WASHINGTON — During a break in the recent 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 U.S. 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 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’s been, as he claims, humbled by the spectacular fall he took from the edge of national political power thanks to a sexy Argentine mistress, a tearful confession to the extramarital affair on national television, and a claim in subsequent days that he’d met his “soul mate.”
Sanford, who noted several times in a recent interview that he’s the only former governor in the House, no longer insists on doing everything his way and only his way. The onetime loner now watches college football games on Saturdays with other lawmakers. In his hometown of Charleston, S.C., and in the surrounding 1st Congressional District, he lingers with constituents, trades small talk and shows interest in their families and their lives.
All this might not be newsworthy, save for one bizarre interlude in Sanford’s past: Five years ago, while serving as governor, he abruptly disappeared.
For six days, no one – not his wife or four sons, not his aides, not the Statehouse reporters who covered his every move – knew where he was. His chief of staff left 15 unanswered messages on his cellphone. His spokesman told baffled reporters that he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” Fellow Republicans said his absence was irresponsible.
In just a few days, the odd case of the missing governor became a huge news story.
Finally, on June 24, 2009, Sanford resurfaced. Political reporter Gina Smith, acting on a tip that The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., had received, was waiting for him at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport when he got off a flight from Buenos Aires.
Sanford told Smith that he’d been in Argentina and, at a nationally televised news conference later that day, he admitted to the affair.
He resigned as the chairman of the Republican Governors Association – a post many assumed he’d use as a steppingstone to a White House run – but served out his term as governor into January 2011, despite calls for his resignation.
Disgraced and discredited, Sanford disappeared again; this time, most observers thought, for good. But again Sanford surprised everyone, joining Congress in May 2013 via a special election.
Sanford’s rise from the politically dead was made possible by a fluke. When South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint abruptly retired in January 2013 to take over the Heritage Foundation, Washington’s leading conservative think tank, 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 had held for six years in the 1990s before he left 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 thought that the whole sordid scandal surrounding Sanford would become a debacle for Republicans should the former governor rejoin Congress. His fears deepened after Sanford dropped by the home of his ex-wife, Jenny Sanford, to watch the Super Bowl with his son and she charged him with trespassing.
That dust-up led the National Republican Congressional Committee to pull its ads and other support from Sanford’s race.
“The last thing I wanted was for Mark Sanford to be the face of the Republican Party,” Mulvaney told McClatchy.
But since Sanford emerged from a crowded Republican primary, easily won the general election and came to Washington last year, 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 naturally to him: putting time into personal relationships.”
‘Saved by My God’
When former President Ronald Reagan, an iconic figure to conservatives, died in 2004, South Carolina state Sen. John Courson delivered the eulogy at a memorial service in Columbia, the capital. He’d been a delegate for Reagan at three presidential conventions.
With Sanford, governor for less than 18 months, sitting in the front row, Courson told the mourners that their tall and lean chief executive with the conservative views was Reaganesque and could one day become president. But over the next half-dozen years, as Courson experienced Sanford’s aloofness and perennial tangling with legislators, his view changed.
As deeply conservative as Reagan was, he was willing to accept three-quarters of what he wanted and call it a victory. Sanford rarely bent, and he lambasted his peers even when they were willing to give him 90 percent of his agenda. He also seemed to relish the confrontation.
As governor, Sanford once took piglets into the Statehouse lobby between the South Carolina House and Senate chambers 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 House vote forced him to make a mad dash from the National Mall, where he’d been jogging, to cast his ballots wearing shorts, a T-shirt, gym socks and sneakers.
His former mistress, Maria Belen Chapur, is now his fiancee. The onetime Argentine TV reporter set off a hundred camera 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.”
Despite the difficulties, Chapur said she was happy being with the 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 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 handle for an epic scandal that captivated the public and cemented “hiking the Appalachian trail” into 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. A favorite is Matthew 7:1-2, which says, “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. “There is some tempering of any human soul if you go through a big storm, and I went through a big storm in 2009.”
Five years later, South Carolina state Sen. Tom Davis views Sanford’s resurrection of a political career that many had given up for dead as a peculiarly American morality tale. Davis, who was the chief of staff for Sanford when he was governor and remains a close friend, said Sanford won election to Congress because his constituents believed that he was deeply sorry for his past personal failings.
“The American people are forgiving people,” Davis told McClatchy. “They want true contrition and true atonement.”
Drawing hard lines
Politics and casting votes, however, are all about making judgments. Whether or not Sanford spends “a lot less time these days casting judgments on others” might be in the eye of the beholder.
His state, for example, remains among the nation’s poorest. While its 5.3 percent jobless rate has fallen below the national average, several dozen of the 46 counties in South Carolina have much higher levels. Sanford, however, opposes extending unemployment benefits.
“They were emergency benefits,” he 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.”
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 of how he thinks the system is open to abuse. 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,” he said.
Same old Sanford, thinks Sue Berkowitz, the state director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, a nonprofit group that helps feed, clothe, house and provide medical care for the poorest of the poor.
“When it comes to supporting people and policies that help people who don’t have means, he’s never been supportive,” she said. “This is a man who vetoed giving more children health care 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.”
Sanford’s current theories about unemployment assistance contrast the dire economy 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 newly elected 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. Courson, the state senator, 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 South Carolina Supreme Court to order the governor 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 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 thought were already lean. Republican and Democratic lawmakers routinely overrode his vetoes by large margins.
“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.”
Said Courson: “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.”
For the first time in his political career, Sanford is operating without the help of his ex-wife.
Jenny Sanford, a former New York investment banker, managed his congressional campaigns in the 1990s and later ran his two successful gubernatorial races. She worked closely with him in both posts and was widely viewed as his closest political adviser.
These days, Mark Sanford says the two of them are on civil terms following their March 2010 divorce. He remains close with their four sons and sees them regularly. Yet when he went to watch the Super Bowl last year with one of his sons at the Sullivan’s Island beach house Jenny had moved to after their split, she filed a trespassing complaint with police.
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 the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus for part of Sanford’s tenure as governor, said Sanford had named blacks 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 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 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, he 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.” Many minority travelers view it as 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. 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, a bow to pragmatism he might not have made during his first congressional stint almost two decades ago.
Still, 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 stubbornness that relies on inaccurate information. Discussing unemployment benefits, for instance, 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 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.”
At another point in the 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.” Instead of talking about deepening the Charleston port in his district, Sanford launched into a discourse on the War Powers Act and the growing clout of presidents.
“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 say that Congress has to authorize it,” Sanford responded.
Informed that such authorization was, in fact, granted to President George W. Bush, Sanford alternated between skepticism and uncertainty.
“We’ll look it up,” Sanford concluded.
Sanford says he’s happier in Congress now than he was during his first stint, from 1994 to 2000, because he has more ideological soul mates.
Back then, he and Rep. Ron Paul, a Texan who later made two presidential runs, were among a lonely group of lawmakers who combined traditional Republican opposition to federal spending with more moderate stances on social issues and skepticism about U.S. adventurism abroad.
Today, dozens of representatives fit that mold.
“It’s amazing how much new blood is here,” Sanford said. “It used to be Ron Paul and I and just a few others. There’s almost a larger, tea party-ish contingent than was the case before.”
Sanford is among just 17 House members with lifetime ratings of 95 percent or higher from the Club for Growth, perhaps the strictest anti-spending advocacy group in Washington. Only one of the 16 other representatives, Matt Salmon of Arizona, served with Sanford in the 1990s. Most of the fiscal hawks are in their first or second terms, among them fellow South Carolinians Jeff Duncan, Trey Gowdy and Mulvaney.
And like Sanford, most of them have more moderate ratings on social and foreign issues than many of their Republican peers do.
“I’ve always thought that Mark may be more of a libertarian than a Republican,” said Quinn, the GOP consultant in Columbia, S.C.
Quinn noted that Paul’s son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, has won the straw presidential poll for two years running at the annual convention of the Conservative Political Action Committee.
“The libertarian movement is growing within the Republican Party, so Mark may have been a man ahead of his time,” Quinn said.
Once touted as a potential presidential candidate, Sanford professes to want nothing more now than to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity and become the best congressman he can be. Most of his friends think his spiritual and political rehabilitation precludes any future White House hopes, but a few die-hards remain.
One is Davis, the state senator who met Sanford when both were students at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., and later became his top gubernatorial aide. It was to Davis whom Sanford turned on June 24, 2009, just before he held a nationally televised news conference to reveal that his six-day disappearance was because of a trip to Argentina to see his mistress.
During an hourlong private meeting between the two men in Sanford’s study at the Governor’s Mansion, Sanford confessed the affair, said he’d done wrong and vowed to somehow make it right. Then he went out to face the cameras.
Five years later, Davis thinks it’s possible that there may still be a few climactic chapters to be written in Sanford’s odd, compelling saga.
“A lot of where Mark is able to go from here depends on whether the American people believe that what he expresses is genuine,” Davis said. “I don’t think anything’s impossible.”
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose.