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The Toughest Babe in Business Is Back

June 9, 2011, 1:00 PM UTC

When Darla Moore made the cover of Fortune in 1997, she was a brass-knuckled Southern belle who had conquered the New York bank world, married a billionaire dealmaker, and so loved a fight that Fortune named her “The Toughest Babe in Business.”

She’s back.

In South Carolina, Moore’s native state where she now resides, she’s been battling Nikki Haley, a Tea Party Republican.

The scuffle started in March when Haley removed Moore, a political independent, from the Board of Trustees at the University of South Carolina. The governor installed a campaign contributor, attorney Tommy Cofield.

That would not have been a big deal if Moore, 56, weren’t so powerful in the Palmetto State. A University Trustee since 1999, she established the Darla Moore School of Business and has donated $70 million, making her the all-time biggest benefactor there.

A public firestorm erupted. Complaints bombarded Haley’s office. “Students for the Reinstatement of Miss Darla Moore” rallied at the State House. “The whole state went nuts,” says Moore, speaking exclusively to Fortune.

Moore didn’t fan the flames —”Not one bit!” she claims—but she clearly liked that Haley has felt the heat. What miffed Moore, besides getting bumped from the board, is that she found out about her dismissal second-hand. It was March 17, two days after the news broke, by the time Moore received Haley’s March 3 notification—because the address on the envelope was 9 West 57th Street, New York, NY.

Darla Moore.

“I haven’t been in that office for 12 years,” drawls Moore, in disbelief. “It’s not like I’m not known here in South Carolina.”

“Don’t mess with Darla,” people have long said about her. So no wonder students “were concerned I was going abandon them—or leave the state,” says Moore.

Moore is married to Texas investor Richard Rainwater but resides mainly in Lake City, the South Carolina hamlet where she grew up. Just like any savvy Southern belle, she summoned her sweetness to wage her battle and get her way. Convening students and TV news crews on the University campus, Moore announced a $5 million gift to build an aerospace research center named for astronaut Ron McNair, a South Carolinian—from Moore’s hometown, in fact—who died in the 1986 Challenger disaster.

With Boeing soon to open a new plant in South Carolina, Moore called for the state to match her $5 million.

Haley’s office praised the donation and called Moore’s request “premature.” The governor declined to talk to Fortune, while Haley press secretary Rob Godfrey defends her decision to replace Moore with a Trustee who shares, he says, “the governor’s vision for higher education.”

Godfrey adds, “We appreciate Darla Moore and her long service to the university and state.” The two women have yet to meet each other.