COLUMBIA, SC (WCSC) - South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley issued an emotional State of the State address Wednesday night, challenging lawmakers to represent the people in a way that is worthy of the state's citizens after a year of challenge.
"This has been a different kind of year for South Carolina, a year that warrants a different kind of speech," Haley said. "While there is plenty to celebrate in our state, it would be neither honest nor productive to ignore the great challenges that were thrust upon South Carolina in 2015."
Her speech followed a historic year for South Carolina, when a massacre at a historic black church resulted in the Confederate flag being removed from the Statehouse grounds.
Haley asked legislators to follow the example of their colleague, the church's slain pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, saying his legacy lives on. She recognized Pinckney's widow, Jennifer, and their daughters Eliana and Malana.
"I knew him to be a goodhearted public official," she said of Pinckney. "I knew him to be a senator who spoke infrequently, but when he did, it was with great intensity and even greater authority. I knew him to be a man who never seemed to speak against anyone or anything but, instead, to advocate for the people and the ideas that he believed in."
Haley also spoke of the growing tide of division, urging people to "spend a little more time getting to know the people behind the policies."
"The building we sit in invites disagreement," she said. "That is a good thing, a healthy thing – we should not pretend to all believe the same things nor should we be silent about where and when we differ. But disagreement does not have to mean division. Honest policy differences do not need to morph into personal dislike, distrust, and disillusion."
VIDEO: Click here to watch the Democratic response to Gov. Haley's address.
Haley also referred to the April 4 shooting of Walter Scott.
"We were betrayed by one of our own," Haley said of the police officer facing a murder charge in Scott's death.
"What happened in North Charleston on April 4 was not a unique event in America today," Haley said. "What happened after was. In the face of overwhelming video evidence that something had gone terribly wrong, South Carolina did not erupt in riots or violence. Instead, we focused on justice and progress. Justice for Walter Scott and his family. Progress for our state."
Haley praised Scott's family, who was also in the audience, for setting the tone for the state's response to the shooting.
"They started the calming of our community," Haley said. "Their words and actions allowed South Carolina the chance to right this wrong, the best we could, without the influence of outsiders."
The state, she said was "devastated" by "man-made tragedies" in 2015, as well as the so-called 1,000-year flood, the biggest natural disaster in the state Hurricane Hugo.
"This year was something neither we, nor the weathermen, could ever have imagined," Haley said of the flood event. "Rain at unbelievable levels, pouring from the sky for hours. Enough rain, according to one report, to give each American one bottle of water every day for the next 182 years."
It also included business growth in South Carolina. She said business growth in the state will ultimately lead to more jobs, something she has pushed since elected in 2010. Haley cited foreign investment, and South Carolina's place as the number one exporter of tires and one of the fastest-growing economies on the east coast, adding all South Carolinians should take pride in those facts.
But Haley then tackled other challenges facing the state.
"There is no excuse for South Carolina to rank as the state in America with the highest percentage of women killed by men," she said, touting new legislation to help combat domestic violence as well as a task force designed to address aspects of the problem the law alone cannot solve. Haley called for more action to end what she calls the "domestic violence epidemic plaguing South Carolina." In an excerpt, she says we need a culture of empowerment rather than one of re-victimization.
Haley talked about disparities in the education system and efforts to correct them and improve the state's schools, adding that all of the changes made thus far had been done without raising taxes.
But the challenge, she said, was not over. Haley said the voters should decide whether they want the governor to appoint the state's secretary of education in the future. She said 2016 will be the first year the state begins aggressively recruiting teachers to rural districts and providing incentives for them to remain.
"Children deserve to know that teachers believe in them enough to stay," Haley said.
The third aspect of education reform she called for is to improve failing facilities, saying students cannot learn as well "when the walls of their classrooms are crumbling around them."
Haley said a thorough, priority-based system is needed to determine which districts are eligible for state support in order to make sure the state helps the students and the districts that need the help the most.
"We can waste that opportunity, if we so choose, on high-rise dorms, sparkling new graduate centers, and world-class administrative buildings," Haley said. "But if we don't focus on K-12, and focus on it now, higher education won't even be a possibility for far too many South Carolina children."
Haley said the state's improving economy did not happen by accident but rather as a result of hard work to make the success happen.
She challenged lawmakers to pass ethics reform and to address other priorities.
"Pass legislation that cuts our taxes, reforms our flawed transportation system, and invests in our roads, and I will sign it," she said. "Pass legislation that does not do all three of those things, and I will veto it. The choice is clear, and it's all yours."
The most emotional moment of the speech came while speaking of the June 17 shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church.
"When I speak of the tragedy, I no longer speak of the 'Emanuel Nine,'" Haley said. "I speak of the 'Emanuel 12.' Why? On June 17th, there were twelve men and women who went into that Bible study. I have said it before, but I imagine I will say it until I no longer have the capacity to speak at all: Those twelve people did what so many South Carolinians do on a normal Wednesday night. They went to Bible study, to profess and to grow their faith. But that was not a normal Wednesday night. That night someone else joined them. He didn't look like them, didn't sound like them, and didn't act like them. They didn't call the police. They didn't throw him out. Instead they pulled up a chair and prayed with him. For an hour. For reasons only God knows, we lost nine amazing souls that night. So too, for reasons only He knows, God decided He wasn't ready to take three more, that He still had work for them to do."
Haley recognized Felicia Sanders and Polly Sheppard, the two adult survivors of the shooting, as well as Sanders' 11-year-old granddaughter. The two women attended the address and Haley paused to choke back tears after introducing them to a standing ovation.
"Just as the nine we lost inform my belief that angels must exist in Heaven, these two women, and the precious little one who was with them that night, are proof that we have angels living here on Earth," Haley said.
Haley ended the address with a challenge to lawmakers to "follow the example" set by those around us.
"Those twelve who prayed with a stranger. Their families who forgave a murderer. That community that came together. Our state that inspired a nation. There is greatness in South Carolina, a greatness embodied by our people, a greatness unequaled in our country," she said. "We have all seen it. We all know it. It is my fervent wish that, in this year, we, as the representatives of those people, act in a manner that is worthy of that greatness.For if we do, there is no limit to where we can take our state.
Following the Governor's speech, Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster County gave the Democratic response. Norrell said the past 25 years of Republican leadership have dragged South Carolina down in every category.
"During that time, Republicans have been in almost total control of state government," Norrell said. "They've had the Governor's Mansion, the House of Representatives, the Senate, our Congressional Delegation, and Republicans control every statewide elected office."
Norrell criticized Republican leadership for allowing the state's education system to decline and said the focus on big business has come at the expense of the state's rural communities and threatened the agriculture industry. She also said the state's improving economy is part of a nationwide trend, not something that is just unique to the Palmetto State.
"Lately, you've heard Gov. Haley call for unity, and I agree," Norrell said. "We need to start working together to get things done. But what she hasn't told you is that the fighting is within her own party. Republicans in the Senate actually filibustered their own roads bill last summer until it was dead for the year."
Norrell said Democrats remain unified in an effort to fix the state's roads and said she hopes Republicans join them.
"If the Republicans could give us the South Carolina we want and we know is possible, they would have done it a long time ago," she said.