Nikki Haley seizes the political moment amidst Confederate flag debate

Story highlights

  • Haley suggested her experience as an Indian-American woman uniquely positions her to lead her state past its difficulties with race
  • But she has not always embraced removing the Confederate flag

Washington (CNN)South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley stared down hate and history this summer, turning an impassioned debate over the Confederate flag into a political launching pad.

Other state figures had faltered when confronting the legacy of the Confederate flag and pushing for its removal. But Haley's quick call for it to be taken off the capitol grounds in the wake of the Charleston church shooting -- a call that culminated in Friday's ceremony in which hundreds of locals cheered its relocation to a museum -- has allowed her to bask in glowing reviews.
"Now there's more reason to come to this state," Haley said in an interview with CNN's Don Lemon. "I am proud to say that it's a new day in South Carolina."
    And also a new day for Governor Haley.
    "She saw an opportunity and saw a spotlight on South Carolina and saw that there were going to be real significant problems for the state and the Republicans if they couldn't bring it down," said Katie Packer Gage, a Republican consultant. "She stepped up and it didn't take her weeks or months, even though she could have punted. She is a smart politician."
    The once-rising star, whose shine had faded after her 2010 gubernatorial victory, has emerged from the flag battle as the face of the "new South." By leading the efforts to take down a flag embraced by alleged killer Dylann Roof, Haley helped her party and her own profile. Even Democrats offered praise.
    "Had it not been for the governor saying she was supportive of this, I don't think we would have been at the ceremony we were at today," said Jaime Harrison, who chairs the state's Democratic Party. "I know people say it was political, but she did what was right and for that I can't be mad at her. I'm very appreciative of her."
    Harrison was one of the handful of leaders Haley met with in the hours before she announced days after the shooting in June that she wanted the flag to come down. He was expecting yet another compromise, but Haley had made up her mind.

    'No one should feel pain'

    In her interview with Lemon, Haley said Friday that "the biggest reason I asked for that flag to come down was I couldn't look my children in the face and justify it staying there."
    She also said that the flag should never have been displayed prominently on Capitol grounds.
    "These grounds are a place that everybody should feel a part of," she said. "What I realized now more than ever is people were driving by and felt hurt and pain. No one should feel pain."
    She suggested that her experience as a path-breaking Indian-American woman uniquely positions her to lead her state past its difficulties with race and exclusion.
    Haley recounted the day when her father wanted to buy produce at a fruit stand and two police officers were called to keep their eyes on him. The officers stood at the register until Haley's father made his purchase.
    "I remember how bad that felt. And my dad went to the register, shook their hands, said 'thank you,' paid for his things and not a word was said going home. I knew what had just happened," Haley said. "That produce stand is still there and every time I drive by it, I still feel that pain. I realized that that Confederate flag was the same pain that so many people were feeling."
    In the past, Haley has often told the story of growing up in Bamberg, South Carolina, and not qualifying to be the black or white Homecoming queen because of her ethnic background, making her the best example of the state's new South image.
    But she has not always embraced removing the Confederate flag, a controversial idea that has tripped up many national and state politicians.
    In October of 2014, when her Democratic opponent for governor, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, said the flag should be taken down to repair the state's image, Haley rebuffed the idea even as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Collegiate Athletic Association boycotted the state.
    "What I can tell you is over the last three and a half years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state," she said during an October 2014 debate. "I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag."
    One of her predecessors, Republican Gov. David Beasley, proposed moving the flag from the Captiol dome, but that was rejected by state lawmakers in 1997. He subsequently lost his reelection bid.
    In 2000 state lawmakers reached a compromise, moving the flag near a Civil War memorial and adding a monument to African-Americans on the statehouse grounds. But even with that compromise, the flag remained a wedge issue.
    Mitt Romney faced a barrage of attacks when he came out against the flag in 2008 and 2012. Newt Gingrich ran to Romney's right, embracing a state's rights argument in defense of the flag. Gingrich went on to win the state's primary.
    But, in some of her most high-profile speeches, Haley has insisted that South Carolina is the state that has changed the most in the last 50 years. And that her election and that of Sen. Tim Scott, an African-American Republican, has been the proof.
    And like South Carolina, Haley has changed.
    She was lauded by Sarah Palin in her 2010 run and her come-from-behind victory landed her on the cover of Newsweek. But her national profile didn't win her any new friends in the state legislature, where she took on powerful members of her party as a member of the House before she became governor.

    Winning over the business wing

    Once seen as an outsider and a tea party upstart, with approval ratings in the 30s, her relentless focus on jobs has allowed her to promote herself with the business wing of the GOP.
    "She very very successfully branded herself as the jobs governor," said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University. "But she kept her conservative credentials by railing against Obamacare and toeing the line on things that conservatives care about. She has been able to keep a foot in both worlds for a while. And now she is breaking away from being simply a Southern to becoming a national Republican."
    She has also added to her portfolio. Last month she signed a bill requiring law enforcement to wear body cameras, a move she touted as an example of her state being in the vanguard on a national issue.
    Though she has been at odds with the Republican-dominated state legislature, frequently calling them out in speeches and on her Facebook page for their failure to back her agenda on a transportation bill and on ethics reform, she enjoys high marks among Republicans. She won reelection in a landslide and a Winthrop University poll from April showed her with 79% approval rating among likely South Carolina Republicans primary voters.
    Packer Gage said her soaring ratings and new prominence, which coincides with the beginning of the 2016 presidential race, might open up opportunities for her at the White House.
    "She would make a strong vice presidential candidate, and the fact that she is a woman is icing on the cake," Packer Gage said. "But maybe she should run for president."
    Yet given how contentious the flag debate has been, her popularity could fall in the state even as her national profile rises.
    "The glow of this will dissipate. The question is, are you building a record of moving people forward and taking people from poverty to the working middle class?" Harrison, a Democrat, said. "You can't just hang your hat on one good deed."