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Rock Hill attorney Moody retains seat as USC trustee

Normally, university board members retain their seats with nods from the General Assembly that have all the excitement, all the drama, of watching grass grow.

But it was different Wednesday, when legislators considered whether Rock Hill attorney Leah Moody should remain as the lone African-American member of the University of South Carolina's Board of Trustees.

There were stakes here, pledges given, public postures taken, arms twisted.

When it was over, when Moody had gotten a single vote more than she needed to remain on the board, she cried.

"If you're passionate about anything, you're going to be emotional," she told a knot of reporters who surrounded her after the vote. "I'm happy. It was a battle to get here."

A battle royal, perhaps.

Black legislators, unhappy with the prospect of having no black members on USC's governing board, had threatened to call the university's athletics recruits to discuss the state's racial climate.

That threat irked USC football fans and white legislators alike. They had argued that the board selection should be made with no regard to race and certainly with no link to athletics.

By Wednesday, backers of Moody and supporters of her opponent, fellow Rock Hill lawyer Marvin "Alton" Hyatt Jr., had taken turns being confident the vote would go their way.

Honest-to-goodness surprises are not common when votes are counted in the General Assembly, but no one -- not Moody's big backer, Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, or state Rep. Gary Simrill, the Rock Hill Republican who supported Hyatt -- would predict the outcome.

Moody watched from a balcony seat as legislators decided her fate. Her mother, former state lawmaker Bessie Moody-Lawrence, was invited by Simrill. She watched with her former colleagues on the House floor as "yeas" and "nays" were tabulated.

If they were going to reject her daughter, they would have to do it in the presence of a colleague of 15 years.

The political battle lines had been drawn.

Hyatt's well of support was in the House. Moody had the most backers in the Senate.

With 157 legislators on hand for the vote, the winner would need 79.

Before the vote was taken, however, Hyatt lost a potential pair of votes.

Rep. Herb Kirsh, D-Clover, had fallen while getting off an elevator at the Statehouse on Wednesday morning. He was taken to a hospital and was unavailable for the vote.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, was not there for the vote because his mother-in-law died.

Simrill said both men had pledged to support Hyatt, though two other sources, speaking freely in exchange for confidentiality, said Harrell would have voted for Moody.

With or without Harrell and Kirsh, Hyatt would need a sizable cushion of support from the House to win. And when House members gave him only a nine-vote margin, Moody's Democratic backers smiled broadly, raised their arms and pumped their fists.

Moody got 28 of the 44 votes cast by senators, pushing her across the line just ahead of Hyatt.

She wasn't the only USC board member to survive a close re-election vote.

Before the Moody-Hyatt vote was held, Mack Whittle turned back a challenge by Greenville lawyer Dick Jones Jr. with only two votes to spare.

But the big moment Wednesday was Moody's.

"It's a great day for the University of South Carolina," she said. "It's a great day for South Carolina."

Her supporters were nearly as joyous.

Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, quickly posted a message on his Facebook page.

"I can't say we made progress," he posted. "But we damn sure didn't take a step back!"

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