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Nikki Haley's Pay-to-Play Politics | The Nation

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Nikki Haley's Pay-to-Play Politics

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The Minefield

During her gubernatorial campaign, Haley ran on a platform of transparency and accountability, but since taking office she’s refused every sit-down interview request with the State, one of South Carolina’s largest newspapers. Print and TV reporters throughout the state have complained about her administration’s press relations. Like her mentor Sarah Palin, Haley avoids the local press but frequently appears on Fox News. And she used a legislative exemption to keep private her taxpayer-funded e-mails after reporters requested them in the wake of allegations that she’d had an extramarital affair.

About the Author

Corey Hutchins
Corey Hutchins is a reporter for the Columbia Free Times. His book about Alvin Greene, The Accidental Candidate, comes...

On the stump, Haley campaigned for more income disclosure laws, saying the public has a right to know what special interests are paying lawmakers. In a speech before Palin endorsed her on the Statehouse steps, Haley said, “When you see who’s paying your legislators, you will start to see why policies move the way it has [sic].” However, Haley failed to report in her own ethics filings that she had accepted more than $40,000 in consulting income from an engineering firm with business before the legislature. Neither Haley nor the firm will say what she did to earn the money. “She is a well-connected person who knows different things and different people, and that’s why we hired her, and I’m going to leave it at that,” Robert Ferrell, the man who hired her, told me. Ferrell is the firm’s southeast region business development manager.

Then there’s the $110,000 fundraising job that the CEO and president of a hospital in Haley’s district created for her while she was a sitting lawmaker, despite her lack of fundraising experience. The job came during a time when the hospital was looking for approval from state lawmakers to build a heart surgery center. To make matters worse, on a routine 2008 application for the post, Haley wrote that she’d been earning $125,000 from her family’s clothing store, Exotica International. That’s drastically more than what she told the IRS that year, when she reported earning only $22,000 from Exotica. Haley denies that she filled out that particular page of the application. But the hospital says no one on its end did, and it would have been incredibly hard for a third party to have done it because of the personal information involved.

Though not a certified CPA, in her campaign Haley frequently cited her skills as an accountant. Yet she consistently blew the April 15 deadline on her family income taxes, racking up more than $4,000 in penalties since 2004. More curious, in 2006 Haley and her husband, Michael, claimed only $40,269 in combined income. This was while the couple was paying a $289,000 mortgage, driving a luxury SUV and raising two children.

Affairs of State

Two men have signed sworn affidavits alleging they had sexual affairs with the married mother of two, stemming from 2007 and 2008, respectively. She has denied them and has agreed to resign as governor if either is proven. Questions about her private life might best remain a family matter except that both men have high political profiles, and one is writing a tell-all book about his relationship with Haley. Will Folks, a former spokesman for then–Governor Sanford who worked for Haley in 2007, is a political consultant who runs a popular South Carolina blog, FITSNews. He is coy about his book contract but has released a steamy excerpt on his website. “If she were to appear on a national ticket, it would be the end of that ticket,” Folks told me.

Still, like so many Palmetto State chief executives before her, Haley seems to be angling for a spot on a national ticket. She is already penning her memoir. “Every governor we’ve had since Carroll Campbell has had national aspirations, but with her it’s more naked and obvious,” says Brad Warthen, a Columbia advertising man who until 2009 was the longtime editorial page editor of the State. Warthen endorsed Haley in two legislative elections and chronicled her rise beginning about seven years ago. In that time, he says, she has morphed from a naïve newcomer, to a politician he thought could become a good force in the legislature, to something approaching megalomania.

“I think she’s had her head turned by discovering where demagoguery will get you,” Warthen told me. “I don’t think that’s totally who she was before. I think she has developed in this direction. It’s a B.F. Skinner behavioral reinforcement thing; she has been rewarded and rewarded and rewarded. This has worked for her. And she continues to charm the national media. Because you know what? They don’t care. It’s just a story.”

But the story that’s been told nationally has a different tint in Dixie, one that belies any claim that white voters in South Carolina, which is nearly one-third black, have cast aside hang-ups over race by electing Haley. During her campaign, she embraced the most conservative ideas right down the line: laissez-faire capitalism, hostility to social programs and labor unions, cutting taxes, starving government.

“Nikki Haley could have been perceived as a black person in South Carolina because of her skin color and her eyes and so on, but she’s gone out of her way to say indirectly, ‘I’m not black, I’m white. I dress white, I talk white, I have white friends, I have white ideology,’” says John Crangle, a retired lawyer and political science professor who has run the state chapter of Common Cause for twenty-five years. “The subtext of everything she says is that we need to do less for black people in South Carolina, and that appeals to your traditional white Southerners—the same people who voted for Nixon and the same people who are the base of the Republican Party now. But it also appeals to all these retirees that come in because they don’t want to pay taxes.” In the Palmetto State, it seems, an antigovernment stance that by default is anti-black still plays well at the polls—especially when peddled by a minority politician. (In November, in the same election that sent Haley to the governor’s mansion, ultraconservative Tea Partier Tim Scott became the first black Republican elected to Congress from South Carolina since Reconstruction.)

At a roundtable for reporters before the first GOP presidential debate of 2012, held in Greenville on May 5, the Canadian magazine Maclean’s asked Haley if she was interested in being vice president. “No, everybody wants to talk about VP with me, and what I tell them [is] they need to be focused on the top of the ticket,” she said. “We don’t have the luxury of talking about VP right now.”

But one day soon they will, and Haley’s name will continue to come up. “She’s in the South, and she’s a female governor,” says Woodard, the political scientist. “She has to be mentioned when you talk about ticket balancing. I’m sure she knows that.” He adds that her national libertarian backers are probably helping to push for it.

In late April, at a stop in Florence, during a series of speeches Haley was giving to commemorate her first 100 days, she told the small crowd, “There really are no mistakes we have made.” It was an astonishing claim, given the nearly daily reports of infidelity, dishonesty, conservative cronyism and pay-to-play politics. But the people of South Carolina are beginning to realize they’ve been duped. The question is whether the rest of the nation will get that same privilege.

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