When Lexington County Sen. Nikki Setzler arrived in the state Senate in January 1977, times were much different than today.
Setzler was elected as a Democrat in a county that was already considered a Republican stronghold in a state that was soon to make a fundamental shift to the GOP. But in 1977, state government, despite the election of GOP Gov. James Edwards in 1974, was firmly in the hands of Democrats.
In the state Senate, power and influence was not about party. Seniority ruled, and Setzler and other newly elected lawmakers took their place on the back row where they were expected to follow in political terms an old rule taught to children: You are to be seen, not heard.
Times have changed but Setzler survived as the GOP took over the legislature, including the upper chamber. His senior status today in the Senate gives him power, as seniority is important. But political partisanship has changed the Senate, putting the top positions of power in the hands of Republicans.
Setzler won another term in November in a district that now includes part of Calhoun County, but he opted out of seeking another term as minority leader. His decision came after Democrats saw their numbers in the 46-member chamber shrink to 16.
Stepping in to lead will be Orangeburg Sen. Brad Hutto, now a Senate veteran of 25 years. From his days as a Senate aide and law partner to Sen. Marshall Williams to succeeding the senator upon his death in 1995, Hutto is no stranger to the Senate and its ways.
By his Democratic colleagues electing him as leader, they will be looking to Hutto to ensure the minority party gets its positions considered and has a seat at the table in formulating and approving legislation.
It will not be easy. The Democratic minority is in a weaker position today than at any time since the GOP takeover of the upper chamber in the mid-1990s. But Hutto is known for his ability to work with Republicans as well as Democrats. And his seat on the Judiciary Committee gives him a key voice on nearly all legislation.
Partisanship is the order of the day, but with the Senate’s very own twist based on its rules and seniority system. Those Senate rules, from the seniority system itself to debate protocol, will again come under pressure as the majority party looks to prevent the minority from derailing legislation in the upper chamber.
Sen. Hutto plays down partisanship as a factor in the state Senate as it is in Washington, but he will need all his legislative skills to temper GOP initiatives. That will mean choosing battles wisely, knowing when to pull out all the stops on Democrats' priorities and when to accept that it is better to fight another day.