When the national spotlight fell on South Carolina last year, it exposed a string of deadly tragedies.
A police officer charged in a fatal shooting. A church massacre. A killer flood of biblical proportions.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley found herself in an unwelcome glare.
“Last year did a number on me, it really did,” she says. “Those are things that I hope we never have to experience again.”
Now the spotlight is back as South Carolina prepares for Saturday’s Republican presidential primary. And Haley is back in the glare.
This time the state’s highest-profile Republican is a sought-after endorsement, and even a would-be running mate for her party’s eventual nominee.
“There are a dozen or so people who will be on most lists of vice presidential prospects, and Haley will be on virtually every one,” says political analyst Charlie Cook.
It’s a heady time for the 44-year-old governor.
She made national headlines last year when she orchestrated the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state Capitol. Last month, she delivered the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech.
In a state with stubbornly high unemployment, she added Volvo and Mercedes to a growing trophy case of foreign manufacturers. The liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling found her to be one of the most popular governors in the country.
And next month, she’ll share a dais with Vice President Joe Biden at the annual Gridiron Club dinner in Washington.
Reaching the national stage has been a jump for the one-time legislative back-bencher.
A tea party favorite in 2010, she defeated better-known Republicans to become the state’s first woman and first minority governor. The daughter of Indian immigrants and a practicing Methodist, she dealt with rumors that she wasn’t a Christian and had extramarital affairs. Driven and savvy, she easily won re-election four years later.
Though critics acknowledge her talent, they denounce her policies, including a voter ID law and the refusal to take federal money to expand Medicaid. They say the latter left 280,000 constituents without medical coverage and contributed to the closings of rural hospitals, including one in her hometown of Bamberg.
And some say it took the Charleston shootings to force her hand on the flag, which she had earlier chosen to leave alone.
“It took a tragedy for her to find her moral compass and work to bring the flag down,” says Malcolm Graham, a Charlotte Democrat who lost his sister, Cynthia Hurd, in the shootings at Emanuel AME Church. “Unfortunately it took the lives of nine individuals.”
Haley says Charleston is an open wound.
“I don’t think I’m over it yet,” she says, sitting on a couch in her Capitol office. “It’s something that still haunts me every day.”
‘A different South Carolina’
Last summer Haley attended funerals for each of the nine Charleston victims and, according to Graham, “showed great compassion” to the families. She calls the experience life-changing.
“The heart and soul of South Carolina was broken in a way that I never could comprehend,” she says. “But we were going to get through it.”
The Charleston victims were on her mind in January’s often somber State of the State speech. So was Walter Scott, the unarmed black man shot to death last spring by a North Charleston police officer.
“We are a different South Carolina than we were one year ago, of that there can be no doubt,” she said in the speech. “A place, a people, cannot go through what we have gone through and not come out changed on the other side.”
Bud Ferillo, a Columbia Democrat, has heard people say Haley’s words were just politics, an attempt to position herself for the next step on the ladder.
“But I watched her shed tears in the State of the State address and I was standing by her at the first funeral,” Ferillo says. “And I saw a woman who felt pain. The proximity to human suffering creates … empathy (and) opens the door to forgiveness and reconciliation.”
Two months after Walter Scott’s death, Haley signed the nation’s first bill requiring police officers to wear body cameras. A month later, she stood on the Capitol steps as an honor guard lowered the Confederate flag for the last time.
Even after Charleston, getting the flag down wasn’t easy. To move that along, she shared stories of discrimination against her own family with GOP lawmakers.
“It was a really contentious issue,” recalls Republican Rep. Rick Quinn. “And she actually … shared her heart and her personal experiences… She really shined with that issue. She got it resolved quickly and in a way a lot of people felt satisfied.”
As recently as 2014, Haley told reporters the issue seemed settled after the flag was taken off the Capitol Dome in 2000 and relocated to the front grounds. Former Democratic Party chair Dick Harpootlian takes a cynical view of her change of heart.
“Some people might call that opportunistic,” he says. “Maybe she is Saul on the road to Damascus. But I doubt it.”
State Democratic Chairman Jaime Harrison credits Haley for bringing down the flag, but faults her for issues such as Medicaid. She’s one of 19 mostly Republican governors – including N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory – who have refused federal money for expansion.
“The governor talks about doing what’s in the best interests of South Carolinians,” he says, “(but) we have 250,000 people in this state who don’t have health care because she refuses Medicaid expansion.”
Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey says the decision stemmed from Haley’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act. He says the governor, who has two years left in her final term, is looking for “better ways to make health care more affordable and give patients more choices.”
‘Enough blame to go around’
With less than a week to the primary, Republican candidates are swarming the state. Haley, who was scheduled to attend Saturday’s debate in Greenville, hasn’t decided who to endorse, or even whether she will. But she knows what she’s looking for.
“I don’t just want somebody to go to the White House and beat up on the Democrats,” she says.
“I want somebody to remind Republicans who they were in the first place. That we don’t spend ridiculous amounts of money. That we don’t allow things to happen on our watch. … We were told that if we got a Republican House and a Republican Senate that life would change. And we haven’t seen that.”
In her State of the Union response, she warned Republicans to resist “the siren call of the angriest voices,” a line seen as a swipe at Donald Trump, the frontrunner in South Carolina. But she also said that in Washington, “there is more than enough blame to go around.”
“We as Republicans need to own that truth,” she said. “We need to accept that we’ve played a role in how and why our government is broken.”
In 2012, Haley endorsed Mitt Romney for president. He lost the state’s primary to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. She says the campaign made mistakes.
“We didn’t spend enough time on what we were for,” Haley says now. “And our tent wasn’t big enough. That was the biggest thing. Look at all the people we should have gotten that we didn’t get.”
She says Republicans should “start going into places that are uncomfortable.”
“You’ve got to talk about other things than just your Republican talking points,” she says. “And if you can start to talk about that in a way that’s inclusive, as opposed to exclusive, you can really make some inroads.”
Haley says she’s not looking for a place on a national ticket.
“My life is full, I’m very happy,” she says. “I have a state where I still have things I want to accomplish and get done. So I’m very content.”