‘If you can’t see an oil rig from the window in Mar-a-Lago..’
Mark Sanford was already out of office, settling back into civilian life by unpacking boxes of files and odds and ends from his years in Congress and the S.C. Governor’s Mansion, when he got a phone call from his successor on Capitol Hill.
Newly sworn-in U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, a Democrat, wanted to know if Sanford, a Republican, wanted to join him for a press conference.
The congressman from South Carolina’s 1st District, just weeks into the job, was planning to announce legislation to impose a 10-year ban on oil and gas drilling off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts — a version of the bill Sanford had championed when he was a member of Congress.
Sanford had to decline the invitation. But Cunningham’s overture vividly illustrated the connection the two men share on one very specific issue that will help define both of their legacies.
Sanford, who lost his GOP primary last June to former state Rep. Katie Arrington, was one of a small handful of congressional Republicans publicly to oppose offshore drilling, a key plank in his party’s energy platform.
In November, Cunningham became the first Democrat since 1981 to win South Carolina’s 1st District seat in Congress. Cunningham beat Arrington, in large part, by touting his opposition to drilling as the Republican failed to convince voters she would challenge President Donald Trump on the issue.
For Sanford, who hasn’t ruled out a return to political life, seeing Cunningham succeed would be validating personally. For years, Sanford was a lonely voice in his party as he opposed offshore drilling. Today, he likes to think he played a role in making opposition to drilling more acceptable for Republicans.
“I was the first guy to go out and plant that stake in the ground” on offshore drilling, Sanford said. “People need to remember and celebrate the fact that somebody went out and did that.”
For Cunningham, there’s an opportunity to score a major legislative victory by finishing the work that Sanford started.
‘Stars are aligning’
Cunningham’s political future could depend on whether he is able to protect the S.C. coast from offshore drilling.
His biggest promise during the 2018 campaign was that he would use his leverage as a member of Congress to bar the practice. With Republicans eager to win back the 1st District seat in 2020, Cunningham’s re-election bid could become a referendum on whether he was able to deliver.
But Cunningham has a major advantage that Sanford never had — not during his first stint in Congress, from 1995-2001, or, more recently, from 2013-2019: A Democrat-controlled U.S. House.
“You can’t underestimate the strength in that,” Cunningham said of the new Democratic majority, eager to thwart Republican President Donald Trump’s efforts to expand oil and gas drilling in virtually all U.S. waters.
Sanford, who was S.C. governor from 2003-2011, agrees. “The political stars are aligning for the possibility of a different outcome now.”
The new chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., plans soon to convene a hearing on all the pending legislative proposals to prohibit offshore drilling, including Cunningham’s bill.
From there, Grijalva will work with lawmakers and Democratic leaders to draft and advance one comprehensive measure. Cunningham is a member of the Natural Resources Committee, guaranteeing he will be a part of that process.
Though passage of some bill banning drilling is all but certain in the Democratic House, passage in the Republican-controlled Senate is murkier. GOP leaders won’t want to promote legislation that rebukes the president’s policies, and Trump certainly would not sign it into law.
The more likely scenario would be that Democrats push for a short-term drilling prohibition to be included in some larger government spending bill — a way to get some of what they want without sparking a direct confrontation with the GOP.
‘The finish line’
If Congress is able to advance an offshore drilling ban in the next two years, Cunningham will get much of the credit.
Even the way the Democrat promoted his role in the issue will earn him political points: Cunningham took up Sanford’s bill as an embodiment of his campaign slogan, “Lowcountry over party.”
S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce president Frank Knapp, who lobbies on environmental issues, says if Cunningham succeeds, he will have Sanford to thank.
“Mark Sanford didn’t have the momentum we have here today. A good bit of that is attributable to Mark Sanford,” Knapp said. “Had (Sanford) had somebody ahead of him, he would have benefited from it.”
Sanford describes growing opposition to offshore drilling as a “proxy” for increasing sensitivity to broader environmental issues.
Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation and a longtime environmental activist, said grassroots activists have pressured coastal Republicans to protect their regional interests, namely their tourism economies, from offshore drilling.
Public opinion also has shifted within the GOP as more of its members have joined the fight.
The entire Florida congressional delegation now opposes offshore drilling. Republicans from parts of North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and New Jersey either are opposed or, at least, open to discussion.
In South Carolina, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster is backing state Attorney General Alan Wilson’s lawsuit to stop the federal government from approving drilling leases off the S.C. coast. Also, Wilson recently was able to help convince his father, U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., to reverse his position and join the opposition to drilling.
Inside the nine-member, S.C. congressional delegation, there are only two Republicans who unequivocally support drilling — U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan of Laurens and Ralph Norman of York.
“We’re in a critical time right now where Democrats and Republicans can hardly agree on anything,” Cunningham said. “But this is one issue that has garnered support on both sides.”
At least for the time being, Sanford will be watching from the sidelines to see what happens next.
“I’ll just say it’s the nature of politics: One step at a time, a couple steps, and it’s my hope that (Cunningham) will be able to take these steps to bring it over the finish line.”