from a member of the same party; it also reeked of the kind of favor trading Haley had run against on the stump. “She was the Tea Party candidate, and she was gonna sweep the good old boys out,” Clemson University political scientist David Woodard said about Haley’s appointments at the time. Woodard is also a Republican consultant who wrote Why We Whisper: Restoring Our Right to Say It’s Wrong with South Carolina senator and Tea Party darling Jim DeMint. “In effect, she does the same sort of cronyism that is characteristic of previous governors,” said Woodard.
Meanwhile, Haley’s approach to the process offended the state’s genteel Southern traditions. In March, without announcing it, Haley quietly excised the most generous benefactor of the University of South Carolina, billionaire financier and philanthropist Darla Moore, from the school’s board of trustees, replacing her with a campaign contributor and little-known lawyer from Haley’s district. When the alternative weekly Free Times broke the news of the move—which led to student protests and a broader public backlash—Haley was deceptive about her reasons for having made the change.
Haley’s office initially said she had wanted a “fresh set of eyes” on the board; Haley later told Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker that she’d ousted Moore—who’d given $70 million to the university whose business school bears her name—for not returning Haley’s phone calls and postponing a meeting. E-mails and correspondence from Haley’s office, later made public, revealed, however, that Haley had chosen Moore’s replacement a month before trying to meet with her.
If her university board pick was tone deaf, Haley’s choices for top political positions were outrageous. To chair the state’s revenue-projecting Board of Economic Advisors—one of the highest positions in state government that doesn’t require Senate confirmation—Haley appointed Chad Waldorf, co-founder of a barbecue chain called Sticky Fingers. Waldorf also happens to be co-founder of a group that paid for a $400,000 pro-Haley ad buy during her gubernatorial primary campaign; the ads were pulled off the air by a judge who said the group appeared to have improperly coordinated with her campaign.
Meanwhile, after Haley lifted a hiring freeze set by Sanford, the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism created a job for the wife of Haley’s chief of staff, Tim Pearson. Pearson, who is being paid $125,000—$27,000 more than the man who held the post in Sanford’s office—is a former Sanford aide who managed Haley’s campaign.
Haley has ended up on Think Progress’s list of pay-to-play governors who solicited money to fund inaugural parties from corporations with vested state interests. One of them was Boeing, which last year moved an expansion from unionized Washington State to South Carolina, a right-to-work state, which earned the airline manufacturer a lawsuit (still pending) from the National Labor Relations Board. Haley has lately made national news by asking the GOP presidential candidates to stick up for Boeing.
Perhaps most disturbing, however, is her hiring of Christian Soura, 32, who moved to South Carolina to take an unannounced job in the Haley administration at a salary of a dollar a year. The former secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Administration under Democratic Governor Ed Rendell, Soura, whom Haley calls “Mr. Fix It,” is tasked with setting up a similar department in the Palmetto State.
A bill currently moving through the state legislature would make the department a cabinet agency under the governor, allowing a governor-appointed director to oversee much of state administration. In early June, after the legislature adjourned without passing it, Haley ordered legislators back to Columbia for an emergency special session, without pay, in an attempt to bully them into passing the bill. It was a strident power play that offended legislative leaders in both parties and led the Senate president, a fellow Republican, to sue her in order to block it. The State Supreme Court quickly sided with him, ruling that Haley had acted outside her constitutional authority.
While the dollar-a-year arrangement gives Soura access to state government, he’ll draw his real compensation from a newly created think tank, the South Carolina Center for Transforming Government, which doesn’t have to disclose its funding.
The murky nature of Soura’s presence has caused headaches for the new state treasurer, Republican Curtis Loftis. Loftis accuses Soura of undermining his authority, violating established protocols and circumventing the treasurer’s office by contacting services that determine the state’s credit rating behind Loftis’s back. “We don’t have any knowledge of who’s paying him or what his motives are,” a frustrated Loftis said recently. “We have an unknown dollar-a-year man.”