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State Sen. Hugh Leatherman dies at 90

Published: Nov. 12, 2021 at 8:41 AM EST|Updated: Nov. 12, 2021 at 7:29 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - South Carolina’s oldest and most powerful state lawmaker, Sen. Hugh Leatherman, passed away early Friday morning at the age of 90.

News of the Florence Republican’s death was confirmed Friday by his office.

State Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey (R-Edgefield) released a statement on Leatherman’s death:

I, along with members of the entire Senate Majority Caucus, join the Leatherman family in mourning the passing of our colleague, Senator Hugh Leatherman. With four decades of service in the South Carolina State Senate, Senator Leatherman - better known to many as Mr. Chairman - will have a long legacy marked in every corner of the state and mirrored through the Senate chambers for decades to come. His warm smile, commitment to community, never-stop work ethic, and resolute focus will forever be remembered.

We share our love, thoughts, and prayers with his dear wife Jean, children, family, friends, constituents, staff and colleagues. Godspeed, Mr. Chairman.

South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick said Leatherman “dedicated almost half of his life to serving the people of Florence County and South Carolina.

“His commitment to the Port and so many other initiatives propelled our state forward,” McKissick said. “We’re grateful for his decades of service, and our prayers are with Mrs. Jean and the rest of the Leatherman family.”

The South Carolina Democratic Caucus also released a statement about the lawmaker:

We were saddened to hear the news this morning that our colleague, State Sen. Hugh Leatherman, has passed. Every member of our caucus feels incredibly privileged to have worked alongside Chairman Leatherman for a period of time in his impressive tenure in the South Carolina Senate. His wisdom and steadfast devotion to public service will be greatly missed.

Chairman Leatherman was an effective leader, a true statesman, and an influential changemaker. He has undoubtedly left a permanent mark on South Carolina—a legacy that will long live on in the many people he inspired, the lives he touched, and the profound work he did over 40 years in office. We are sincerely grateful for all he did to make our state a better place.

We offer our deepest condolences and prayers for Senator Leatherman’s family and loved ones.

Gov. Henry McMaster released a statement on Leatherman’s passing Friday:

“A powerful force for the progress and prosperity of our people has left us. For over fifty years, Hugh Leatherman poured his life into our state and we are the better for it. He loved his work and kept his word. He never quit. We will miss him. May God bless him and his family.”

The governor’s office said flags would be ordered to be lowered in honor of Leatherman’s service to the state once funeral arrangements are announced.

The state senator had been receiving hospice care since October after the discovery of what colleagues described as inoperable cancer. A GOP senator told The Associated Press in October that Hugh Leatherman’s staff notified a handful of lawmakers the 90-year-old Florence Republican had been hospitalized after experiencing severe abdominal pain.

Leatherman was a powerful figure in SC politics

While many South Carolina voters may never have seen Leatherman on their local ballots, they will likely recognize the name itself.

The South Carolina Ports Authority opened the Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal in March along the Cooper River in North Charleston. It was the country’s first container terminal to open in more than a decade.

The Ports Authority says Phase One of the Leatherman Terminal added 700,000 TEUs of annual throughput capacity and an additional berth to the East Coast port market. When fully built, the 286-acre, three-berth terminal will add 2.4 million TEUs of throughput capacity to the Port of Charleston, doubling the existing port capacity.

The South Carolina Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers named the project South Carolina’s Project of the Year in June.

Leatherman visited the port in January 2020 to mark the structural completion of the terminal’s new operations building.

He is also credited with attracting major companies to South Carolina, including Boeing and Honda.

“I’m not sure if I have served with anyone who has directly impacted the lives of everyday South Carolinians more than Sen. Leatherman,” Sen. Darrell Jackson, D - Richland County, said.

Jackson said Leatherman’s support during his campaign to bring the South Carolina African-American History Monument to State House Grounds was critical to the monument’s dedication in 2001.

“That would not be standing here if it had not been for Sen. Leatherman,” Jackson said. “I sponsored the resolution to put it up, but I needed powerful allies like Sen. Leatherman to make it possible, and he did.”

Leatherman was first elected to the chamber in 1980 and serves as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which has sway over the state’s budget.

He was elected President Pro Tempore of the state Senate in 2014. But when President Donald Trump appointed Nikki Haley to a United Nations Ambassador position in 2017 and then-Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster became governor, the state Constitution required that the President Pro Tempore of the Senate become the next lieutenant governor.

Leatherman resigned his position as Senate President Pro Tempore to avoid the lieutenant governorship, which many consider a politically weak role in the state so that Sen. Kevin Bryant could be elected in his place and then rise to become McMaster’s lieutenant governor.

Leatherman was then re-elected as President Pro Tempore of the Senate by a 28-16 vote. In 2019, after voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution that eliminated the President Pro Tempore position in favor of a President of the Senate, the Senate passed a resolution to give Leatherman the ceremonial title of President Pro Tempore Emeritus in recognition of his many years or service.

Leatherman called it “the honor of a lifetime” serving as President Pro Tempore of the Senate.

“This is a body designed to debate,” Leatherman said of the state Senate. “Ideas and bills must both go through vigorous consideration in order to be deemed worthy of enactment. It is not an easy process nor was it designed to be. We are a body that in many circumstances requires compromise to move forward. Our founders believed that a better legislative product could be obtained if we listened to minority viewpoints and then tried to accommodate those views. This striving for consensus is what makes the Senate the Senate.”

Sen. Harvey Peeler became the state’s first Senate President on Jan. 8, 2019.

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