COLUMBIA - The new leader of South Carolina Senate Democrats said he wants his colleagues to concentrate on better jobs, health care and education instead of getting caught up in partisan fights.
Sen. Brad Hutto of Orangeburg will take up the leadership role when the new session starts in January. Hutto said he won a 13-3 vote at the Democratic caucus meeting Tuesday.
Hutto takes over after Democrats lost three seats in the 2020 election, giving them just 16 of the Senate's 46 seats - the fewest number of Democrats in the chamber since at least Reconstruction.
"I'm humbled my colleagues have picked me for this important role. But it's going to be tough in this political climate," Hutto told The Associated Press.
Hutto is entering his 25th year in the Senate. He takes over for Democratic Sen. Nikki Setzler of West Columbia, who decided not to run for reelection as minority leader after eight years in the post. Setzler is the state's longest-serving senator, first elected in 1976.
Hutto's primary opponent for minority leader was Sen. Gerald Malloy of Darlington, who has been in the Senate since 2002.
Malloy is known for a broad knowledge of Senate rules. Hutto is known as a consensus builder, but someone who also will fight and filibuster for issues important to Democrats like abortion rights.
Hutto said Democrats came into the meeting as a family and left as a family, and there were no hard feelings.
"I told them I don't want to be the strong leader of a caucus. I want to be the leader of a strong caucus," Hutto said.
Hutto said Democrats need to concentrate on getting jobs with better pay, improving and increasing access to health care and improving education, no matter what Republicans try to do with their increased numbers.
When Hutto entered the Senate in April 1996, Democrats had 26 seats. Republicans have been in the majority since the 2000 election, steadily growing their margins to the 30 seats they will have when the session starts Jan. 12.
"We forget sometimes the differences aren't strictly partisan. Sometimes it's rural senators who find themselves in the minority," said Hutto, whose district includes some of the most rural parts of South Carolina in Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Colleton and Hampton counties.
Hutto said he would lean on Setzler's experience in his new role.
"I will always offer my support to Senator Hutto in anything he may need, and I welcome the opportunity for new leadership to flourish," Setzler said in a statement.
South Carolina Democrats had been hopeful they might gain seats in the 2020 election. Instead, they lost three and gained none.
Sens. Floyd Nicholson of Greenwood County, Vincent Sheheen of Kershaw County and Glenn Reese of Spartanburg County were all beaten by Republican newcomers. The three Democrats had a combined 58 years of experience in the state Senate, but were in districts where Republicans consistently gained ground.
Democrats elected Sen. Ronnie Sabb of Greeleyville as assistant minority leader.
Republican Sen. Shane Massey of Edgefield said he will run again for a second four-year term as majority leader.
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