Longtime SC state senator makes history while approaching another milestone

A longtime South Carolina statesman is on track to break a state record after making national history. But he doesn’t plan on quitting anytime soon.

State Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, was recognized as the longest-serving active state senator in the nation last week by a S.C. Senate resolution. And at the end of his current term in 2024, Setzler will achieve another milestone by becoming the longest-serving state senator in South Carolina’s history, bypassing Marion Gressette, who spent 47 years in the upper chamber.

“I’ve been blessed through God’s grace of giving me the ability and the health, the people that elect me and my family in allowing me to do this for the period of time I’ve done,” Setzler said. “I work on a bipartisan effort and am somebody who wants to get to solutions while respecting differing views.”

S.C. Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, speaks to Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. (File)
S.C. Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, speaks to Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. (File)

Who is Nikki Setzler?

Setzler, 77, is an attorney who was first elected to the state Senate in 1976. He is a Democrat, who represents District 26, which includes Aiken, Calhoun, Lexington and Saluda counties, a conservative district in a deeply red state.

Billing himself as a “caring conservative” Democrat, Setzler has successfully sailed through 12 election cycles, with 11 of his 12 campaigns facing opposition.

As for a reelection bid in 2024, Setzler said, “that’s up to God,” adding he hopes to run again.

“I’m as enthused right now as I was the first day I walked in over here,” he said. “I love what I do, and I have plenty of energy to keep going.”

Setzler said he first chose to run for office because he didn’t want to complain from the sidelines, but he had always had an interest in politics and majored in political science while an undergrad at the University of South Carolina.

Legislative priorities and accomplishments

Education, transportation and economic development are some of the issues Setzler says have been his focus since becoming a lawmaker.

“If you don’t have an educated workforce, then it’s hard to do economic development,” he said. “I’m a huge advocate of K-12 and higher education because I think that’s the future of South Carolina.”

South Carolina, like many other states, is grappling with an increasing teacher shortage and has seen a decline in student academic performance following the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Because students were not in the classroom for two or three years, we have students that did not learn as much as they could have or should have during the pandemic and we have to make that up,” he said.

Recently, in his State of the State address, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster vowed to increase starting teacher pay to $50,000 a year by 2026. Setzler said he backs the governor’s aim and hopes educators will see at least that amount in salary increases.

In the transportation arena, Setzler said he’s been committed to expanding every interstate in South Carolina to six lanes and fought to get the Carolina Crossroads project underway to improve the Midlands’ infamous “Malfunction Junction,” where Interstates 20, 26 and 126 meet in West Columbia.

“I think that’s critical to moving goods and services, people and tourists,” he said. “People can’t get down the interstates now, and while (improvements are) underway, it’s going to take some time.”

Earlier last year, legislators earmarked nearly $600 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars to accelerate expansion projects for interstates 26 and 95. The additional money has moved the I-95 project up by three years.

The Carolina Crossroads project is estimated to take a decade to complete, and with a $1.7 billion price tag, is the most expensive road improvement in South Carolina’s history.

In recent years, Setzler has made a mark through his work to bring economic development to the Midlands region. For example, he was a driving force behind Lexington County’s success in landing an Amazon distribution center nearly 10 years ago, followed by Michelin and Nephron Pharmaceuticals. He also played a role in attracting Boeing and BMW to the state.

Nikki Setzler
Nikki Setzler


Setzler attributes his successful track record to his commitment to bipartisanship.

“I think working in a true effort to be bipartisan comes from a genuine respect of the other person’s view,” he said. “If you respect their view, even though you may not agree with it, then I think you can work in a bipartisan way. That’s who I am, and that’s who I’m always going to be.”

Setzler served as Senate minority leader for eight years before stepping down in 2020 and was known for consistently working across the aisle in that role.

He formerly told The State Editorial Board that he spoke so frequently with his then-Republican counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, that Massey’s wife once suggested that Massey “might actually be married to me instead of her.”

Grace, humility and productivity

Setzler’s work reflects grace, humility and productivity, according to his colleagues.

“If you work with Nikki Setzler, you know he’ll never allow you to drop the ball,” said Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, who introduced a Senate resolution in honor of Setzler last week. The resolution reads, in part:

“Senator Setzler’s passion for the legislative process and bipartisan consensus‑building has led to reformative legislation, including the Education Improvement Act, four‑year‑old kindergarten, improvement of the fiduciary health and governance of the South Carolina Retirement System, restructuring of the Department of Transportation Commission and funding for road and infrastructure improvement, increasing of teacher salaries, and reducing of standardized testing pressure on teachers and students.”

A friend, Jackson sits next to Setzler in the Senate chamber and said Setzler has taught him two things: “The heavy lifting is done behind closed doors, and … you don’t brag about what you’ve done.”

Republican Sen. Katrina Shealy of Lexington added that she enjoyed working with Setzler and hopes he will be in the Senate “a lot longer.”

“Thank you for everything, being a great senator, great role model and everything you do for Lexington County,” she said.

“It’s about helping people and finding and making this a better state and a better place for us to live and raise our children and grandchildren,” Setzler said. “It’s not about partisan politics.”

Setzler is married with four daughters and nine grandchildren and said he’s proud to hail from the Cayce-West Columbia area.

SC Senate Democratic Leader Nikki Setzler attends a joint session along with President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman and then-Senate Republican Leader Harvey Peeler.
SC Senate Democratic Leader Nikki Setzler attends a joint session along with President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman and then-Senate Republican Leader Harvey Peeler.