It would be hard to find two more compelling, formidable women in American public life than South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and fellow South Carolinian and philanthropist Darla Moore.
They are, as we say, good ol’ girls made good. Haley, the youngest governor in the U.S. at 39, is a first-generation Indian-American -- self-made through hard work and determination. Moore, born and raised in tiny Lake City (pop. 6,000-ish), went to Wall Street, made a fortune, and returned to her home state to share her bounty, including more than $70 million to the University of South Carolina.
Thus, it was stunning a few weeks ago when Haley unceremoniously removed Moore from the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees, where she had served since 1999, replacing her with a local attorney and Haley campaign donor.
This jaw-dropping move has created a furor, prompting a statehouse protest and an anti-Haley campaign that has some talking about her political ruin. Others, such as former state Republican Party chair Katon Dawson, shrug and say “there’s a new sheriff in town.”
“I say there is a new governor in high heels doing what she told the voters she would do and willing to let the chips fall where they may,” says Dawson. “Elections have consequences.”
Moore, meanwhile, seems poised for sainthood. Her response to Haley’s insult was to offer the university another $5 million for an aerospace research center to be named for fellow Lake City star Ronald McNair, an African-American astronaut who died in the Challenger explosion in 1986.
As stories go, this one has, dare I say, good legs. It doesn’t hurt that both women are attractive -- a Snow-White and Rose-Red pair of Southern sisters who are politely engaged in a war of, well, roses. In the nicest possible way, they are at each other’s throats.
The Haley-Moore imbroglio might be of little interest beyond South Carolina’s border, though the Palmetto State has established itself as a reliable source of tellable tales. And, there’s the fact that Haley has been flagged as a rising Republican star, beloved by tea-partiers and endorsed by Sarah Palin. Haley is currently writing a memoir, which, if you’re a politician, often suggests bigger ambitions.
Moore, whom Fortune once named one of the 50 most powerful women in American business, is famous for her down-home largesse. A blond beauty who speaks with a distinctly Southern accent, Moore matches Haley’s toughness with a steely resolve of her own.
Speaking to about 400 students on the USC campus Thursday as she announced her latest donation, Moore began disarmingly: “While I quickly admit to enjoying the occasional opportunity to talk about the wonder of me, this is not about Darla Moore.”
And then she commenced, without mentioning Haley’s name, to shred the governor: “Neither you nor I need to be on the Board of Trustees to make this (improving higher education) happen. We need simply to hold our leaders accountable and tell them we understand that they may not help us, they may not be able to help us -- but we demand that they not hurt us.”
As Haley explains events, Moore lost her seat basically because she didn’t express sufficient interest in keeping it. She didn’t return Haley’s calls, as the governor tells it, and when Haley tried to meet with Moore, there was a three-week wait.
The governor told me she couldn’t wait. She has only one voting member on the board and, says Haley, “I have to pick one who will report to me and return my calls.”
But mightn’t a governor give a little extra time to the most magnanimous, dedicated donor in South Carolina history? Apparently, not.
Haley’s actions may be understandable in a certain light. She has the right to shape her army as she sees fit. But her actions also might be viewed as defiantly foolish. She has enraged establishment Republicans, a feat applauded by her tea party base. And she has placed at risk the beneficence of a proven and loyal leader when it comes to education and innovation.
Whether Haley has committed political suicide so early in her promising career -- or merely tightened the bolts on her pledge to remake South Carolina as a leader in education and business -- remains to be seen.
But if one were to put a name to the dual goals of educational excellence and business development, one would be hard-pressed to improve upon Darla Moore. Hence, alas, the building that bears her name -- the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business.