COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Members of the South Carolina House were sworn into office Tuesday with a new speaker serving his first full term and nearly a quarter of the representatives newly elected.
Speaker Murrell Smith was unanimously elected along with the other chamber leaders during Tuesday’s House organization session.
It gave the Republican from Sumter an opportunity to give his broad goals for a chamber that added seven Republicans, giving the party more than two-thirds of the House seats for the first time. In all, 27 of the chamber’s 124 representatives are new.
Smith reminded members of the state’s success over the past 30 years since Republicans first took over the chamber
“We are enjoying the feast of their labor” Smith said, adding much of that success came because Republicans talked to and worked with everyone.
The speaker’s Democratic seatmate — at least until he was chosen to stand at the front of the chamber — nominated him. Rep. David Weeks, also of Sumter, said Smith sees the importance of listening to all voices.
“While our votes may not always be the same, I know that we both deeply care for our constituents, for our beloved Sumter County and for our state,” Smith said. “I’m grateful here that people transcend politics.”
Smith’s biggest challenge with 87 of 124 seats may come from his own party. A group of particularly conservative Republicans has created a Freedom Caucus that attacked other Republicans this year for not supporting a total abortion ban or other socially conservative positions.
One of the leaders of the caucus, Rep. RJ May of West Columbia, is a political consultant who helped run campaigns in the Republican primaries against sitting House members, irritating a number of his colleagues.
Republican Speaker Pro Tem Tommy Pope of Rock Hill, a holdover from former House Speaker Jay Lucas’ leadership team, which emphasized kindness and congeniality, spoke about members who take pictures of the board where House votes are posted and the riled people up on social media.
“Are we here to combat each other, or are we here to represent the state?” Pope said.
Of the seven Democrats who lost their seats, five of them were African American women, a loss for the chamber noted by Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Black woman who is the chamber’s longest serving member at 32 years.
Cobb-Hunter’s seniority meant she got to open the session and she noted that there won’t just be voices missing in the chamber in 2023, but also in the long history of the House, which has no pictures of African American women on its walls.
“I have to say to those women, ‘You mattered,’” Cobb-Hunter said. “There are some of us who will miss you and there is a void in this chamber.”
Also reelected on Tuesday were House Clerk Charles Reid, House Reading Clerk James “Bubba” Cromer, Sergeant-At-Arms Mitch Dorman and Chaplin Charles Seastrunk.