Nikki Haley's Race Relations Work In South Carolina Is What's Helped Make Her A Rising Political Star

After President Obama gives his final State of the Union address, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will deliver the Republican “response” (which won’t really be a response, since it’ll be written before the text of Obama’s speech is available, but I digress). This is a time-honored gig for rising political stars, and while it doesn’t always work out to their advantage, the fact that Nikki Haley is giving the SOTU response speech is just the latest sign that she’s a Republican to keep an eye on in 2016 and beyond.

Haley was first elected to the South Carolina governorship in 2010, becoming both the first woman and the first Indian-American to hold the top office in the state. This immediately put her on the radar: The Republican Party has well-documented problems attracting both women and minority voters, and elders within the GOP thought Haley could help bridge these divides. She was floated as a possible Vice Presidential pick in in 2012, though she summarily shot down those rumors.

Now, Haley is the youngest governor in the United States, and she’s done several things to differentiate herself from the rest of the GOP. To be sure, she is a standard-issue Republican politician in most regards: She blocked the implementation of Obamacare in South Carolina, signed a bill allowing concealed weapons in places that serve alcohol, ordered an investigation into Planned Parenthood clinics after those debunked videos were released, and so on.

Sean Rayford/Getty Images News/Getty Images

And yet when, it comes to issues of race relations in America, Haley has distinguished herself from the rest of her party. After white North Charleston police officer Michael Slager shot unarmed black resident Walter Scott in the back during a routine traffic stop, killing him, Haley released the following statement:

Not long thereafter, Haley signed a bill requiring all law enforcement agencies in the state to use body cameras, a bill praised by Scott’s family. While the law itself fell short of what some activists had hoped — the footage on those body cameras won’t be subject to public records requests, for example — Haley was nevertheless the first governor in the country sign a body camera bill into law, a key policy goal of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Later in the summer, Haley became an early and forceful advocate for removing the confederate flag from the state capital. This became an issue shortly after the June massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, wherein Dylann Roof confessed to shooting and killing nine black parishioners during a Bible study gathering. The details of the case, such as Roof’s statement to investigators that he wanted to start a “race war,” led many to question why the confederate flag was still raised on the grounds of the state capital.

TODAY on YouTube

The question of whether or not to continue honoring the Confederacy is, believe it or not, still an active controversy in American politics. Republicans generally side with Confederate sympathizers, and that’s even more true among Republican officials in the former confederacy.

In a move that surprised just about everyone, Haley immediately called for the removal of the flag. This was a reversal of her previous position, but it didn’t matter: As the South Carolina state legislature passed a bill mandating the flag’s removal, several other Republican governors followed Haley’s lead, and the flag slowly started coming down across the country. While Haley’s leadership on this issue did happen to work to her own political advantage, that doesn’t negate the fact that she indisputably did lead. She took what was, in Republican circles, a bold and risky position, and inspired many of her colleagues to follow suit.

Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Compared to the activist left, Haley isn’t exactly progressive on race. It’s not like she’s denouncing white privilege, say, or calling for the wholesale dismantling of institutionalized racism. But when compared to the rest of her party — and the 2016 Republican presidential field in particular — she’s practically Martin Luther King, Jr. That’s why the powers that be in the GOP have their eye on her. It’s why she was tapped to deliver the 2016 SOTU response, and it’s probably why Haley is, once again, being suggested as a possible vice presidential candidate.