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Power List: Meet the Columbia region’s top leaders with clout | Columbia News

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Columbia is a power spot.

It’s South Carolina’s second-largest metro area with a state capital and a state flagship university. 

And it’s a hub for the arts and music in the state.

The Power List represents the people in the Columbia region known for their sway, clout and impact. 

This year’s Power List is different, reflecting the shift in the paper with the shared space by Post and Courier Columbia and Free Times.

We split the list between the two sections — 30 political, government, business and university leaders in Post and Courier Columbia, and 30 arts, music and food influencers in Free Times.

The Post and Courier Columbia’s Power List features a lawmaker who brought the firing squad to South Carolina, a governor who got to exert more control than his predecessors, a pharmaceutical CEO making a statewide impact, a developer creating a new destination in the city, an insurance boss leading major business groups and a basketball coach using her platform for social justice.

The Post and Courier Columbia’s Power List was compiled and written by Seanna Adcox, Adam Benson, David Cloninger, Joseph Cranney, Stephen Fastenau, Mike Fitts, Jessica Holdman, Andy Shain and Avery Wilks.

1. Dick Harpootlian

Dick Harpootlian (John A. Carlos II / Special to The Post and Courier)

John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

Name a policy or legal debate in South Carolina and chances are Harpootlian is probably involved somehow — if not right in the middle of it. Downtown Columbia’s Democratic state senator has been a fixture on this list for years and a central figure in state politics for decades, from his time as 5th Circuit solicitor, to Richland County councilman, to two-time state Democratic Party chairman and now in the Statehouse. While he has made plenty of enemies along the way, most recently in the Five Points bar scene and the state Department of Commerce, Harpootlian proudly wears those critics as a badge of honor. South Carolina will have a firing squad to perform executions because of him. When he was first elected in a 2018 special election, Harpootlian made clear that his primary motivation was to get into the room for the next round of legislative redistricting. With that process set to begin in the fall of 2021, expect to hear plenty more from him in the months to come.

2. Henry McMaster

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster 

file/John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

Whether you agreed with the Republican governor’s pandemic actions or not, there’s no denying that the health emergency and his rolling orders gave him more power over their 450-day span than perhaps any other South Carolina governor — certainly in modern history. The federal government added to that authority by giving governors final say on vaccine eligibility — who could sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine shot and when — while demand still far outweighed supply. And Congress gave McMaster direct control of $48.5 million in federal aid last spring that bypassed the normal legislative budgeting process. Some on the right, including GOP senators, thought McMaster’s orders went too far, while critics on the left blasted him as not doing enough. And there were plenty of complaints from both sides on the vaccine rollout. But McMaster frequently touts decisions to not clamp down as much or as long as other states as the reason South Carolina is emerging from the pandemic with a surplus, instead of budget holes.

3. Leon Lott

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott addresses reporters during a news conference Jan. 11 at Sheriff’s Office headquarters on Two Notch Road. File/Stephen Fastenau/Staff

BY Stephen Fastenau
sfastenau@postandcourier.com

Richland County’s long-serving sheriff was named America’s best this year by the National Sheriff’s Association. Navigating a 700-deputy force through and now out of a pandemic put Lott in a unique opportunity to change law enforcement dynamics in the capital region. It began during the height of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, when deputies on patrol began wearing “peace officer” patches on their uniforms — a small but subtle change Lott said was meant to redirect the focus of policing. He also rolled out a mental health crisis team as non-criminal service calls began to pile up. But questions have been raised about the reaction of law enforcement officers during the protests a year ago and how his agency initially handled a White Army sergeant caught on video berating and shoving a Black man. Throughout Lott’s tenure, he has built goodwill in the community, which helps insolate him from criticism.  

4. Steve Benjamin

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin

John Carlos II

It came as little surprise when the Columbia mayor announced in February he wouldn’t seek a fourth term as the public face of the city. The larger surprise would be if he doesn’t stay in public eye. Benjamin will cede his office at the end of the year but before then has the chance to play kingmaker with an endorsement in the race to succeed him. For former Benjamin aide and protégé Sam Johnson and longtime Benjamin friend and council member Tameika Isaac Devine, the mayor’s support could go a long way in a campaign where candidates are already competing for local endorsements. Benjamin has signed on to lobby for healthcare giant Prisma and not tipped his hand as to his political future. With a national standing, Benjamin is believed to be a potential candidate for higher office.

5. Lou Kennedy

Nephron CEO Lou Kennedy

Porivded

The CEO of Nephron Pharmaceuticals guided the West Columbia drug company through a $215 million expansion throughout 2020, including a new wing equipped to fill syringes and built with the intention of aiding in dissemination of COVID-19 vaccines. In addition, Kennedy has broken ground on a self-titled “innovation center,” to be completed in 2021. The pharma executive is a leading donor to the University of South Carolina where she is on the search committee picking a new president and has become a powerhouse in the business community, sitting on several boards, including Gov. Henry McMaster’s AccelerateSC task force for economic recovery amid the coronavirus outbreak.

6. Jim Clyburn

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn

John A. Carlos II / Special to The Post and Courier

John A. Carlos II

South Carolina’s lone Democratic congressman would have had a hard time topping his level of national influence from 2020, when he was credited for almost singlehandedly tipping the scales of his party’s presidential primary in Joe Biden’s favor with his well-timed endorsement days before Palmetto State voters headed to the polls. Now, the U.S. House majority whip is beginning to leverage that political capital. He convinced Biden to commit to naming a Black woman as his first U.S. Supreme Court nominee and will likely play a key role in picking her. And he’s got a direct line to the Oval Office as he pursues much of the same agenda he’s focused on for years — expanding rural broadband, directing federal funds to impoverished communities and protecting voting rights to name a few.

7. Harris Pastides

USC interim president Harris Pastides 

By Andy Shain
ashain@postandcourier.com

He’s back. The University of South Carolina president for 11 years was recalled after his successor resigned in May, providing a familiar face while the state’s flagship college seeks a new permanent chief. Pastides has the steady relationships with state and local government leaders and respect from much of the campus that is expected to provide stability as USC begins major construction projects conceived when he was president — a village on the south campus and a new medical school site. Pastides’ popularity will get tested when a panel that he once co-led decides whether to propose renaming campus buildings to the board, which is reluctant to seek any more major changes a year after agreeing to ask legislators’ permission to rename a women’s dorm that honors a pioneering doctor who used slaves in his gynecological research.    

8. Robert Hughes

Robert Hughes

The huge project to redevelop the BullStreet District that Hughes is leading didn’t need the economic headaches prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. It’s already a challenge to get people and businesses to homestead a new district in the city. Also, the massive fire in September 2020 that damaged the structure and brought its iconic cupola down was a “gut punch,” Hughes said shortly after the fire. Despite the damage, work continues to renovate the 19th-century building into apartments. Setbacks such as these are why the habitually positive developer reminds anyone in Columbia who will listen that BullStreet is a 20-year project.

9. Dawn Staley

University of South Carolina women’s basketball head coach Dawn Staley stands along student athletes in August 2020 asking administration to remove the late Sen. Strom Thurmond’s name for the student recreation center. File/Jessica Holdman/Post and Courier

Jessica Holdman

The best coach on USC’s campus and a woman who has built an immense community following not only again proved her worth on the court this year but led summer activism. Staley let her voice as a Black woman be heard during protests for justice in the George Floyd murder and as an advocate for fair treatment during the women’s NCAA Tournament. All the while she had a team twice ranked No. 1 in the country during the season and led it to her third Final Four.

10. Tim Arnold

Colonial Life CEO Tim Arnold

Provided

Tim Arnold, CEO of Colonial Life, tends to keep a low profile, as one might expect of an insurance executive. In the past year, he has stepped out as board chairman of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce in its push to get a hate crimes bill passed. “In order for South Carolina to remain a great place for people to bring both their businesses and their families, we have to demonstrate to the world that hate will not be tolerated here,” Arnold said. He also is leading the Columbia chamber. 

11. Skip Holbrook

Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook speaks with reporters at the scene of fatal plane crash in January in Columbia. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

Being the chief of police in South Carolina’s capital city already puts Holbrook under the spotlight, but his department took on several behind-the-scenes roles over the past year that even he couldn’t have seen coming. Primary among those was working closely to enforce city and state-building mask mandates as the coronavirus put a clamp on the area’s nightlife. He also encouraged peaceful gatherings while emotions ran high in a summer of racial tensions. However, like Lott, his department was criticized for its handling of the initial protests after the George Floyd murder. Holbrook did fire an officer with a record of force complaints after he fired bean-bag rounds at protesters. 

12. Don Beatty

South Carolina Supreme Court Justice Don Beatty 

File

As the administrative leader of South Carolina’s entire judicial system, Beatty, chief justice of the state Supreme Court, tried to keep justice moving, however slowly, after ordering courtrooms closed to the public in mid-March 2020, halting all in-person trials and most family court proceedings. His guidelines for virtual, non-trial hearings moved some cases forward until he allowed courthouses to reopen last July, despite some attorneys’ concerns about resuming trials amid rising COVID-19 cases. Beatty’s safety rules included requiring anyone walking in courthouse doors to wear masks and get their temperature checked. His pandemic actions also likely kept people from becoming homeless amid the pandemic. As COVID-19 forced court and business closures, Beatty ordered a statewide freeze on all evictions and foreclosures.

13. Alan Wilson

SC Attorney General Alan Wilson

file

In his third term as South Carolina’s top prosecutor, Wilson is once again leading the national group of GOP attorneys general that works to elect more Republicans to the role. Wilson frequently joins other Republican attorneys general in challenging Democrat policies, including in June asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review a New Jersey law limiting the capacity of gun magazines. He staunchly opposes gun restrictions back home in South Carolina too. His office sued the city of Columbia over three gun-control measures, saying they violate state law. A circuit judge agreed in May, handing Wilson a huge win.

14. Todd Rutherford

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, spoke to a group gathered beside the John C. Calhoun Monument in Marion Square to push for its immediate removal on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

By Andrew J. Whitaker awhitaker@postandcourier.com

The S.C. House minority leader does not have an easy task. Corralling Democrats into a coherent opposition force can at times seem akin to herding cats. But the party has kept him as their chief for nine years now due to his legislative and legal experience, his ability to work with a diverse group of colleagues, and his ease in front of a microphone — even as he’s combatted recent allegations of impropriety for his use of the state plane and his ex-wife hiring his brother after getting elected county coroner.

15. Todd Cullum

Lexington County Council Chairman Todd Cullum

Provided

As chairman of the Lexington County Council, Cullum is leading the fastest growing county in the Midlands. Lexington County’s population has gone up nearly 25 percent since 2010, reaching 298,750 people, according to U.S. Census data. Council is charged with managing the needs that come with growth, choosing to implement a temporary moratorium on new homes and now wading into a campaign to raise sales taxes to pay for long-needed road improvements.

16. Katrina Shealy

State Sen. Katrina Shealy (right) speaks with employees of the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice who walked off the job June 4, 2021, in Columbia to protest work conditions. Stephen Fastenau/Staff

By Stephen Fastenau
sfastenau@postandcourier.com

The state senator from Lexington remains South Carolina’s first and only Republican woman to lead a regular Senate committee, as chairwoman of Family and Veterans’ Services. Shealy also sits on the Senate’s powerful budget-writing Finance Committee and on the Corrections committee that handles criminal justice issues. Most recently, her role there involves grilling the Department of Juvenile Justice director about a scathing report in April by legislative auditors. A former volunteer at DJJ, Shealy has been put in charge of a subcommittee reviewing allegations that mismanagement is risking the safety of staff and juveniles. She takes the hands-on approach to gathering info, inviting employees to call and text her directly. And when she got the call early June 4 that DJJ workers were protesting outside the gate, she arrived with posterboard to help make signs.

17. Mark Keel

SLED Chief Mark Keel John A. Carlos II / Special to The Post and Courier

John A. Carlos II

South Carolina’s long-time top law enforcement officer holds a lot of sway over all policing issues in the Statehouse and beyond. Keel has been chief of the state Law Enforcement Division for a decade and director of the Department of Public Safety for three years before that. His continued opposition to making marijuana legal in South Carolina has been a major hurdle for a years-long effort, led by GOP Sen. Tom Davis, to allow it for medicinal use. In the past, his opposition to measures allowing gun owners to openly carry their weapons also helped squash the idea. But this year, an expanded GOP majority pushed through a law allowing open carry, but only for people who have a concealed weapon permit. On another gun measure he and other law enforcement leaders strongly oppose, letting any adult carry with no formal training, enough senators agreed with him to shelve the idea.

18. David Pankau

David Pankau

Provided

The BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina CEO is leading the state’s largest health insurance provider through a major expansion. Referred to by many as a technology company that also sells insurance, BlueCross plans to invest $60 million in new tech and add 700 more employees to its existing staff of more than 14,000 people over the next several years. 

19. Ray Tanner

University of South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner File/USC

The head of a “company” that can make over $100 million per academic year, USC’s athletic director faced his biggest challenge during the pandemic. The steward of the Gamecocks’ athletic department managed to steer his department through COVID with losses that will have to be covered by a $46 million loan from the school but not so much that he had to cut varsity sports programs. He also cut ties with football coach Will Muschamp and his assistants to the tune of $15 million despite knowing how much it would add to the athletic deficit.

20. Richland Superintendents

Overseeing Richland County’s public school systems that combined educate more than 50,000 students, Baron Davis at Richland Two and Craig Witherspoon at Richland One often found themselves thrust into the politics of mask wearing and classroom re-openings as they measured public health data around COVID-19 spread. Witherspoon and Davis also saw beloved faculty members die from the virus. With many smaller districts watching their decisions closely, Davis and Witherspoon became household names in the region this year.

21. Mia McLeod

State Sen. Mia McLeod, left, stands in the sanctuary of Shiloh Baptist, her family’s church, talking with Rev. Coley Mearite, Tuesday, June 1, 2021, in Bennettsville, S.C. 

File

After a decade in the Statehouse, the state senator from Columbia is poised to emerge from the political shadows of the General Assembly and potentially become a household name across South Carolina as she seeks the historic role of the state’s first Black woman nominee for governor. First, the Columbia-area state senator will need to beat Joe Cunningham in the Democratic primary — no easy feat against a candidate who’s already well-known for his upset victory in the Lowcountry’s 2018 congressional race.

22. The Solicitors

Byron Gipson (Richland County) and Rick Hubbard (Lexington County) sat perched atop the local solicitors’ offices during an historically challenging year. The pandemic shuttered courtrooms across the state for months. And fiery calls for improved police accountability rang out nationwide. That included the Midlands, after Gipson declined to prosecute a Columbia police officer who shot and killed 17-year-old Joshua Ruffin after the officer saw Ruffin holding a gun. 

23. Ben Arnold

The companies the developer heads have been changing Columbia’s skyline for decades, such as the currently rising structure The Palms on Lady, adding more downtown apartments. But his biggest planned move is still ahead: A huge Vista project connected to the convention center that would bring up to three hotels and other new buildings on a 12-acre site.

24. Lexington County mayors

Mayors Steve MacDougall of Lexington, Tem Miles of West Columbia and Elise Partin of Cayce have seen major changes to their growing towns, including four new restaurants in West Columbia’s River District, $65 million worth of new homes and retail planned for Cayce, and efforts to develop the area around Lexington’s Icehouse Amphitheater. 

25. Bill Stern

Columbia developer Bill Stern stands in front of a portrait of his father Ben Stern in the lobby of Stern Development offices in Columbia on Nov. 5. John A. Carlos II/Special to the Post and Courier

John A. Carlos II

The Columbia developer long has been a big player in the state’s economy as chairman of the board of the S.C. Ports Authority and as head of his own Columbia real estate development firm, focused on office buildings and shopping centers. As the son of two Holocaust survivors, Stern in the past year took on a national role on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

26. Tameika Isaac Devine

Columbia Mayor Pro Tem Tameika Isaac Devine

John A. Carlos II

The longtime at-large City Council representative now eyes the seat of her friend, Mayor Steve Benjamin. A progressive voice on council with a deep list of powerful allies, Devine is a board member of the municipal organization National League of Cities and most recently successfully pushed for the city to ban the controversial practice of conversion therapy on LGBTQ youth.

27. Joe Taylor

Former S.C. Commerce chief and developer Joe Taylor 

Rick Smoak/Provided

The former state Department of Commerce secretary and developer had his fingerprints on a recent economic study that found Columbia’s economic growth lagged behind other large cities in the state in part because of high combined taxes. Now Taylor is using the findings to run for the District 4 seat on Columbia City Council held by friend and political ally Daniel Rickenmann, who is running for mayor on a similar platform. 

28. Jeff Ruble

Richland County’s Jeff Ruble has been flexing his economic development muscles over the past year. The county’s economic development director has landed a series of deals, including the major win luring a $400 million brewery by White Claw-maker Mark Anthony Brewing. Ruble is drawing investment into the county, which has historically struggled to compete with powerhouses like Greenville and Charleston.

29. Alexandria Stephens

Richland County elections chief Alexandria Stephens talks to reporters on Nov. 4, 2020, at the department’s Hampton Street headquarters. Adam Benson/Staff 

By Adam Benson
abenson@postandcourier.com

If the name isn’t familiar, that’s because the newly hired Richland County elections czar brought stability and organization to a job plagued in the past by mismanagement and, according to one influential lawmaker, flat out incompetence. Stephens was quietly hired in June 2020 by the Richland County Elections Commission and immediately got to work preparing for what was already expected to be an historic election even before COVID made absentee and mail-in voting so critical.

30. Shane Beamer

University of South Carolina head football coach Shane Beamer

File

The head of the most-visible team of the biggest college in the state, Beamer has been energetic and enthusiastic since he was hired to turn around the fortunes of a program that’s won six games in two seasons. He’s won kudos for how he’s approaching it. But even he knows the honeymoon phase ends after his first loss this year. He also knows his profile never changes, unlike his win-and-loss record.


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