Powers Norrell sees bright, blue future for South Carolina

In mid-April, Democratic state Rep. James Smith and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers thought they scored a major victory in opening up South Carolina’s solar energy market.

But on what normally is a routine final approval, Smith’s H. 4421 — which would have lifted a 2 percent cap on the amount of net metered solar systems allowed — died on third reading by three votes.

Language in the measure also would have exempted solar arrays from property tax bills — triggering an argument by opponents that, under Article 10 of the state Constitution, such a move could only be approved by a two-thirds majority.

During a floor debate, Smith, an attorney, and one other House Democrat built a legal argument they hoped would salvage the cause. Her name was Mandy Powers Norrell.

“James found out the night before around 7 what was going to happen, and he called me. We came up with a strategy. He was going to make the procedural case and I was going to make the legal one,” Powers Norrell said.

Ultimately, the bill died. But in that moment, a political alliance was born. A month later, Smith named the Lancaster lawyer as his pick for lieutenant governor.

Those 11th-hour efforts to salvage H. 4421, Powers Norrell said, are an apt metaphor for their working relationship.

“It’s so much fun to collaborate with somebody who thinks like you. Even though we lost, it was a lot of fun to tag team,” she said. “He’s such a brilliant mind. The big thing with him is that he’s just so willing to put himself into the arena. So many people in life are crippled by this fear of failure that they won’t try to do great things, and he’s never intimated by that.”

Smith and Powers Norrell will spend the next five months convincing voters why Gov. Henry McMaster — who boasts close ties to President Trump — isn’t deserving of his own four-year term.

“I think we offer a very different feeling in our campaign than the other side does,” Powers Norrell said. “We’re talking more about the future than folks are accustomed to hearing from people running for office, and that’s a difference we make.”

The 44-year-old grew up in the shadow of Springs Cotton Mill, once the largest operation of its kind the world. Her father, Carl, went to work at the mill to help support the family, including his disabled wife, Barbara. Powers Norrell was their only child, and she wound up excelling her way through college, eventually earning a law degree from the University of South Carolina in 1997, where she graduated summa cum laude.

The mill closed in 2008, and Powers Norrell would file bankruptcy claims for many of her father’s co-workers.

“A lot of our communities in rural South Carolina were heavily steeped in manufacturing, and when that went overseas, a lot of them faced the same peril,” she said. “That’s where I’m from, is the rural part of the state, and it’s where I connect.”

Powers Norrell married Mitchell Norrell in March 1995. They have two children and attend First Baptist Church in Lancaster.

After falling short in a bid for the state Senate in 2008 — she lost to Mick Mulvaney, currently director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget — Powers Norrell won the 44th House district in 2012, coasting past two Republican contenders before running unopposed in 2016.

“My district is a pretty red district and I won as a Democrat, and I think the thing that helps me do that is the same thing that will help James win the governorship, and that’s relationships and our biography. They’ll trust our decisions, because the vast majority of things that come before anyone in government have no inherent ideology attached to them,” she said. “There’s no Republican or Democrat way to pay the rent. If they feel like they know you, I think you can win them over.”

Powers Norrell knows it will take crossover support from traditional Republicans to win the governor’s mansion, and says she has been encouraged new voters are there.

“The feeling is so different than it was 10 years ago when I ran for Senate. I would knock on doors and people would say, ‘You’re so nice, I wish I could vote for you but I can’t, because you’re a Democrat,’ but now people are very willing to listen, because they want something else.”