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'Hometown governor' is Person of the Year

'Hometown governor' is Person of the Year

From the T&D Person of the Year: 2009-18 series
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COLUMBIA - Her first year in office has been rewarding, challenging and, at times, disappointing, Gov. Nikki Haley says.

In an interview at her office at the South Carolina Statehouse this past week, Haley said a major challenge she's had to confront is the "culture in the Legislature and around the state" of people being quick to say "can't" and "no" to new ideas instead of saying, "How do we get this done?"

The Bamberg native has been a frequent visitor in The T&D Region since her inauguration last January, announcing new industries and jobs, speaking at events like Claflin's Founders' Day and the Bamberg County Chamber of Commerce Banquet and holding one-on-one constituent meetings. She's also appointed numerous people with local ties to state leadership positions, boards and commissions.

Haley, who says she's proud of her roots and will never forget the communities that helped mold her, is The T&D's "Person of the Year" for 2011.

Times and Democrat Publisher Cathy Hughes describes Haley as "a friend to this community."

"This year's choice for The Times and Democrat's Person of the Year differs from the first two in 2009 and 2010. Neither Frank Tourville nor Willie Jeffries was a public official; they weren't politicians. This year we chose a public official," Hughes said.

"Even though we don't prohibit the selection of a politician, we tend to look to the private sector first. We did, but the actions and accomplishments of the 2011 Person of the Year are hard to match. Like the 2009 and 2010 selections, she too is a leader, a newsmaker, an ambassador and a friend to this community. But she stands out for a number of unique reasons which make her the obvious selection this year," she said.

"South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is more than the first female governor and the first South Carolina governor of Indian descent. To citizens of this area, she is a hometown governor, born in Bamberg County and growing up both there and in Orangeburg. Her roots are here, and she seems to remember that, even as she goes about governing the entire state."

Noting that her hometown constituents in Bamberg "could not be more supportive," Haley said, "They honored me not too long ago at the chamber of commerce. ... I could not be more proud of that town and the way they raised me and what they've done."

But not everyone has been a supporter. Haley has her share of critics, both among state Democrats and in her own Republican Party. She's been criticized in the media for failing to live up to her campaign promise of making state government more transparent and on numerous other issues. She says criticism "is part of the job."

The criticism "doesn't stop me, it motivates me, so that's OK," Haley said.

As far as the charge that the governor's office routinely deleted internal staff emails, saving and archiving only external correspondence, Haley says her office's policy on emails will be updated.

"What they fail to tell you is that's been the same email policy that's been in place since (Gov. Jim) Hodges. We didn't do anything. ... Instead of just letting them criticize, I'm going to change it. Let's take this opportunity to update the policy," she said.

Haley has announced her office will stop deleting staff emails. It will work with the state Department of Archives and History to come up with a new records-retention policy, which will be finalized and released in January, she said.

"I don't mind the criticism as long as people in the end judge me on the results. And I know they will judge me on the fact that now every legislator's vote is on the record, in spite of the fact that the Senate said it was unconstitutional for people to know how they voted. We made sure that every legislator not only votes on the record, they now have to vote on every section of the budget so we get to see their spending habits," Haley said in the interview this past week.

"We are the first administration to ever release a public schedule in spite of the fact that security was not real thrilled with us. But we released not only a public schedule, but our private schedule in terms of the meetings that we have," she said. "We are the first administration to put in real time our flight log. You can see when I fly, who I fly with and how it's paid for in real time. We are the first administration to put our press conferences online."

She said she is continuing "to go out to be as accessible to the people as we can," holding town hall meetings in seven locations across the state twice in 2011 and one-on-one constituent meetings in towns across South Carolina.

"I'm not worried that we haven't been transparent," Haley said. "What I know now is when you run on transparency, they will always say you're not transparent enough."

With Orangeburg County banking much of its future growth on its development as a major distribution hub linked to the Port of Charleston and the proposed port in Jasper County, the S.C. State Ports Authority Board's recent decision not to spend any more money to develop a Jasper County harbor until the state can work out key deals with Georgia troubles the governor. Bill Stern, Ports Authority Board chairman, says he isn't optimistic about those deals or the development of the Jasper port.

"That's the perfect example of the ‘can't' culture," Haley said of the board's decision. "I believe we can have a Charleston and a Jasper port, and what you are seeing is a Ports Authority that thinks it has to be one or the other, and that's short-sighted. ... Look at, one, the number of South Carolinians employed by Georgia; two, the fact that I believe we can have strong ports not just in Jasper, not just in Charleston but also in Georgetown.

"It's my job to make sure that all three of those are moving at the same time, not pick my favorite but say, ‘What can I do to make sure that all three of those areas are viable and going to be strong?'"

The governor said Orangeburg County is in a position to become a major distribution point.

"We have the ability to have a very strong Charleston port. We have the ability to have all that overflow going to Jasper, and then we have Georgetown, which can have its own set of clients coming in and out of there."

She added, however, "We can't do it without having Georgia as a neighbor and as a partner. Gov. Deal came out with Sen. Chambliss and said, ‘Not only do we support the funding of the Charleston port, we also support the funding of the Jasper port.'

"It's not just being short-sighted and saying we're just going to focus on this little part. We've got to look at our entire state and say, ‘We deserve better. We can do this.' But if you're dealing with a group of people that has been the establishment for so long that will continue to say ‘can't' and ‘no' at every turn because it wasn't their idea, then we have a problem."

Haley cited her accomplishments during her first year in office.

"We've announced almost 20,000 jobs this year, and what I'm proud of is they're not just in Charleston, Greenville and Columbia. They're in Orangeburg, they're in Denmark, they're in Jasper, they're in Clarendon. That's what I care about far more. ... You put 200 manufacturing jobs in Denmark, you've just made that town, and I know that," she said.

"Now we have Medicaid reform, where we can actually negotiate the cost of health care and bring the cost down where we couldn't do that before. Now we have illegal immigration reform. We have voter ID reform. When they said that we had to go to government to pay for the Heritage Golf Tournament and I said we absolutely do not - we have a private sponsor for the next five years.

"We were the only state in the Southeast that didn't have caps on frivolous lawsuits. We now have tort reform."

Helping small businesses thrive in the state is still a priority, she said.

"I'll never feel like we've done enough for small business ... until we have made sure that we get government out of their way so that they have cash flow and profit margins to hire more people. But I do think we made headway in tort reform, in easing regulations, and getting a more business-friendly DHEC has made a big difference," Haley said. "We've got to still work on tax reform, which you'll see us do this next year to help businesses. We've got to make sure that we are doing more to be sensitive to their needs.

"Bringing in new businesses is great, but you have to always take care of the businesses you already have. Those are your cheerleaders at the end of the day. I won't be satisfied until every person has a job. I won't be satisfied until every business is doing well and in the black."

Haley recently announced the formation of "The Original Six Foundation" to address the needs of communities with the highest unemployment rates that she says are too often "forgotten." She said the foundation will rely on the $550,000 advance for her memoir due in April, profits from the book and more than $200,000 left over from her inauguration as seed money. Haley said the foundation will enlist state agencies, companies and civic and faith groups to address the most pressing needs of nearly a dozen counties around the state. South Carolina's problems can't be fixed without looking at the problems in the rural counties, she said.

"The Original Six Foundation is based on Mom and Dad and the four kids. We always referred to ourselves as the ‘original six' in Bamberg ... the fact that we were the only Indian family,'" she said.

"In that community, we didn't know what we didn't have. I know living in Orangeburg it's the same thing. And then you go to Lexington - it is so blessed in every way. The disparities are wrong. What I want to do with this foundation is to shed light on communities that are forgotten and just because they are not highly populated, just because they're not wealthy doesn't mean they don't deserve the same resources as everywhere else."

Haley added, "Everybody in these communities - they're proud people. They don't want a handout. But they just need someone to go and help them get started. That's what the foundation is intended to do.

"I will never forget my days in Bamberg. I'll never forget the challenges I saw in Orangeburg. And it is with that that I come into this office every day, and that's why if you look outside my office, the unemployment numbers are (posted) all over everybody's office. There's a map that shows not just the number of jobs we have, but where those jobs are. Because you can have tons of jobs, but if they're not going to the areas that need it the most, you're really not doing anything."

Asked if she had any regrets in 2011, Haley said, "There's not a day that goes by that at night I don't sit there and say, ‘How could I have done things better? What could I have done differently?' So I think of the do-overs every day. ... I don't focus on regrets; I focus on what we're going to do to change it the next go-around.

"That's not saying that I haven't made mistakes. When we do anything in any given day, I always say, ‘OK, now how do I do this so it never happens again?'"

What's a good day for Haley?

"A good day is a day where we get to announce jobs to an area. A good day is when I get to visit a school and get to talk to those kids about bullying. A good day is where we move legislation in a way that I know is going to impact every person in this state and that we have legislators actually willing to talk and not say no," she said. "A good day is just where the press is not so brutal."

How does she deal with criticism from the media?

"You know, what I have learned is that we don't read the local press. We don't watch the local TV. My press guys will give me clips and I see the headlines and they keep me informed. But I just stopped reading it. I stopped reading it and I stopped watching it because if I governed to the press, I'm not governing," Haley said.

"So I am very focused. I have a vision for this state, and I'm not going to let anything derail me from where I see us going."

Contact the writer: cbarker@times anddemocrat.com or 803-533-5525.

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