Influential Women

Nikki Haley's Bumpy Road to Power

Haley raised her national profile when she delivered the Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday. (GOP.gov)

Nikki Haley was in a rut a year ago.

A Republican elected in 2010 as part of a tea party wave, she became South Carolina’s first woman and first minority governor. But she had been the target of a 2012 ethics investigation – though she was later cleared.  She was at war with the state legislature. Charges of marital infidelity – which she vehemently denies – dogged her. She didn’t have many accomplishments to claim. Observers considered her overly rehearsed, guarded and partisan.

Then things got hard. Haley, a wife to a National Guard captain and mother of two, faced a series of crises in 2015 that would have tested even the most battle-hardened governor.

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“We got triple-punched in South Carolina,” Haley told CQ Roll Call.

In April, Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was shot to death as he fled a North Charleston police officer. Video of the killing rocketed around the globe. On June 17, a white supremacist, Dylann Roof, shot to death nine African-Americans in a Bible study class, according to authorities. In the aftermath, Haley called for the Confederate battle flag to be removed from the statehouse grounds in Columbia. And in October, historic rains flooded wide swaths of South Carolina, killing 19 people and leaving an estimated $12 billion in damage.

About the series

Any one of these challenges could have destroyed her governorship. Instead, Haley emerged from the fire to praise from both sides of the political aisle.

“I think the governor has shown tremendous leadership,” state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democrat and frequent critic, told The Associated Press in October. There were no riots in the aftermath of the Scott shooting (instead South Carolina became the first state in the country to require body cameras for law enforcement). There was no talk of the floods being Haley’s Katrina after she took quick action to evacuate threatened areas and pushed for federal aid. She flashed rarely seen emotion and tried to bring the state together after the church shooting.

Haley-Bio'A rising star in the Republican Party'

Just last week, she delivered the Republicans’ response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.

“She’s a rising star in the Republican Party, and someone who's continuing to rise,” said Steve Schmidt, the senior adviser for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential run.

She garnered wide attention for the speech, in which she warned: “During anxious times, it can be tempting to  follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” which she later confirmed was a comment aimed at presidential candidate Donald J. Trump. The speech won praise from many quarters, including the White House, but became hotly debated among many conservatives.   

Phil Musser, a  former executive director of the Republican Governors Association  whose digital firm, IMGE, has worked for Haley, said he didn't usually advise his clients to do State of the Union responses, “But when I heard she was doing this I couldn’t have been more proud.”

Even before she was selected for the response , Haley was being mentioned as a vice presidential nominee, a prospect she does not dismiss. Schmidt considers her “definitely Top 5. She’s on that list.”

When she took over the governor’s office in the midst of the Great Recession, Haley made job creation a top priority. She can point to some success stories, including plans for new plants from automakers Daimler AG and Volvo. She touts the companies’ promises to bring 5,300 jobs to the state, but they came with tens of millions in grants, tax breaks and incentives.

As she enters the sixth year of her administration, Haley, the youngest governor in the U.S. (she turns 44 on Jan. 20), reflected on those events and her bumpy rise to power, as well as her love of numbers and how she’s become less buttoned-up in an interview with CQ Roll Call.

“The reason you are guarded and disciplined is because you are responsible for leading a state and making good decisions and moving it forward,” she said. “And you go through events like June 17 and it shakes you to your core. And I am human like everybody else. I was heartbroken, and it absolutely changed me.”

A solution to a contentious issue

South Carolina had flown the Confederate battle flag at the statehouse since 1961. Many believe that a long fight over the removal of the flag from the statehouse dome that ended in 2000 contributed to the downfall of two governors. But Haley believed she had a solution. “We told the public: This doesn’t have to be about winners and losers,” she said, and proposed that the flag be put in a museum. “It’s a win-win situation for everybody.”

Still, she had a hard time convincing some in the state Legislature, which had to approve the move. To help win passage, Haley told Republican lawmakers a story about her childhood, when the owner of a farm stand called in police while she and her father, a Sikh who wears a turban, shopped for fruit. She still drives by the stand, she said, and for her it remains a symbol of pain.

The message seemed to resonate with lawmakers, and the bill to take the flag down passed.

The third of four children, Nimrata Nikki Randhawa and her family cut an unusual figure in small-town, 1970’s South Carolina. Her father, a biology professor, and mother, who had once been considered for a judgeship, moved from the Punjab region of India, and eventually settled in Bamberg, S.C., where Haley was born. Her mother, who came from wealth in India, wore a sari and worked three jobs.  Young Nikki and her sister were once disqualified from a local beauty pageant that chose one black and one white winner. She skipped a grade and excelled at math. At 13, she was doing the books for the family clothing business. She later graduated from Clemson University with a degree in accounting.

Haley worked her way up the political ladder in South Carolina – she was a three-term state representative who first won a seat in the House in 2004, eventually rising to the position of House majority whip, a subcommittee chairmanship, and a seat on the powerful Labor, Commerce and Industry committee. But all of that was taken away in 2009, during a bitter fight with party leaders over Haley’s call for more on-the-record votes. Haley may have lost her place in leadership, but the struggle raised her profile and inspired her to make a run for governor following encouragement from then-Gov. Mark Sanford, now a Congressman.

And she got the last laugh. In 2011, she signed a bill requiring recorded votes on most legislation.

“Some fights are worth it,” she said.

Jonathan Miller reports on budget and tax policy for CQ’s State News team. Contact him at jonmiller@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @jonathan_miller.

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