COLUMBIA, S.C. — These are some great days in South Carolina, if the people who answer the phone at state agencies are to be believed. But was 2011 a great year in the Palmetto State?
It was certainly a year of major changes. South Carolina got its new governor in eight years, and she was the first minority and woman to be elected to the state's highest office. Boeing opened its new plant in North Charleston, as the state waited to see if it transformed the Lowcountry the way BMW changed the Upstate nearly a generation ago. And the state marked the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War with reminders of the suffering also felt by blacks in South Carolina, a legacy forgotten at other milestones.
Republican presidential candidates again found their way to restaurants and town halls as the state readied for another first-in-the-South primary. Lawmakers passed major changes in the state's immigration laws and in how South Carolinians vote. At the end of the year, both were tied up in legal challenges. There were personal tragedies, too, as a prosecutor accused a Pickens County woman of killing four family members, including two of her sons, for $700,000 in life insurance money. And the last gasps of an amazingly violent tornado season claimed three lives near Rock Hill.
But so many stories in South Carolina found their way back to Gov. Nikki Haley. She didn't begin her term timidly and showed no signs of backing down as 2011 came to an end.
A simple illustration of that came with her phone greeting. At a September meeting, the governor ordered her Cabinet agencies to greet callers with "It's a great day in South Carolina," saying it was an easy step that could help change the mood of state government. She stuck by the idea, even as critics pointed out South Carolina's double-digit unemployment rates and poor showings on a number of quality-of-life measures would seem to indicate most days are not so great for many residents.
Haley brushed off the complaints, and many state agencies were still answering the phone with her greeting well into December.
Haley did have some great days this year, starting with the crisp Wednesday in January when she took the oath of office, her husband, daughter and son beside her. She became the state's 90th governor, succeeding term-limited Gov. Mark Sanford.
Three times she announced more than 1,000 jobs coming to the state: Continental Tire AG plans to hire 1,600 workers at a new Sumter County plant; TD Bank said it will build a regional hub in Greenville with 1,600 new jobs; and online retailer Amazon plans to hire 2,000 full-time employees by the end of 2013 at a Lexington County warehouse, with the announcement of another warehouse apparently coming soon to Spartanburg.
She also celebrated the opening of the $750 million Boeing plant in North Charleston, which will build the company's new Dreamliner jets and employ 3,800 people.
South Carolina can only hope the airplane plant has the same impact as the BMW plant in Greer, which opened in 1992 and helped transform to Upstate economy. The facility now employs 7,000 people, and the German automaker said it has invested $5 billion in the plant over the past two decades.
"We are going to fight for you, we're going to support you, we're going to be a cheerleader and we can't wait to see those mac daddy planes come out of here," Haley said at the ribbon-cutting for the Boeing plant.
The governor's office put together a video of highlights from her job announcements titled "2011: The Year Jobs Began Coming Back to SC." It ended with Haley saying, "it's a great day in South Carolina."
But the bad days may have outnumbered the good. Polls showed Haley's approval rating in the state sharply dipped as the year wore on — not the result of a single misstep, but a series of problems.
Haley twice had to backtrack on frequently made claims. She said during her first six months in office she brought 10,000 jobs to the state. But thousands of the positions will not arrive in South Carolina for years, and some actually were announced before she took office. A few months later, she admitted she couldn't back up a claim she repeated a number of times that half of the people wanting work at the Energy Department's Savannah River Site failed drug tests. The actual number was less than 1 percent.
"I've never felt like I had to back up what people tell me. You assume that you're given good information," Haley said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Haley ends the year trying to convince some critics she did not sell South Carolina down the river by asking the state environmental board to reverse itself and approve a permit to allow dredging of the Savannah River that will help the port downstream in Savannah, Ga. State senators were so upset they held hearings on the matter and issued subpoenas for Haley's staff when they initially refused to testify.
But at least one state officeholder had even bigger problems. Lt. Gov. Ken Ard finished the year waiting for a state grand jury to decide if he should face criminal charges. In July, Ard paid a $48,000 fine after being hit with 107 civil counts of using campaign cash for personal perks, like a family trip to Washington, dress for his wife, flat-screen TV, and a gaming system and iPads.
The Republican presidential race remained unclear. U.S Rep. Michelle Bachman from Minnesota, businessman Herman Cain and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who kicked off his bid in Charleston, all led polls at one time. But they later fell far behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has stayed level in second place. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich was the latest at the top, but the polls hadn't had time to digest Haley's decision to endorse Romney.
The year saw several tragedies, too. Somehow for nearly 11 months, South Carolina missed a number of natural disasters, whether it was tornadoes that killed dozens in North Carolina; Hurricane Irene, which just brushed the state's coast; or dozens of other tornadoes that killed hundreds across the Southeast and Midwest. But the year's final killer tornado struck in York County in November. Three people died, pushing the death toll from tornadoes in the United States in 2011 to more than 550 people.
In Pickens County, a 48-year-old woman remains in jail awaiting trial on four counts of murder after deputies said she shot her ex-husband, stepmother and two sons in two homes in Liberty. Authorities said she tried to stage the crime scene to make it look like a murder-suicide committed by one of her sons, saying she was upset because he didn't think enough people properly remembered her birthday. Susan Hendricks maintained her innocence, and her lawyer said she has been taking drugs for years to treat mental problems.
And as always in South Carolina, old times were not forgotten. The state marked the 150th anniversary of the first shots of the Civil War at Fort Sumter with a number of ceremonies. The National Park Service made several efforts to include blacks with lectures on slavery and black fighting units, but African-Americans stayed away. It was a far cry from the centennial of the Civil War, which was much more of a celebration that included raising the Confederate flag atop the Statehouse dome, where it would remain flying for nearly 40 years.
As for Haley, she is always looking forward, instead of back. The Confederate flag still flies on a pole on Statehouse grounds, but she dismisses it by pointing out having a minority woman as governor sends its own message about the progressive nature of her home state. And as for the "it's a great day in South Carolina" greeting, Haley isn't backing down from that, either.
"As hokey as some people may think it is, I'm selling South Carolina as this great, new, positive state," she said.
The question for 2012: Can Haley make the great days outnumber the bad?