SC House re-elects Harrell as speaker

COLUMBIA, SC (AP) - South Carolina's House of Representatives on Wednesday tapped Charleston Republican Bobby Harrell for a third full term as speaker.

There had been little doubt Republican Bobby Harrell would succeed, although tea party activists flexed newfound muscle, warning legislators voting for Harrell that they'll face opponents in 2012 elections.

The Charleston Republican has been criticized for heavy-handed moves, including bouncing Gov.-elect Nikki Haley, a tea party favorite, from a committee in 2008 after a tangle over how many votes should be taken on the record. Harrell has said he was trying to keep the peace after Haley withdrew from a committee chairman's race.

State Rep. Ralph Norman, a Rock Hill Republican, was Harrell's only announced challenger, garnering five votes in a chamber of 124 members. Harrell said earlier this week he had 115 commitments.

"It's an uphill race," Norman said, months after committing to tea party activists that he'd take on Harrell. "The power has always been with the current speaker."

Lexington County tea party organizer Talbert Black said an ad hoc group of supporters has been calling members to warn them a vote for Harrell will be used to recruit 2012 primary opponents. "He's an obstacle that we need to get rid of," Black said.

Wednesday's tea party vs. Harrell fight marked the beginning of a power struggle over a combination of too-loose spending in state budgets, expanding state economic development incentives as well as Harrell's reputation for keeping legislators in line by using his committee assignment powers.

A sign of Harrell's influence and intentions of keeping his job and troops in line played out a couple of months ago. Norman had asked the House Republican Caucus to have what amounted to a confidence vote on Harrell by secret ballot.

Harrell responded with automated calls to Republican activists trying to head off what he portrayed as a closed-door speaker election.

Harrell allegedly used the same political operative to make those calls who ended up being arrested earlier this month for illegal political calls. Consultant Robert Cahaly said the calls he was arrested for were legal and he'd sought an attorney general's opinion before making them.

Norman questioned why Harrell's calls and the calls that led to the arrest would be seen differently under the same law.

"I think all the calls, if they violate state law, they need to be looked at," Norman said.

Harrell spokesman Greg Foster did not respond to questions about the calls on Monday or Tuesday.

"Whether or not we have a new speaker or not, we still won," Black said. "The conversation about what is needed in the General Assembly has moved in our direction. He used to talk about incentives all the time. He doesn't now. Now he's talking about free-market reform."

They and House veterans get committee assignments on Thursday.

Norman expects a bottom-of-the-heap assignment. "If I get appointed to the grass-cutting committee, I'll be a good grass cutter," Norman said.

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