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.