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South Carolina’s Haley is a woman to watch

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Kathleen Parker
November 25, 2009
— COLUMBIA, S.C.

On Monday, as news filtered out that beleaguered South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford was being charged with 37 ethics violations, the woman who wants his job spoke of restoring public pride in her home state.


That’s an ambitious goal for anyone at a time when South Carolina seems bent on providing comedy routines for the rest of the nation, but especially so for a minority woman in a six-way Republican primary in the heart of bubba-land.


Then again, Nikki Haley, who joined me for coffee, is not a woman easily daunted by circumstance—or rusty nails. After speaking at the state Republican Party convention earlier this year, Haley reached to shake hands with state chairman Katon Dawson. He placed a rusty nail in the palm of her hand and said:


“Do you see what this is? Get ready. … because this is what you are going to have to be to get through it.”


Not a problem. Haley breezed through her initiation in the blood rite known as South Carolina politics. Seated at a checkerboard corner table in the rear of the restaurant, she waves away the anonymous ads questioning her conversion from Sikh to Methodist. Next, I said, they’ll accuse her of being one o’ them dadgum Muslims, and she batted another imaginary gnat from her peripheral vision.


Keeping a discreet eye on her watch, Haley laid out her resume, her roster of accomplishments and a list of goals with the same caffeinated precision one associates with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, to whom she is often compared.


Like Jindal, Haley is of Indian descent—lean, mean (in a nice way) and ready to rumble with the good ol’ boys. Raised in the tiny town of Bamberg (population 2,500), she is as unlikely a candidate in this neck of the woods as Jindal was in Huey Long’s old neighborhood. When she was first elected to the state House of Representatives, Haley ran against the longest-serving member of the General Assembly, whose uncle had held the seat before him. She didn’t know any better, she says.


Now in her third term, the married mother of two young children is a bit of a troublemaker. Again, like Jindal, she’s willing to challenge the status quo, insisting, for example, that her colleagues let citizens know how they vote.


When she realized that fewer than 10 percent of votes were on the record, she wrote a bill to rectify the situation. Despite being warned by House leadership that she risked losing her committee assignments if she didn’t drop the bill, Haley persevered. She was, indeed, removed from her position as chair of the banking subcommittee.


Although a social conservative, Haley’s focus is on business, taxes, government spending and education. Married to a full-time officer in the National Guard, Haley is an accountant who began keeping books for her family’s clothing business when she was 13.


“I learned very early how hard it is to get a dollar and how easy it was for the government to take it away,” she said, not for the first time, one suspects. Haley’s message discipline suggests a list of boxes being checked as she speaks. Here’s another:


Her mother was a lawyer in India and was offered a judgeship, but never got to sit on the bench because of cultural restrictions that would have made her professional life a logistical nightmare. Ultimately, male members of her family decided Haley’s mother couldn’t take the job.


Much of Haley’s can-do spirit is derived of that legacy. Don’t complain, her parents always told her. Do something.


Among the first things she hopes to do as governor is push for elimination of the small-business and personal income taxes.


“When South Carolina stops punishing our business owners and individuals for their successes and instead starts to reward them, they will reinvest in our state, hire more workers, and our economy will start to move,” she writes on her Web site.


This kind of talk and Haley’s record in office earned her the highest rating from anti-tax groups, as well as early, if now-problematic, approval from the current governor.


More recently, however, Haley also won the endorsement of the governor’s estranged wife, Jenny Sanford, who praised Haley’s pro-taxpayer, pro-business, reformist record. In a letter of endorsement, Mrs. Sanford wrote that what Haley has accomplished “takes guts, and it takes smarts, and Nikki has lots of both.” From one rusty nail to another.


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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