Politics & Government

Sanford hangs on -- with the help of his wife

By JOHN O’CONNOR

joconnor@thestate.com

COLUMBIA, SC --- The shock had subsided.

Then Gov. Mark Sanford set the scandal ablaze again, saying he considered his Argentine lover his "soul mate" and saw her more often than he originally had said.

A wave of lawmakers and others jumped off the fence, calling on Sanford to "do the right thing" — resign. Attorney General Henry McMaster asked for an inquiry to determine if Sanford used any public money to visit the woman.

Behind the scenes, political camps tried to influence, in the direction of their own interests, the decisions of Sanford and others. Meanwhile, polls showed more than 60 percent of those asked thought Sanford should resign.

It seemed as if Sanford was hanging on by a thread. Still, Sanford would not resign, telling one top Republican that he would have to be kicked out of office.

Three factors combined to allow Sanford to cling to his office:

-- His wife, Jenny, stepped to his defense for the first time.

-- State law enforcement officials found Sanford broke no laws. Absent that, state law makes it difficult to remove a governor.

-- South Carolina’s Republican leadership refused to ask Sanford. Meanwhile, lawmakers — in part due to wrangling over the 2010 governor’s race — could not coordinate a push to force Sanford to resign.

And, observers say, unless something new emerges — either in the media or through a legislative investigation — Sanford will survive.

THE JENNY FACTOR

Jenny Sanford helped ignite the story about her husband’s disappearance with her nonchalant attitude about his well-being. Later, after Sanford admitted the affair, his wife said "his career is not a concern of mine."

But observers say Jenny Sanford rescued her husband’s political career when he needed her most.

"I am willing to forgive Mark for his actions.," Jenny Sanford wrote July 2 in the last of a handful of well-worded statements issued as scandal unfolded. "We have been deeply disappointed in and even angry at Mark. The Bible says, ‘In your anger do not sin.’ (Psalm 4:4)

"In that spirit of forgiveness, it is up to the people and elected officials of South Carolina to decide whether they will give Mark another chance as well."

Jenny Sanford’s public words — and private calls to key officials, three sources say — appealed to the faith of many South Carolinians.

"The key player in all of this is Jenny," said Richard Quinn of Columbia, a political consultant to many of the state’s leading Republicans. "If she wanted him to resign, he would have."

Jenny Sanford’s statement, Quinn said, "sent a pretty powerful signal that caused a lot of Republicans to be reminded there’s something in the Christian tradition about forgiveness."

Among those who heeded the first lady’s request were state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, and state Rep. Murrill Smith, R-Sumter.

In a written statement, Davis said he had asked Mark Sanford, his friend of 30 years and former boss, to consider resigning. But Sanford and his wife insisted he could govern and mend the family.

"I am not going to second-guess them in that personal matter," Davis wrote.

Additionally, a half-dozen sources said Jenny Sanford spoke directly to a handful of influential lawmakers throughout the week of June 28, including U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a family friend and godfather to one of the Sanford’s four boys.

Graham initially had urged the governor to remain in office. But, later, he only would say "no comment" after a personal meeting with Sanford.

(Graham declined to comment for this story.)

"It was a close circle of friends" who received calls from Jenny Sanford, said state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, a Sanford ally who has called for his resignation. "She saw his entire career tumbling. She was the only one who could throw him a lifeline."

(Efforts to reach Jenny Sanford, Davis and Jon Lerner, Mark Sanford’s Maryland-based political consultant, for this story were unsuccessful.)

NOT A CRIMINAL ACT

Jenny Sanford’s lifeline gave her husband some breathing room. On July 2, the results of a state law enforcement investigation provided more cover.

The State Law Enforcement Division announced a quickly-completed review of records showed Sanford had not used any taxpayer money on any of his admitted meetings with Maria Belen Chapur.

The SLED report was enough for many to conclude Sanford likely did not break the law, a key threshold for removing him.

The SLED report, said Smith meant Sanford’s problems were private —not public — issues.

"It’s still embarrassing for the state of South Carolina," said Smith, a lawyer who formerly chaired a House criminal law subcommittee. "But it doesn’t render him unfit to be governor."

Grooms said the SLED report did not inoculate the governor but did relieve some of the calls for his resignation.

"There’s a lot of things that happened that are very, very wrong that we’re not illegal," Grooms said.

In addition, state lawmakers knew forcing Sanford from office would be difficult. The S.C. House can only impeach an elected official for "serious crimes or serious misconduct." The state Constitution also requires two-thirds of House members vote to impeach, a higher standard than federal impeachment.

Sanford had another potent political counter-move against forces who wanted him out of office: Removing him would elevate — or banish — one of the state’s most influential senators, Glenn McConnell, to the ceremonial post of lieutenant governor. McConnell, R-Charleston, has become a Sanford critic and called for his resignation.

Few think McConnell, the Senate’s president pro tem, would give up his appointment powers to state boards, his control over Senate committees and a 29-year career to wear a purple road and preside over routine Senate matters.

Lawmakers also were weighing how elevating Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who is expected to run for the GOP nomination for governor, would impact the 2010 governor’s race.

Those behind-the-scene considerations were one reason momentum was slow to build for Sanford’s resignation.

While state Senate Republicans frequently have battled with Sanford for years, for example, it took almost a week after Sanford admitted his affair for a majority to ask him to resign.

Other politicians weighed in for resignation too.

But slowly.

U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, R-Westminster, for example, called for Sanford’s resignation in the scandal’s second week.

Barrett called for Sanford’s resignation even though many speculated Bauer could have an advantage as a quasi-incumbent if Sanford were to resign.

A Bauer aide seemingly was angling for that advantage. The New York Times reported that Chris LaCivita, who Bauer has hired as a campaign consultant, was e-mailing national Republicans asking for support to pressure Sanford out of office.

(Bauer said he has not instructed anyone to work on his behalf to force Sanford out.)

Others were angling to keep Sanford in office.

Trey Walker, an aide to Attorney General Henry McMaster, another potential GOP candidate for governor, posted comments on a social networking site urging S.C. Republicans to not call for Sanford’s resignation.

But Columbia political consultant Quinn, who advises McMaster, said he has not coordinated any efforts to keep Sanford in office.

Other would-be governors were openly opposed to Sanford’s departure.

State Rep. Nikki Haley, another GOP candidate for governor, said she worried that elevating Bauer would mean a return to good ol’ boy politics and urged Sanford to stay in office.

The battle for positioning in 2010 meant that, at the end of the day, there were only individual efforts to oust Sanford, not a coordinated effort, said Rep. Smith.

"There did not seem to be any coherent strategy," Smith said, "at least among Republican members."

Meanwhile, Democrats, seeing an advantage in keeping Sanford in office, largely stayed out of the fray.

Democratic calls for resignation were "not going to mean a hill of beans to Sanford," said Phil Bailey, Senate Democratic Caucus spokesman. "It was a Republican problem. The ball was in their court."

For many, an S.C. GOP executive committee vote Monday to censure Sanford was — barring any new revelations — the final piece of political cover that Sanford needed to clinch his hold on office.

Republicans largely ended the debate Monday night,

After a tightly organized conference call — that included hours of debate and a handful of votes — a majority of GOP leaders voted to censure Sanford instead of asking him to resign.

Francis Marion University political scientist Neal Thigpen and others say that vote likely wrapped up the debate over Sanford’s resignation.

S.C. GOP chairwoman Karen Floyd agreed.

"Today has brought a large measure of resolution to a sad chapter in our State Party’s history," Floyd said in a statement Monday. "Republicans came together to speak with a unified voice, and now is the time for healing."

The state’s political leaders have decided it’s "better to have a wounded, paraplegic Sanford twisting in the wind for 18 months" than other options, said Thigpen.

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