From Appalachian Trail to Congress via Argentina: Sanford rises from political dead

McClatchy Washington BureauMarch 21, 2014 

During a recent break in congressional session, Mark Sanford sidled up to his pal Mick Mulvaney and sat next to him on a back bench in the ornate chamber of the House of Representatives, a Cheshire cat’s grin on his lean face.

When Mulvaney made Sanford wait a few moments in silence, the former South Carolina governor couldn’t help himself.

“Notice anything different?” Sanford asked.

Mulvaney panned Sanford up and down, then exclaimed with exaggerated surprise:

“Marshal Sanford, you’ve bought yourself a new suit!”

The notoriously skinflint Sanford, a man of considerable means who once wore a sports coat with an open-neck shirt to his own gubernatorial inauguration ball, couldn’t help himself.

“Paid $129 for it,” he said.

For Mulvaney and other Sanford friends, the new suit is a small but telling sign that he has been, as he claims, humbled by the spectacular fall he took from the edge of political greatness, thanks to a sexy Argentine mistress and a tearful confession on national television that he’d met his soul-mate.

Sanford, who noted several times in a recent interview that he is the only former governor in the House, no longer insists on doing everything his way and only his way. The one-time loner now watches college football games on Saturdays with other lawmakers. Down in his hometown of Charleston, S.C., and the surrounding 1st Congressional District, he lingers with constituents, trades small talk, shows genuine interest in their families and their lives.

Sanford’s rise from the political dead was made possible by a fluke. When Sen. Jim DeMint abruptly retired to take over the Heritage Foundation, Washington’s leading conservative think tank, S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley promoted then-Rep. Tim Scott to replace him in the Senate, forcing a special election for Scott’s House seat. It happened to be the same Charleston-based seat Sanford held for six years in the 1990s before leaving Congress to fulfill a term-limit pledge.

Mulvaney, who was a state legislator for the second half of Sanford’s stint as governor from January 2003 to January 2011, backed another candidate in last year’s crowded Republican primary for that election.

Mulvaney believed that the whole sordid scandal surrounding Sanford would become a debacle for Republicans should he join Congress. His fears deepened after Sanford, having defeated a dozen opponents in the primary and entered the general election, dropped by his former marital abode a year ago to pick up some belongings and was charged with trespassing by his ex-wife, Jenny Sanford.

That dust-up led the National Republican Congressional Committee to pull its ads and other support from Sanford’s race. The rebuke was largely symbolic since Sanford still owns a substantial real estate investment firm and has plenty of Wall Street friends to tap for campaign funds, but it soured what for many was already a tainted race.

“The last thing I wanted was for Mark Sanford to be the face of the Republican Party,” Mulvaney told McClatchy.

But since Sanford sailed to general election victory and came to Washington in May, Mulvaney has been pleasantly surprised.

“He has focused on issues, he hasn’t made himself into a spectacle, he’s working on his committees,” Mulvaney said. “He’s trying really hard to do something that does not come natrually to him -- putting time into personal relationships.”

‘Saved by my God’

As governor, Sanford once took pigs onto the floor of the S.C. House to illustrate wasteful spending, infuriating fellow Republican legislators who saw themselves as frugal. Now, back in Washington, Sanford is trying to keep a low profile and steer clear of anything that might smack of a flamboyant stunt. He’s largely succeeded, save for the time last July when an unexpected vote forced him to make a mad dash from the National Mall, where he was out for a jog, to cast his ballot in the House while wearing shorts, a T-shirt, gym socks and sneakers.

His former mistress, Maria Belen Chapur, is now his fiance. The one-time Argentine TV reporter set off a hundred camera light flashes last year when she showed up at Sanford’s side in Charleston for primary and general election victory bashes.

“When we’re together, we live together,” Chapur told a Buenos Aires TV station in a rare interview. “Partly in Washington, partly in Charleston.”

Whether in South Carolina or the nation’s capital, when the two of them go out on a date to grab dinner and catch a movie, the paparazzi, who now include just everyday folks whipping out their iPhones, snap pictures and tweet them around the digital universe.

Despite the difficulties, Chapur said she’s happy being with the tall congressman.

Since Sanford spends weekday nights in Washington sleeping on a futon in his office _ a faded, folding orange mattress that he leans upright against the wall behind the couch during the day _ it might be assumed that he and Chapur stay in hotels when she visits him there. While he could afford nice lodging tabs with his affluent childhood roots and his subsequent business success, Sanford refused to divulge details of his life with Chapur.

“I’ve talked about my personal life ad nauseam,” he said during a far-ranging interview in his Capitol Hill office.

Asked whether the two of them have set a wedding date, he responded: “I’m not going to make news here today.”

Sanford prefers to talk about the inner spiritual journey he’s taken since “the events of 2009” -- his standard handle for an epic scandal that captivated Americans and catapulted “hiking on the Appalachian trail” to the top of the American political lexicon. He once described his extramarital affair as “the odyssey that we’re all on with regard to heart,” leading Vanity Fair to dub him the Human Poetry Tattoo.

“You learn a lot more on the way down than on the way up,” Sanford said.

Saying he’s been “saved by my God,” Sanford is doing a yearlong devotional, each day reading an inspirational religious reflection in a book called “Streams in the Desert.” He often quotes Bible passages. One of his favorite verses is Matthew 7. In the holy book’s New International version, it reads in part: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measures you use, it will be measured to you.”

“I spend a lot less time these days casting judgments on others,” Sanford said.

Drawing hard lines

Yet there appears to be some judging of others wrapped up in his explanation of why he opposes extending unemployment benefits, even though South Carolina remains among the nation’s poorest states. While its 6.6 percent jobless rate has fallen to the national average, several dozen of the 100 counties in South Carolina have much higher levels.

“The operative term is they were emergency benefits,” Sanford said. “How many years do you go before it’s no longer an emergency?”

Noting that the economy bottomed out in 2008 and 2009, he quickly added: “That’s not to say that people aren’t hurting, they are.”

Then back to why longer unemployment benefits aren’t needed. He riffs on what’s become a standard line among conservatives: paying people not to work “incentivizes” them to stop seeking work; weaning them from government aid is good for them, at least in the long run.

“One of the things I saw as governor is that people will manage any system that’s placed before them,” he said. “If you give people a couple years to find employment versus a year versus 26 weeks -- they’re going to fill the box whatever that happens to be.”

With Democrats already casting Republicans as callous meanies, it’s lawmakers such as Sanford who make House Republican leaders unwilling to put to a vote any measure extending unemployment benefits for fear that it will either fail to pass or gain approval only after rhetorical bashing of poor folks’ moral failings.

Sanford offered the tourism business in Myrtle Beach, S.C., one of the nation’s top vacation spots for its long beaches along the Grand Strand, as an example. There, he said, restaurant workers would make big bucks during the summer and then file for unemployment benefits in the winter.

“In many cases, they were seasonal workers who were, for lack of a better term, gaming the system,” Sanford said.

Same old Sanford, thinks Sue Berkowitz when she hears that kind of talk.

Back in South Carolina, Berkowitz is state director of Appleseed, a nonprofit group that helps feed, clothe, house and provide medical care for the poorest of the poor.

So much for Mark’s spiritual conversion -- that’s her response to Sanford’s take on unemployment benefits.

“When it comes to supporting people and policies that help people who don’t have means, he’s never been supportive,” Berkowitz said. “This is a man who vetoed giving more children healthcare in our state. For him, it’s always less government, less regulations and this whole libertarian belief that everything will work out for everyone if government stays out of the way. He holds people hostage to push forward his brand of social engineering and gutting programs that help those who have less. I would love to think that when constituents ask him to help save programs that feed seniors and children are saved, it would change his mind, but we haven’t seen it.”

Governor No

Sanford’s current theories about unemployment assistance contrast the emergency of 2008 and 2009 with the less urgent situation now. Yet, in March 2009 when the economy was battered and folks were hurting most and South Carolina had one of the highest unemployment rates, he became the first governor to reject $700 million in economic-stimulus funds, courtesy of then-new President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats in Congress.

Sanford insisted on using the money to pay down the state’s debt, a function the federal law that created the stimulus plan didn’t allow. Sen. John Courson was one of dozens of Republican legislators who broke with Sanford during the stimulus fight. They lent their support to a lawsuit by educators and poor people that persuaded the S.C. Supreme Court to order Sanford to accept the money and use it for its intended purposes of building roads, helping schools and providing business tax cuts.

“Some of his actions were irrational,” Courson, now president pro tempore of the S.C. Senate, said in a recent interview. “The stimulus was one-time money. If we didn’t take it, it would go to Massachusetts or New Jersey or Michigan, but our taxpayers in South Carolina would still be on the hook to pay the taxes. It just didn’t make sense to me.”

By then, Sanford had a long history of confounding Republicans at the Statehouse who wanted to be his allies. Using his line-item veto, he axed hundreds of spending items from budgets that they believed were already lean; just as stubbornly, Republican and Democratic lawmakers routinely overrode his vetoes by large margins. On one day, the legislature returned [105] of 106 vetoed measures to him.

“Every governor before Mark made a really serious effort to get along with the leadership of the General Assembly to get their program enacted,” said Richard Quinn, a prominent Republican consultant in Columbia who was Sen. John McCain’s chief South Carolina strategist during the Arizonan’s presidential campaigns. “Mark deviated from that pattern. He decided he had a philosophy he was promoting and that was more important than getting legislation passed. He was not very popular with either Republicans or Democrats in the legislature.”

Five years before Sanford tried to turn down millions his state desperately needed, Courson delivered the eulogy at a Columbia memorial service for President Ronald Reagan.

With Sanford sitting in the front row, Courson, who’d been a Reagan delegate at three presidential conventions, told the mourners that he was Reaganesque and could become president.

Sanford had been governor for less than 18 months. Over the next half dozen years, as Courson experienced Sanford’s aloofness and perennial tangling with legislators, Courson changed his view.

Reagan and Sanford shared similar core conservative principles, and both were willing to withstand political heat to advance them. Reagan, however, was willing to accept three-quarters of what he wanted and call it a victory. Sanford, by contrast, rarely bent and lambasted his peers even when they were willing to give him 90 percent of his agenda.

“His ability to reach out to members of the General Assembly, in both the House and the Senate, was not what we were initially hoping for,” Courson said. “I don’t think one compromises one’s principles, but you have to govern. That’s just a reality of life. Mark Sanford is certainly a much better legislator (in Congress now) than he was a chief executive.”

Breaking the mold

If Sanford alienated would-be friends as governor, he found other supporters in unexpected places.

State Rep. Leon Howard, an African-American Democrat from Columbia who was chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus for part of Sanford’s tenure as governor, said he named African-Americans to substantial positions in his administration.

“He had a better record on diversity than a lot of (previous) Democratic governors,” Howard said.

Sanford’s sensitivity to his black constituents wasn’t limited to appointments.

“The South Carolina Highway Patrol was running (African-American) citizens down, using the N-word, handcuffing men to the bumper of their cars,” Howard said. “We (black legislatures) met with him and asked him to investigate. He looked into it, fired the director of the Highway Patrol and a colonel, and brought in new leadership.”

In Congress, Sanford has broken with most of his House Republican colleagues in casting several votes that show a similar concern for civil rights, perhaps along with the civil liberties that his strong libertarian leanings seek to protect.

On June 5, 2013, Sanford was among 33 Republicans who voted for a measure by Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, that would have blocked the Transportation Security Administration’s “behavior-detection program,” which many minority travelers believe is a form of ethnic profiling.

The next day, Sanford was one of just 10 Republicans to oppose a Homeland Security Department funding bill that tightened restrictions on illegal immigrants.

In a more recent vote, on March 4, Sanford abandoned a large bloc of conservative colleagues to support a bill that prevented steep flood insurance rate hikes. Conservative Republicans who opposed it wanted to phase out federal subsidies more quickly, an ideological tenet that Sanford has long promoted, but he chose instead to protect constituents in his coastal district. That was a bow to pragmatism he likely would not have made during his first congressional stint almost two decades ago.

But for all the softening of the soul that Sanford’s scandal and subsequent spiritual sojourn have caused in him, his independent streak sometimes still yields to a hard stubbornness that can seem almost disconnected from reality.

In discussing unemployment benefits, for example, he repeatedly insisted that an extension would enable jobless people to get government aid for two years.

Pressed by a reporter to show how he arrived at that figure, Sanford pulled out a report, pored through charts and hollered out to aides for help.

One aide, clearly chagrined, walked him through the math: Twenty-six weeks of basic benefits plus a 43-week extension equaled 69 weeks.

Much closer to one year than to two years.

“What I’m saying is -- call it a year-and-a-half, call it two years,” Sanford finally said. “I’m rounding.”

A group of bipartisan senators announced a deal March 14 that would extend unemployment insurance for five months, for a total in most states of about 48 weeks.

At another point in the office interview, Sanford was asked why he’d voted for an $8.2 billion water resources bill that Taxpayers for Common Sense, an anti-spending group, said was full of “pork barrel water projects for the Corps of Engineers.”

House and Senate negotiators are trying to work out differences between the two chambers’ versions of the measure, with the Senate giving the Corps of Engineers large discretion to choose which ports, harbors, levies, bridges and waterways get improved but the House retaining more power for lawmakers.

Instead of talking about deepening the Charleston port in his own district, Sanford launched into a discourse into the War Powers Act and the growing clout of presidents whether Republican or Democratic.

“If I’d been around when Bush wanted to invade Iraq, I would not have gone down that path,” Sanford said.

Aware that only six Republican House members had voted against the March 2003 invasion, a reporter pressed Sanford to clarify: Would he have been among their small ranks?

“I would have certainly insisted on congressional authorization,” Sanford responded.

Informed that such authorization was, in fact, granted to President George W. Bush, Sanford alternated between disbelief, skepticism and uncertainty.

Again, he called out to aides for help.

In another awkward moment, an aide said he was “pretty sure” Congress had authorized the invasion.

“We’ll look it up,” Sanford concluded.

It was hard to tell if he was joking.

“There is some tempering of any human soul if you go through a big storm, and I went through a big storm in 2009.”

Just a week before that storm hit, the sun was shining brightly on Marshall Clement Sanford.

In mid-June of 2009, he hosted the Coosaw Encampment, a three-day, South Carolina-style Renaissance Weekend on the Sanford family’s 3,000 acre farm in Charleston County.

In vintage quirky-brilliant Sanford style, he’d asked them to bring their own tents, throw down some sleeping bags and sleep on the land. Some 200 political and business luminaries, an intriguing mix of conservative true-believers and financiers from his Wall Street days, were only to happy to join the adventure.

Sanford was riding high. As president of the Republican Governors Association, he’d used his bulging Rolodex to raise $12 million for GOP chief executives around the country.

He’d also gained national attention by rejecting $700 million in economic-stimulus funds ticketed for his state, courtesy of then-new President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats in Congress. The fact that just a few days before the big camp-out, the South Carolina Supreme Court had ordered him to accept the funds only elevated his standing among growing legions of conservative followers across the country.

Frank Luntz, the Republican strategist who 15 years earlier had helped launch the Gingrich Revolution, greeted the guests with a hearty, optimistic salvo:

“Welcome to the first day of the Mark Sanford for President Campaign!” he hollered to wild applause.

Scarcely a week later, it was all gone.

The governor went missing and in typical Sanford fashion didn’t tell anyone where he’d gone. Not his wife Jenny, not their four boys, not his staff, not any of the legislators or lobbyists in Columbia, S.C.

As the days passed, his aides went from being amused to exasperated to just plain bewildered. They speculated that Sanford, a skilled outdoorsman, had “gone hiking on the Appalachian Trail.” Little did they know that they’d let loose a phrase that would quickly catapult to the top of the American political lexicon, becoming a household term virtually overnight.

As luck would have it, state Sen. John Courson, one of many fellow Republican legislators Sanford had angered by vetoing budget bills they thought were pretty damn austere and blasting as profligate, was actually hiking on the Appalachian Trail. He and S.C. Sen. Greg Gregory were on South Mountain in Maryland, on their way to visit the hallowed Civil War site of the Battle of Antietam, which Courson and other Southerners called the Sharpsburg Battle.

“When the news came on the radio that Governor Sanford was hiking the Appalachian Trail, we looked at each other and said, ‘Gosh, we might see him,’” Courson recalled recently. “We looked for him, but we couldn’t find him.”

Gina Smith, who’d covered Sanford as a political reporter for The State Newspaper in Columbia, got a tip that Sanford would be on a plane landing in Atlanta from Buenos Aires on the morning of June 24. When he walked off the plane and she was waiting, the governor knew the gig was up.

On the first day, Frank Luntz, the Republican strategist who’d helped launch the Gingrich Revolution

Email:; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose

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