After a couple of years, she says she got tired of “working for the people down the hall,” and came home to the family business. Marriage to Michael, whom she had met when she was at Clemson and he was at Anderson University, soon followed.
Haley’s move to politics was not the result of planning or strategy. It was, like many things, the result of listening to her mother. When her frustration bubbled over about, as she puts it, “how hard it was to make a dollar and how easy it was for the government to take it,” her mother, in typical form, told her to quit complaining and do something about it.
“Ignorance is bliss. I didn’t know any better,” says Haley when asked why she got into politics. “I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to run against a 30-year incumbent in a primary. I truly didn’t. But once I got in, the only option was to win.”
Haley ran against Larry Koon, the longest-serving legislator in the state, and who was, she says, “related to half the district.” During the campaign, she and her husband, sporting their “Haley for Legislature” badges, attended a Ducks Unlimited event. A crowd of 1,500 people was there, with a long line waiting to shake hands with the incumbent. As she tells the story, Koon’s cousin got on stage and said, “I want you to know that I’m voting for Larry Koon, and I want everyone else in this room to vote for Larry Koon.” He was greeted with massive applause.
Haley and her husband stood in line. “I shook Mr. Koon’s hand, and he said, ‘See, little lady, they love me.’ And I said, ‘Yes sir, they do.’” Haley spent the rest of the evening, shaking every hand she could, to make sure, she says, “that they knew I wasn’t leaving.”
On Monday, she visited Mr. Koon’s cousin in his office. “Hey, I’m Nikki Haley, and I’m running for State House. I wanted to talk to you,” she said. “I just wanted you to know why I’m running.”
He responded, “I just told over a thousand people I’m voting for him, and they should, too.”
She acknowledged that, but asked him to hear her out. “I told him why I was running,” she says. “It was no disrespect to the incumbent, but I just thought we needed something different.”
After she was done, he thanked her and said, “But what do you want from me?”
With just a little more than chutzpah, Haley responded, “I don’t want you to put my yard sign in your front yard. But in your small circles, I want you to tell people what I had to say, and that you liked what I had to say.
“And before I leave, I need a thousand dollars.”
And he gave it.
It was a tough primary, and a runoff that got ugly, focusing on religion, on nationality, on gender. But she won it by a 10-point margin.