Mark Sanford's Political Obituary

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford collects his thoughts as he admits to The Associated Press more encounters with his Argentine mistress than he previously has disclosed, in his office Tuesday, June 30, 2009, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)
AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastian
This story was written by Paul Wachter.

Add the name Mark Sanford to the ever-expanding list of politicians done in by extramarital dalliances. On June 24 the South Carolina governor and potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate resurfaced after a weeklong disappearance--during which his staff and family denied knowledge of his whereabouts--and announced that he had flown to Argentina to rendezvous with a woman with whom he had been having an affair. At the press conference, a shaken Sanford apologized for his indiscretion, though he acknowledged that his wife, Jenny, had known about the affair and that they had sought counseling. "I've spent the last five days of my life crying in Argentina," he said. "I am committed to trying to get my heart right."

Sanford immediately resigned as chair of the Republican Governors Association, and a day later he pledged to reimburse the state for a government-funded trip he'd taken to Argentina in 2008. It remains unclear whether he will survive the mounting calls for his resignation, though it's almost certain the exposed infidelity has torpedoed any chance he might have had of attaining the Republican presidential nomination.

But if now is the time to write Sanford's political obituary, it would be a disservice to place so much emphasis on his affair. What brought Sanford to national prominence and prompted Republican National chair Michael Steele to anoint him as a rising star was the months-long, headline-grabbing campaign Sanford led to turn down portions of the Obama administration's stimulus funds. His stance played well among the fiscal conservatives who rallied behind the "tea party" protests this past spring, but many South Carolinians questioned the judgment of a governor who was willing to turn away money (jobs, really) designated for a state that desperately needs it and that boasts the nation's third-highest rate of unemployment. In order to establish his economic bona fides among conservatives, it seemed, Sanford was prepared to run his state's economy into the ground.

The showdown ended June 4, when the South Carolina Supreme Court ordered Sanford to apply for the disputed$700 million earmarked for his state. As questions mounted about the governor's absence, his staff initially said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail to recharge after the defeat. But if there is an irony to be found in Sanford's rambling public apology, it's not the standard tale of comeuppance. Rather, it's that he was finally asking South Carolinians for forgiveness--but for the wrong reasons.

Young, handsome and rich, Sanford swept into the House as part of the 1994 Republican revolution. A firm believer in the Contract With America--the party leadership's paean to limited government--he pledged to serve no more than three terms. Yet even by his own reckoning, his time in Congress was undistinguished. The Trust Committed to Me, an autobiographical account of his six years in Congress, is a strange political memoir--a masochist's chronicle of one legislative failure after another. In the fights over term limits (for), sugar subsidies (against), Congressional pay raises (against), Social Security reform (for) and the pork-laden highway bill (against), Sanford was always on the losing side--opposed not only by Democrats but often by his own party, which enjoyed a majority in both houses.

Among his former colleagues, Sanford's Congressional days are remembered for his public displays of frugality: he trimmed office staff, helped stop the daily delivery of ice to Congressional offices, slept on a futon in his office and showered at the House gym. "It was one gimmick to the next, and I never thought there was much substance to him," said House majority whip James Clyburn of South Carolina.

Until the recent stimulus kerfuffle, Sanford's years as governor had been most notable for public theatrics, as well. In May 2004, a day after the Republican-led House overrode 105 of Sanford's 106 budget vetoes, the governor carried two piglets into the Statehouse chambers to protest "pork-barrel spending." (That the pigs proceeded to defecate on the governor struck some miffed lawmakers as poetic justice.) The following year, he brought a horse and buggy to the Statehouse, saying it symbolized the state's "outdated" Constitution and ways of governance. At first, it looked like the governor's recent "disappearance" was yet another in his long resume of zany but harmless capers.

"Sanford's ideal for a perfect South Carolina would find the state with very limited government, no income taxes, limited roles for public education and little governmental involvement with job creation," wrote S.C. Statehouse Report publisher Andy Brack in 2005. In less dire economic times the governor's fiscal austerity resonated with many South Carolinians. But as the economy tanked, his style of governance, which can best be described as obstructionist, has proved costly.

One sunny morning in late April, I attended a job fair at Columbia's National Guard Armory, not far from the Statehouse. Hundreds of down-on-their-luck South Carolinians went from booth to booth discovering that for every company hiring--Verizon was looking for sales staff--there were others pitching training programs with no guarantee of a paycheck.

As he was leaving, I spoke with Gary Grimes, 55, who had been laid off seven months earlier from his job at Flextronics, a multinational manufacturing company with a plant in West Columbia. He and his wife, who had also recently lost her job, were scraping by on food stamps and unemployment insurance--insurance that Sanford had threatened in December to cut off unless the state agency that disbursed unemployment checks agreed to a new audit. (On January 1, just hours before the fund was to run out, Sanford capitulated and applied for a $146 million federal loan.) A lifelong Republican, Grimes was puzzled by Sanford's stance on the stimulus. "I know we'll have to pay the money back later, but at the same time, the state's hurting and we need the money," he said. "It looks like the governor's just playing politics."

I spent that afternoon in the observation balcony of the State Senate chambers alongside children from Greenville's Welcome Elementary School. The third graders were on a field trip, and they caused a brief commotion as they leaned over the railing to take photos. The august men below--there's not a single woman in the State Senate--were debating the 2009-10 appropriations bill. Tax revenue had plummeted; even though the $5.7 billion spending plan the Legislature passed included the $700 million in federal funds, it fell about $1 billion short of the previous year's plan.

Congress has mandated that the disputed $700 million--one-tenth of the total allocated for South Carolina under the $787 billion federal stimulus package, but the only part the governor believed was within his power to reject--be disbursed over two years for education and law enforcement. Sanford wanted to redirect the money to pay down state debt, and he stood prepared to see it go to other states even though South Carolinians would still have been on the hook to pay it back. "Going further into debt will not solve a problem that was created by too much debt," he said in a televised address defending his position.

But the governor's position was not a popular one in South Carolina. His approval rating had fallen to 40 percent by April, and other GOP lawmakers were questioning his priorities. South Carolina's AAA credit rating places it among states with the lowest general-obligation debt, and it is not unduly burdensome, said State Treasurer Converse Chellis. "If my house was burning down, I don't get in my car and drive to the bank to pay off the mortgage," added GOP State Senator Hugh Leatherman, chair of the budget-writing committee. "I try to put out the fire."

Leatherman's metaphor was apt, because South Carolina was going up in flames--literally. At the very moment the legislators were deliberating, the state's worst wildfire in more than thirty years was raging around Myrtle Beach. Months earlier, state forester Gene Kodama had warned that budget cuts at the Forestry Commission put the state "in a very vulnerable position," and now, at a moment of need, he was making do with fewer firefighters and creaky equipment. (More than $500,000 of the disputed stimulus money was allocated to the Forestry Commission, Sanford's critics were quick to point out.)