After a Personal Scandal, a Small Political Upswing
The New York Times
By ROBBIE BROWN
November 9, 2010
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Recently, Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina watched “The Blind Side,” the Oscar-winning movie about a white woman from Memphis who mentors a homeless black teenager. The film so “touched my heart,” the governor said, that he wrote a letter to the woman who inspired the character, praising her “acceptance and unconditional love.”
It is easy to see why those themes resonated. Mr. Sanford, who confessed last year to having an affair with an Argentine woman, has grappled since the scandal to save his political career and earn the public’s forgiveness.
And there are indications that he is succeeding — at least with South Carolinians. As Mr. Sanford, 50, a two-term Republican, prepares to leave office in January, he is enjoying a degree of political success that seemed unimaginable in the precarious days after his teary appearance on national television in the summer of 2009.
His poll numbers have rebounded, showing him more popular in the state than President Obama or Senator Lindsey Graham, a moderate Republican. He strung together what experts consider his most important legislative term. He announced plans for a huge Boeing plant near Charleston, the largest industrial project in state history. And his ally and personal friend Nikki Haley won this month’s governor’s race.
Now the frugal governor, who describes himself as “Tea Party before the Tea Party was cool,” is even considering a future run for office.
“I’d say nothing is impossible, given the last chapter of my life,” he said in a rare interview recently aboard the state airplane, although he said he was more likely to return to the private sector. “All I know is that I want to run through the finish line as governor.”
But voters who have forgiven have not necessarily forgotten. Nationally, Mr. Sanford is still known primarily as the guy who called his mistress his “soul mate” and turned “hiking the Appalachian Trail” into a euphemism.
“Forgiveness is one thing, re-election is another,” said Merle Black, a professor of Southern politics at Emory University. “He gets credit for hanging in there, but his political career has come to an end.”
But that end is one few political observers envisioned. After the scandal, Mr. Sanford, who had been considered a likely presidential candidate in 2012, resigned as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. He was nearly impeached by the Legislature, which instead censured him for bringing “ridicule, dishonor, disgrace and shame” on the state.
Even Mr. Sanford concedes he was “very, very close” to resigning. “I wanted to curl up,” he said. “I wanted to go down to my farm in Beaufort County and never see another TV for the rest of my life.”
That would have been a terrible mistake, a surrender to his weaker nature, he said. Voters seem to agree. A survey last month by Winthrop University in Rock Hill showed that 70 percent of the state believes Mr. Sanford deserves “a passing grade” for his governorship. Many former critics have now reversed themselves.
“He has turned out to be a very good, very effective governor,” said Glenn McCall, the chairman of the York County Republican Party, who had previously called for Mr. Sanford’s resignation. “Conservatives in our state really appreciate him for standing strong on his fiscal principles.”
Mr. Sanford’s legislative accomplishments this year, while incremental, included steps that he has discussed since taking office in 2003. He changed sentencing laws to handle a growing prison population. He reorganized parts of the executive branch, centralizing more authority in the governor’s cabinet. And he announced the Boeing deal, which the state expects will create 12,000 jobs by 2012.
State Senator John E. Courson, Republican of Lexington County, said the governor was able to recover because his failing was seen as personal, not political. Although Mr. Sanford, who was then in the House of Representatives, voted to impeach President Bill Clinton after the scandal over his affair with a White House intern, he had always made fiscal restraint a larger part of his platform than family values.
“It was not about hypocrisy,” Mr. Courson said. “No one ever questioned his political sincerity, removing the personal component.”
Still, Mr. Sanford has lost standing with some former supporters, who blame him for bringing negative publicity to the state.
“Don’t get our state in the news — that’s what I look for in a governor,” said Lucy Hall, 79, a retired tourism director who attended a recent Haley campaign rally and described Mr. Sanford as “disappointing.”
Mr. Sanford, who was divorced in March, declined to discuss his relationship with the Argentine woman, María Belén Chapur, except to say they are still dating but have not seen each other in South Carolina or Argentina. Aides confirmed that they spent a long weekend together in May in the Florida Keys.
He said he was personally content. Tall, tanned and wearing a green South Carolina-patterned tie, Mr. Sanford said he spent weekends with his four sons, surfing and swimming near his ex-wife’s beach house on Sullivan’s Island.
The scandal was humbling, he said. “I was never an arrogant guy outwardly,” he said. “But in my head, I had the sin of pride. I used to read a newspaper and see other people’s mistakes in the headlines and think: ‘What an idiot. What an idiot. What an idiot.’ But now I recognize, there but for the grace of God go I.”
As he tours the state these days delivering speeches and preparing the transition to a new administration, he said he had been reading verses from the New Testament that address the issue of forgiveness.
“I’ve been on a really big journey over the past 17 months in political terms,” he said. “But I’ve been on an even bigger inner journey.”