Magazine | July 19, 2010, Issue

She Means Business

Nikki Haley (Newscom)
South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley is a chamber-of-commerce conservative

For Nikki Haley, South Carolina’s Republican gubernatorial nominee, it all began in a living room in Bamberg, S.C. It was there in 1985 that her father, Ajit Randhawa, a biology professor, and her mother, Raj, enlisted her into the family women’s-apparel business — at age 13. “They had me doing payroll, sales tax, all of that,” she laughs. For her parents, Sikh immigrants from India, that was the American way.

“Looking back, I realize that my parents did not want me to think about the limitations of age, gender, or being Indian,” Haley recalls. “They reminded my siblings and me every day about how blessed we were to live in this country. They loved the fact that you could start something, build it, be as successful as you want, and nothing would get in your way.”

In subsequent years, the family’s enterprise, Exotica International, blossomed from a living-room gift shop into a multimillion-dollar upscale retail company selling gowns and jewelry. Much of that success came thanks to Haley, who became Exotica’s chief financial officer after earning an accounting degree at Clemson University. Her small-business experience, she says in her soft southern drawl, is the key to understanding her politics.

During her childhood, and well into her twenties, “I was not into politics at all,” Haley says. “It was all about finding a way to stretch that dollar.” Even at Clemson, where she met her husband, Michael, “I was not into student government; I had a good time. In all honesty, we made fun of the people in student government. I was never the type that thought this would be something I’d get involved in. I never had an itch.”

That changed when Haley came back home after a post-graduation stint as an accounting executive in Charlotte, N.C. “At the time, I was working for the people down the hall,” she says. “I wanted to get back to working for myself and my family. That was the part of the small-business life I loved.”

But her return to the Palmetto State wasn’t all roses. Haley remembers being aghast, soon after she took the reins at Exotica, at the red tape and taxes that were hamstringing the company. “We were in true survival mode,” she says. “It was never about just setting a budget and leaving it alone for a year. We were always going back, asking how we can make this better, how can we be creative?”

Hustle, she concluded, wasn’t always enough. Haley says she often felt that her family’s business, along with other companies in town, was not getting a fair shake. “Small businesses are the absolute heart of what turns this economy,” she says. “Unfortunately, every time something went wrong with the economy, we were the ones hit. I wanted to find a way to help strengthen them.”

At age 26, Haley did. “I joined the Orangeburg County Chamber of Commerce in 1998, and then did the same later in Lexington, after we moved there,” she says. By 2003, she was a board member of the National Association of Women Business Owners and the president of its Columbia chapter. “I had a business mentality,” she notes, “and was focused entirely on that.”

The itch to enter politics finally came in 2004. “People said that I should run for the school board or county council, that there was a rank I would have to go through, and I just would not accept that,” Haley explains. “I had no interest in that path — I wanted to change state government. My motivation came from my frustration about how hard it was getting to make a dollar in South Carolina and how easy it was for the government to take it. My parents always taught us to not complain, so I decided to do something about it. I did not realize what a challenge it would be.”

Haley ran against Larry Koon, a 30-year GOP incumbent, for his seat in the state house of representatives. Then, as now, Haley was challenged on numerous fronts. Her religion — she’s a convert to Methodism who values her Sikh heritage — was called into question. So was her conservatism. Nothing stuck. She beat Koon handily in a primary runoff. “I was truly a fish out of water. I saw how dirty state politics can be,” she says. “Even if you go into it with the best intentions, so much can get turned around.”

During her rough-and-tumble run, Haley had pledged to rattle the establishment once she got to the legislature in Columbia, and to become a leader, which she quickly did. She was elected chairman of her freshman caucus in early 2005, named a party whip a year later, and then tapped for powerful committee posts. The goodwill did not last. “I saw a lot of things I liked and a lot of things I did not like,” she says. “What bothered me was how it always seemed to be about the power, the money, and the committee chairmanships. It was arrogant.”

#page#In her second term, Haley decided that instead of chipping away with piecemeal reform, it was time to take a knife to the symbol of Columbia’s clubby cronyism: anonymous voice votes, which allowed lawmakers to give themselves perks, ladle out pork, and increase taxes without having their individual votes recorded. In April 2008 she introduced a bill to require roll-call votes and became a pariah almost immediately. “If I couldn’t get the votes on the record, then I didn’t want to stay there,” Haley says.

Haley’s efforts finally led the state house to adopt a bill this March that would change the rules to require more on-the-record votes. While this bill was an improvement, and Haley remains proud of passing it, her hopes for full-scale vote reform had fizzled, and in any case, the senate has taken no action. Meanwhile, Haley has faced consequences: “The leadership stripped me of all of my legislative power. I lost my position as whip and they put me on a lower committee,” she says.

Estranged from the GOP establishment, Haley nonetheless won plaudits from good-government types and reform-minded conservatives. One of her most notable new fans was Jenny Sanford, the wife of Gov. Mark Sanford (they have since divorced). Once a hero to national conservatives for battling the state legislature, Mark Sanford was reduced to a laughingstock in the summer of 2009 thanks to a messy and widely publicized affair. But Jenny’s voice still mattered, and last November she became Haley’s earliest major gubernatorial booster — a signal to conservatives statewide that Haley shared the governor’s fight-’em instincts.

Yet as the campaign developed, Haley struggled to raise money and gain traction in the polls. Her opponents in the GOP primary — a congressman, the attorney general, and the lieutenant governor — were formidable. Then, in mid-May, lighting struck: Sarah Palin published a warm endorsement of Haley on Facebook. Within a week, Haley jumped to a double-digit lead in the polls. Other oracles of the conservative grassroots, like Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks political-action committee and South Carolina’s Club for Growth, also spoke in her favor.

With dizzying speed, Haley had gone from being a little-known longshot to a nationally recognized “mama grizzly” — Palin’s term for feisty, pro-life, conservative women. She headed to the campaign trail with new verve, confident in her ability to win. “That’s what I always do,” she says. “I play to win. That’s how we were taught, to not give in — to fight.”

The spotlight quickly got hot. A week after Palin traveled to Columbia for the biggest rally of Haley’s political career, Haley was dragged back into the dirty side of state politics. Will Folks, a former Sanford spokesman and a well-informed but somewhat eccentric blogger on state politics, alleged that he had had a sexual relationship with Haley, a married mother of two. Days later, another state politico, Larry Marchant — a former adviser to Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, one of her primary opponents — claimed to have had a tryst with Haley. Instead of damaging her campaign, the boorish accusations, which Haley categorically denied, helped to boost her in the polls. On primary day, June 8, she snagged 49 percent of the vote, just short of winning the nomination outright. Two weeks later, she cruised to a 30-point win in the runoff.

Haley is often described as a tea-party conservative. She happily accepts that mantle, but her views and her story, she says, are all her own. While Haley respects others’ ideologically driven policy work, that approach is not for her. When asked whether she draws from a specific political philosophy or thinker, she answers, “I just don’t.” Though she admires politicians such as Bobby Jindal, Haley Barbour, Palin, Mitt Romney, and Margaret Thatcher, she says, “I don’t think we should idolize people.” Her political principles, as she explains them, are rooted in her own balance-sheet conservatism.

If Haley wins this fall against Democrat Vincent Sheheen, she’ll become the first governor in South Carolina history who is not a white male. While Haley says she “understands the excitement,” she pays little attention to the glass ceiling, as has been the case throughout her business career. It’s those lessons from the living room, and the legislative chamber, that she most hopes to take to the governor’s mansion.

– Mr. Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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