Swati Patel, who became South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s chief of staff this month, remembers feeling like a “rare bird” while growing up in Anderson. Haley announced Aug. 26 that she has chosen Patel to replace James H. Burns as her chief of staff. Burns is returning to the Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough law firm where he was a partner before joining Haley’s team in 2014.
“I can’t think of anyone who is more widely respected or uniquely qualified to lead our team than Swati Patel,” said Haley in a statement issued by her office. “(Patel’s) steady leadership as legal counsel has strengthened our staff, guided our administration and helped us deliver results to the people of South Carolina — and, as chief of staff, Swati will keep that momentum going.”
Like Haley, Patel is an Indian American, the daughter of Indian immigrants. In the 1960s, her parents each came to Raleigh, N.C., where her father graduated from North Carolina State University with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. He later worked at the Owens Corning and Bosch plants in Anderson.
Patel was 6 years old when her family moved to Anderson. At the time, she said, there were only about five Indian American families living here. “Growing up as the child of immigrants in the 1970s in a small town in South Carolina, you were definitely looked at as different,” said Patel, who attended Concord Middle School, McCants Middle School and T.L. Hanna High School.
“I never felt unwelcome or discriminated against,” she said. “People just didn’t know how to categorize me.” A University of South Carolina graduate, Patel, 44, is the wife of a Columbia physician and the mother of a 10-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter. Her younger sister is a pediatrician in Charleston. Patel has spent almost her entire professional career at the Statehouse complex in Columbia.
While in college, she was appointed to serve as a page by Alex Macaulay, a former state senator and retired judge from Walhalla. After receiving her law degree, Patel worked with legislative committees and the state Judicial Merit Selection Committee.
Patel has a decade of experience as an attorney in the governor’s office. She was deputy legal counsel and then chief legal counsel for former Gov. Mark Sanford before becoming Haley’s top legal adviser in 2011.
Patel said the added managerial responsibilities will be one of the biggest challenges of her new position. She said she hasn’t given any thought to her next career move after Haley’s final term as governor ends in January 2019. “I am just taking it day by day and week to week,” Patel said.