S.C. governor thrives after public downfall

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 25, 2010

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The governor who became the butt of late-night jokes for ‘‘hiking the Appalachian Trail’’ may be having the last laugh.

A year after South Carolina’s Mark Sanford tearfully confessed an extramarital affair, the Republican has won a major state budget victory and seen his hand-chosen candidate nominated to succeed him. He’s even won standing ovations from Republicans who months ago called for his resignation.

‘‘There are any number of different levels of ironies,’’ Sanford allowed earlier this week at a Republican breakfast to recognize the party’s slate of candidates in November.

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Most experts do not foresee Sanford’s political career rising from the wreckage of last year’s scandal, but he’s making the most of his final months in office. Term limits require him to leave in January.

Last spring, Sanford was seen as a possible ultraconservative contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

The trim, stubborn former congressman attracted wide interest when he opposed using Obama administration stimulus money in South Carolina. Sanford said it was irresponsible spending the nation could not afford.

His own party fought him on the issue for months. The governor even sued his own attorney general to block the cash from being used in struggling schools.

In the end, Sanford lost, but not before he had burnished his conservative credentials and captured considerable national attention.

Exhausted from the political battle and hiding a failing marriage from the public, Sanford told his staff in mid-June that he was considering going for a solo hike on the trail to clear his head.

Instead, he famously disappeared for five days to see an Argentine woman named Maria Belen Chapur. In an Associated Press interview after his June 24 return, the father of four sons explained how a longtime friendship had blossomed into romance a year earlier.

He called Chapur his ‘‘soul mate’’ but said he would try to save his marriage to Jenny Sanford, the state’s popular first lady.

In subsequent months, Sanford’s political and family lives cratered. AP investigations raised questions about his use of state, private and commercial aircraft. State Republicans called for him to step down midway through his second term.

The Legislature censured him for bringing ‘‘ridicule, dishonor, disgrace and shame’’ to himself and the state. He paid more than $70,000 in ethics fines.

Meanwhile, Jenny Sanford left the governor’s official residence in Columbia with their sons and moved into the family’s coastal home. Their divorce, which he did not oppose when she filed for it in December, was finalized three months later.

In the interim, their lives have remained public.

The governor’s trip to South Florida to vacation with Chapur last month was first revealed on websites. He later explained they were working to rekindle their relationship.

Jenny Sanford attended the Masters golf tournament in April with a Georgia businessman whose vacation home is a few doors down from her house on Sullivans Island. She eventually confirmed they were dating.

The governor, who once carried two squirming, defecating piglets outside the House chamber to protest budget veto overrides, struck a bargain this year with lawmakers, who upheld more than 50 of his spending vetoes.

When state Rep. Nikki Haley, a longtime Sanford ally, won the GOP nomination to succeed Sanford this week, she singled him out in her acceptance speech, praising the governor’s ‘‘constant fight for the taxpayers and his constant fight on wasteful spending and his encouragement for me in this campaign.’’

The governor received a standing ovation, and he and Jenny Sanford — who also campaigned for Haley — shared a peck on the cheek.

The following morning, at the GOP breakfast, other candidates talked about how Sanford paved the way for advocates of small government.

‘‘It’s the arrows in his back that allow my candidacy,’’ said Curtis Loftis, who unseated a Republican state treasurer with whom Sanford has long feuded. ‘‘It’s not that folks woke up and said, ’I’ve got to have me some Loftis today.’ It’s that they want to continue his themes.’’

Neal Thigpen, a political scientist at Francis Marion University, said that while the governor may be reaping some benefits of compromise with lawmakers, that does not mean voters will ever overlook Sanford’s downfall. Democrats intend to link Haley to Sanford as a way to push their own party’s gubernatorial candidate.

‘‘There still will be a lot of people delighted he’s a short-timer, and they can put that chapter behind them,’’ Thigpen said. ‘‘Probably in the eyes of South Carolinians, that doesn’t bring him a whole lot of redemption.’’

Sanford says recent events have ‘‘some level of irony.’’

‘‘But it’s turned out to be a most productive year, and obviously we’re excited about the larger theme of reform and conservative governance fitting in an electoral sense,’’ he said. ‘‘I’ve long believed it fit with where people were coming from.’’

A real estate investor before entering politics, Sanford says he has not settled on any plans for after he leaves office. On Thursday, he said the only certainty is that he plans to return to the Charleston area.

‘‘I’m looking at where four boys happen to live right now,’’ he said, standing in the Charleston Maritime Center and looking across the water to the area where his sons live with his ex-wife.

He said going back into real estate development ‘‘is the sort of likely default, but again I haven’t explored and haven’t looked at it. I want to cross the finish line with the job at hand, and then I’ll figure it out.’’

Asked if he had seen Maria Belen Chapur in recent weeks, Sanford refused to comment. ‘‘We crossed all those bridges long ago,’’ he said.