Governor Nikki Haley, the first woman to lead South Carolina, upended the status quo at the state’s biggest public university last month by removing its most generous benefactor from the board of trustees.
Darla Moore, a financier who had donated $70 million to the University of South Carolina, was taken off the board by Haley. She was replaced by Thomas Cofield, a lawyer who gave $4,500 to Haley’s campaign for governor, state records show.
“We are changing the way we fund higher ed, and I needed someone I could count on to fight for me,” Haley, 39, said in an interview. As for Moore, “a big pocketbook doesn’t need to be on the governing board because all of a sudden, the big pocketbook becomes the only voting member,” the governor said.
Haley, an accountant who began keeping the books for the family business at 13, is no stranger to upending the established order. As a candidate, the Republican lawmaker ran against “good-old-boy” networks. She pledged to attack what Tim Pearson, a top campaign aide, referred to then as a “taxpayer-financed fraternity party” in Columbia, the capital.
Likening Haley’s communications skills to “Ronald Reagan in a skirt,” Representative Ralph Norman, a Rock Hill Republican, said the governor “doesn’t owe anybody because when she started her campaign, nobody thought she could win.”
Few figured she would succeed in her first race for office, in 2004. Yet at 32, she toppled a 30-year incumbent Republican in Lexington County to enter the House of Representatives. An advocate of smaller government and fiscal restraint, she became an ally of then-Governor Mark Sanford.
When she met her future husband at Clemson University, he went by Bill. She got him to start using his middle name, Michael, as he didn’t fit her image of a Bill. Now she’s Mrs. Michael Haley.
Entering the race for governor last year, Haley won support from Jenny Sanford, the former governor’s ex-wife, and Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican nominee for vice president. She ran as an outsider to defeat better-financed opponents, who included a lieutenant governor, an incumbent congressional representative and a state attorney general. Her budget was so tight, she sold campaign lawn signs at $5 each.
While Haley’s success elevated her to the national stage, her handling of the University of South Carolina’s board led to campus protest rallies and barbs from fellow Republicans.
Haley said she replaced Moore, 56, a trustee since 1999, to make the board more responsive to her. By then, Moore had become the most-generous financial supporter of the university in its history.
Moore, an executive vice president at Rainwater Inc., the private investment company started by her husband, billionaire Richard Rainwater, declined to comment on the governor. She said that her commitment to the state and the university is unfazed.
“I’ve been working in this arena for 12 years,” Moore said in a telephone interview. She is a 1975 graduate of the university and a former Chase Bank managing director.
On March 24, after Haley had removed her as a trustee, Moore pledged another $5 million for the school to help set up an aerospace research institute. In a speech before hundreds of students in Columbia, she spoke about the board, improving educational opportunities in the state and leadership.
“Neither you nor I need to be on the board of trustees to make this happen,” Moore said. “We need simply to hold our leaders accountable and tell them we understand that they may not help us, they may not be able to help us -- but we demand that they not hurt us.”
Moore, a South Carolina native, asked the state to match the amount for the aerospace center.
Haley opposed making the allocation in the state budget, and the House left it out of the spending plan it passed last month. Observers including David Wilkins, a former House speaker, say the limits of Haley’s office mean occupants have to rely on alliances to get much done.
State law largely limits South Carolina’s governor to making appointments and using the “bully pulpit” of the office to accomplish their ends, with legislators holding most of the cards, said Wilkins, now a lawyer in Greenville. He was the top House lawmaker for 11 years and led Haley’s transition team.
“The governor must have a message that resonates, you have to surround yourself with good people and you need people skills to work with members of the General Assembly,” Wilkins said. “Nikki is very articulate and she can get her message out.”
Haley’s treatment of Moore has raised questions about the governor’s willingness to listen to views that may diverge from her own, said Representative Leon Howard, a Columbia Democrat and former black caucus leader.
Moore backed Democrat Jim Rex, a former state school superintendent, in his failed primary bid for governor, said James Fields, executive director of the Palmetto Institute, a Columbia research group formed by Moore in 2002. State records show she gave his campaign $2,000. Moore didn’t contribute to Haley or her opponent, Senator Vincent Sheheen, a Camden Democrat, in the general election, according to Fields.
“Darla Moore is a game changer and game changers don’t come along very often,” said John Rainey, a lawyer in Anderson and a Palmetto director. A Republican who led the state’s economic development board for eight years, Rainey said Haley showed arrogance in removing the university benefactor, in a telephone interview last month.
“The intoxication of power has overwhelmed Nikki Haley probably quicker than anyone I know,” said Rainey, who is financing a review of Haley’s work history.
Haley advocates for “open” government and has her cabinet meetings recorded and posted to YouTube.com, Google Inc. (GOOG)’s video-sharing website. As a lawmaker, she pressed for a bill requiring on-the-record legislative votes.
The governor offers the public a “report card” for grading lawmakers on their actions on what she describes as nonpartisan issues including state spending caps.
“The public has loved it,” Haley said in the telephone interview. “The legislators have been gracious about it.”
The governor was born Jan. 20, 1972, as Nimrata Nikki Randhawa to Indian immigrants in Bamberg, a town of about 3,400 people 60 miles (95 kilometers) south of Columbia. Her father taught biology at Voorhees College in nearby Denmark and her mother ran a gift shop which grew into a clothing business based in Lexington, near the state capital. Haley served as its finance chief after college.
Called Nikki, which means “little one” in Hindi, she attended Orangeburg Preparatory School and worked in the family business, overseeing payroll and tax payments as a teenager. She passed her first audit at 16.
She met her husband while earning an accounting degree at Clemson, also a state-run school, and the couple married in 1996 at separate Sikh and United Methodist ceremonies. Her husband is an equal-employment opportunity manager for the South Carolina National Guard.
While U.S. Census Bureau data show blacks make up 28 percent of the state’s population, just one of her 14 cabinet choices, Kela E. Thomas, is African-American. Thomas heads the Probation, Parole and Pardon Services Department, which would be combined with another agency under a bill that passed the House last month.
“My goal is not to satisfy a quota,” Haley said. “It’s to produce results for the state and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Along with fellow Republican governors across the U.S., Haley promotes trimming government by reducing payment rates for service providers to recipients of Medicaid, the federally subsidized health-insurance program for low-income residents.
South Carolina is among states facing projected deficits of $112 billion in 2012, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit in Washington that focuses on issues affecting lower-income Americans. A preliminary analysis showed the state faced a gap of more than $800 million.
Lawmakers in South Carolina’s House passed a budget last month that boosts general-revenue spending by 5.4 percent to $5.36 billion. The Senate will take up the bill later this month.
The state spends about $11,000 a year on each student in its public schools, though only about half of its high school students graduate in four years, Haley said. She favors equalizing funding across rural and urban districts and supports vouchers, charter schools, education tax credits and other measures that empower parents, principals and teachers.
“I want as many options for parents as possible,” Haley said.
South Carolina added about 14,100 jobs during the year ended June 30, 2010, after losing 92,700 in the previous 12 months, according to the state’s annual financial report. Its unemployment rate was 10.2 percent in February, down from a post-recession peak of 12.5 percent in January 2010 as its manufacturers rebounded from the slump, said Frank Hefner, who teaches economics at the College of Charleston.
“South Carolina’s issues are poverty and unemployment,” Haley said. “The way we are going to fix it is through education and jobs.”
Nimrata Nikki Randhawa Haley at a glance:
Born: Bamberg, South Carolina, Jan. 20, 1972 (age 39)
Spouse: Michael Haley, 41, equal-employment opportunity manager for the South Carolina National Guard
Children: Rena, age 12, and Nalin, age 9
Education: Bachelor of Science, accounting, Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina, 1994
Career: Accounting supervisor, FCR Corp., 1994-1996; chief financial officer, Exotica International, 1996 to 2008; state representative, 2005 to 2011
Noteworthy: First Indian-American and first woman to serve as South Carolina governor; first South Asian elected to General Assembly, 2004; former president, National Association of Women Business Owners
To contact the reporter on this story: David Mildenberg in Austin, Texas, at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at email@example.com