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Charleston rep McCoy rises to influential statehouse post

December 15, 2018

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — When House Speaker Jay Lucas was deciding who should lead a special committee to address South Carolina’s multi-billion dollar nuclear power debacle last year, he looked for a lawmaker he could trust to act thoughtfully but decisively.

He wanted someone who held the respect of other legislators, who had the work ethic to tackle a complex problem, the temperament to deal with the issue sensitively and the tenacity to confront some of the most influential companies in the state.

He chose state Rep. Peter McCoy.

Over the ensuing year, McCoy held dozens of hearings, grilled high-powered executives, listened intently to experts and ratepayers, and ultimately helped craft legislation that reformed the oversight process and temporarily slashed electricity rates for thousands of residents.

McCoy’s stewardship of the House nuclear response served as both an audition and preparation for a job that promises to be even more challenging.

The Charleston Republican was elected last week as the new chairman of the powerful S.C. House Judiciary Committee, replacing longtime friend state Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, who announced his retirement earlier this year.

The new role will force McCoy to oversee some of the most polarizing topics that come before the Legislature each year, including abortion, guns, alcohol and criminal sentencing, among others. As McCoy put it, the promotion is a “big deal.”

“We handle a lot of complicated, delicate issues that affect South Carolinians in their everyday lives, and the consequences of letting bad legislation come out, as well as passing good legislation, will affect people immediately,” McCoy said in a recent interview at his Charleston law office. “So it’s a role that I take very seriously.”

McCoy’s new job also punctuates a swift rise for the Lowcountry lawmaker since joining the House in 2011, putting him in a position that has historically served as a launching pad for up-and-coming legislators to build successful political careers.

At age 40, McCoy will be the youngest representative to take over the high-profile committee since Jim Hodges led it in the 1990s before becoming governor, according to the House clerk’s office. Other past lawmakers who became Judiciary chairman at age 40 or younger and with fewer than eight years experience include Gov. Robert McNair and House Speaker Bob Sheheen.

Bipartisan approach

Widely respected among colleagues as a bipartisan consensus-builder, McCoy has developed close allies on both sides of the aisle during his eight years in the House.

“He’s a very open-minded and fair person,” said state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, McCoy’s seatmate on the House floor. “I don’t think he has any shortage of ideas in terms of what he believes in and commitment to those things, but he’s interested in hearing other people’s ideas and perspectives, and I think that’s a healthy thing.”

To navigate the divisive issues that — in the words of House Majority Leader Gary Simrill — “have more thorns than they do roses,” McCoy said he plans to allow as many bills as possible to receive a hearing and fulsome debate.

“He’s not afraid to tackle big issues and has proven himself to be a principled leader,” said Simrill, R-Rock Hill. “In many instances, some politicians shy away from controversial issues, but not Peter McCoy.”

In leading the chamber’s special committee in the aftermath of the V.C. Summer nuclear failure, McCoy worked alongside Co-chairman Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, who said he was “blown away” by McCoy’s diligent handling of the issue.

“He has a very engaging personality that puts you at ease, makes you feel like you’re talking to somebody you grew up with, which helps break down those barriers in the Statehouse,” Ott said.

While many colleagues say McCoy’s bipartisan approach is in his nature, it’s also partly a function of electoral reality in his competitive Charleston district that includes the bedroom community of James Island, which has trended blue in recent years.

In order to eke out a three-percent win in his 2018 re-election bid, McCoy had to vastly outperform Republican congressional candidate Katie Arrington and gubernatorial candidate Henry McMaster in the district.

He has not minced words in criticizing some members of Charleston County GOP leadership, who he fears are imperiling Republican chances of maintaining a foothold in the increasingly Democratic area by embracing extreme political rhetoric.

He was one of the first Republican officials, for example, to call for the removal of an executive committee member who posted racist comments about former Democratic President Barack Obama on Facebook.

“If they don’t get their act together, they’re going to have some serious issues,” McCoy said of the Charleston County GOP. “I’m not going to be afraid to be vocal about that.”

Political background

Born in Charleston, McCoy’s parents were public school teachers before his father took jobs with industrial manufacturer Milliken and packaging producer Sonoco, leading them to move around often. South Carolina politics runs in the family: McCoy’s grandfather was a state lawmaker, too.

After graduating from Regent University Law School in 2005, McCoy worked as an assistant solicitor for the 9th Circuit before running for the Statehouse himself. He was a top contender for a federal prosecutor spot earlier this year. He now lives on James Island with his wife, Jennifer, a recently appointed state circuit court judge, and three children.

Despite his father’s connection to Sonoco, McCoy stridently opposed the company’s effort last year to get the Legislature to prohibit municipalities from banning plastic bag sales — an example, admirers say, of the lengths he has taken to focus on the preferences of his coastal constituents.

McCoy’s ascension highlights a broader changing of the guard across the S.C. House.

One of the other top panels — the Ways and Means committee that handles the state budget — also changed leadership last week. The Ethics Committee chairman recently announced his retirement. Lawmakers expect other top officials may be headed to the exits soon, too.

That creates an opportunity for newer members like McCoy to emerge, a trend that he hopes to encourage now from his leadership perch.

“When I came on Judiciary in my first session, I was told to sit at the end of the table and really not participate,” McCoy said, adding that the instruction did not come from Delleney but other senior members. “That’s certainly not the way things will be here. I welcome input and constructive criticism and help from everybody.”

As to whether he could follow in the footsteps of some of his predecessors who went on to even higher political jobs, McCoy said he’s not eyeing anything but not ruling anything out, either.

“I’m just going to take every opportunity as it comes,” he said. “I feel very honored in the role I have now.”

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Information from: The Post and Courier, http://www.postandcourier.com

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