SC Senate approves McMaster’s commerce appointment. Here’s what the new chief promises

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A former telecommunications and General Motors executive nominated by Gov. Henry McMaster to lead South Carolina’s Department of Commerce easily cleared a final hurdle on Tuesday.

The South Carolina Senate voted 43-0 to confirm Harry Lightsey to succeed commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt, who had led the Cabinet agency since 2011.

McMaster nominated Lightsey, 65, this month to become the next commerce secretary amid rumors Hitt was looking toward retirement. Hitt was nominated in 2011 by former Gov. Nikki Haley, and McMaster kept Hitt on the job after he became governor when Haley left to join the Trump administration. Hitt had previously worked in Spartanburg County’s BMW Manufacturing corporate office and spent nearly two decades as managing editor of The State and Columbia Record newspapers.

A Columbia native, Lightsey held leadership roles for BellSouth Telecommunications for South Carolina before it merged with AT&T. He later became AT&T’s president over the Southeast region. He also was director of federal government affairs and emerging technologies for General Motors and was a principal with firm Hawksbill Advisors.

Lightsey vowed at a state Senate hearing Monday to “keep the lines of communications open” with the Legislature and make sure to proactively reach out to lawmakers and keep them informed. He also told the Senate’s Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee that he will aim to balance confidentiality of companies looking to expand or invest in South Carolina and the public’s right to know.

Lightsey told senators the department’s “bias should be toward transparency,” but he also acknowledged the agency practice of withholding information — for example, the name of the company, number of jobs or investment figures — so as not to tip off neighboring states.

“If there is information that we can put out that is informative to members of the General Assembly, informative to the taxpayers of the state of South Carolina, it doesn’t hurt us competitively, we should be looking to do that,” Lightsey said.

Lightsey takes over a state agency that has recorded significant success over the past decade, from luring Boeing to Mercedes-Benz and Boeing. In recent years and months, under Hitt, the Carolina Panthers NFL team agreed to move its headquarters to Rock Hill and California-based E&J Gallo Winery agreed to invest $400 million to open its East Coast bottling and distribution facility in Chester County.

But Monday, some senators focused on existing South Carolina businesses and ensuring they’re taken care of.

“There are a number of businesses who’ve been here for a while, who may be home grown, (and) feel like they are neglected,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. “So I hope that under your leadership at the department that there will be an emphasis, a strong emphasis, on staying in touch with, one, existing business, those that have been recruited and are here now and especially those that are South Carolina-based to ensure that they are not neglected.”

Lightsey once again promised senators taking care of companies already in the state will be the agency’s “first and primary” mission, and he said he’ll work to make sure companies and education — whether higher education or K-12 — will work together to educate students on available careers.

“We need to have our eye on the future, and these are critical times,” Lightsey said.

Senators also asked Lightsey to look at investment and growth opportunities in the state’s rural areas and to attempt to approach the Legislature with broader policy ideas, rather than having lawmakers sign off on legislation that would impact one project.

“I think when you get confirmed to this position, ... (you’ll) have a unique opportunity to be a transformational agent on behalf of the people of South Carolina in this position,” state Sen. Nikki Setzler, R-Lexington, said Monday.

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