COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Gov. Nikki Haley asked legislators Wednesday to follow the inspirational example of the victims and survivors of last year's tragedies to make South Carolina stronger.
In her State of the State address, Haley continued the theme of her State of the Union response last week in referencing the June shooting deaths of nine parishioners at a historic black church in Charleston.
"There is greatness in South Carolina, a greatness embodied by our people, a greatness unequaled in our country," the nation's youngest governor said on her 44th birthday. "It is my fervent wish that, in this year, we, as the representatives of those people, act in a manner that is worthy of that greatness. For if we do, there is no limit to where we can take our state."
Her 42-minute speech came a week after her Republican response to President Barack Obama's address cast her as the GOP's moderate voice and fueled speculation she could be on the presidential ticket.
In that speech, she cautioned a national audience against listening to the "siren call of the angriest voices." Her comments were quickly praised by party leaders but derided by Donald Trump fans and some conservative commentators.
"I think she auditioned very well," Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said of Wednesday's speech. "The governor has a great delivery."
Haley recognized the "hole" in the chamber caused by the death of Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was among those gunned down in the Charleston church he pastored. She evoked his memory in calling for amicable disagreements.
"I knew him to be a man who never seemed to speak against anyone or anything," said Haley, South Carolina's first female and first minority governor. "Disagreement does not have to mean division. Honest policy differences do not need to morph into personal dislike, distrust and disillusion."
The massacre resulted in the removal of the Confederate flag that had flown on Statehouse grounds for 54 years. The white man charged with the murders had posed for photos with a rebel flag. Haley, who attended funerals for all nine victims, drew wide praise for successfully calling for the flag to be sent to a museum.
But she did not mention the flag Wednesday.
Instead, she spoke of the unity resulting from the tragedy and the "families who forgave a murderer." And, fighting tears, she called the three survivors of that shooting "angels living on Earth."
The Legislature gave a standing ovation as Haley recognized two of those survivors in the gallery.
Rep. Mandy Powers Norell, who gave Democrats' response, said Democrats agree "we need to start working together to get things done."
"The fighting is within her own party," Powers Norell, D-Lancaster, said of Haley's call for unity in a state where Republicans control both chambers and occupy all statewide offices. "While Republicans are fighting amongst themselves, our citizens continue to suffer."
Haley has been known to clash with her Republican colleagues.
Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, said he believes Haley's sincere in her call for affable disagreements. He noted last year's session ended in bipartisan agreement to bring down the flag.
"The tragedy in Charleston was a marker for her. ... It was a time of incredible hatred from one person and love from an entire community," he said. "She set the tone for unity to continue."
However, Haley's speech included a very public challenge to senators who haven't supported the changes in ethics law she wants, as she asked senators who agree with her to stand up. She credited the House for already passing them.
"It was interesting to call for unity on one hand and put senators on the spot on the other," Cobb-Hunter said.
Haley thanked the family of Walter Scott, saying their response to video evidence of an officer fatally shooting him in the back helped the state "learn from your tragedy, grow from it and take action" in hopes it won't happen again.
Unfortunately, the shooting of an unarmed black man was not unique in America but what happened afterward was, she said.
"South Carolina did not erupt in riots or violence. Instead, we focused on justice and progress," she said, crediting Scott's family as starting the "calming of our community."
Two months after Scott's senseless death, she pointed out, she signed a law encouraging all law enforcement agencies to use body cameras.
The state's historic year included a natural disaster, too, Haley noted.
"Rain at unbelievable levels, pouring from the sky for hours. ... October's 1,000-year flood was one that challenged our state in a way few natural disasters ever have," she said, thanking the state's adjutant general and other agency leaders for their response amid the catastrophe.