Commentary: What I learned from Gov. Mark Sanford

I was so excited when Mark Sanford was elected governor. Finally, it seemed, we had a governor who looked systematically at the state’s problems and proposed solutions he thought would work, even if they weren’t popular, rather than poking his finger into the wind to identify the configuration of the populist mantle he would wrap himself in. A governor who understood that our state’s fundamental challenges were interconnected and required structural changes rather than sound-bite solutions.

For the first couple of years, I remained firmly implanted in the Sanford cheering section.

I don’t believe most legislators are out to profit off the state; I believe most of them want to do what they believe is best. But they figure it won’t do any good to call out their few colleagues who are using their power to carry out personal vendettas or to enrich themselves and their friends, so they look the other way when they see that.

Even the most honest and dedicated from time to time convince themselves that what’s best for the people of South Carolina is for them to be able to stay in office, so they can do all those good things they want to do. So they vote for things that help them get re-elected but hurt the state. When the economy dips, they resort to across-the-board cuts that treat everyone the same, so they won’t anger any constituency too much, rather than making the tough calls that will leave our state better off but ignite a vociferous response from those most directly affected. Ditto any changes to the governmental status quo that leaves most agencies running on auto-pilot, accountable to no one. They resist (or simply don’t fight those who resist) smart, comprehensive tax reforms, because taking away special tax breaks angers campaign donors.

But now we had our first governor in decades who was not of the Legislature, who did not understand that self-preservation mindset, who had not slowly come to accept that giving in to some lawmakers’ selfish requests was just the cost of doing business. Here was our first governor who was willing to call out legislative excesses.

Here was a governor who hadn’t been taught that approaching the budget logically just was not done, and that legislators had their reasons for maintaining redundant agencies where individual lawmakers could pull the strings while no one noticed. He spent his first summer leading the most comprehensive review of the state budget that has ever occurred. He held an impressive series of hearings with agency leaders that demonstrated how our disjointed government was giving us inadequate results.

The inevitable result, when the Legislature ignored his call to overhaul the government and shunned his budget conclusions, was a tsunami of vetoes the likes of which lawmakers had never seen. When the House gave the back of its hand to his well-reasoned budget vetoes, he called up the TV cameras, stomped up the marble stairs and stood in front of the House chamber with a squealing, defecating piglet under each arm to denounce what he termed (mostly correctly) pork-barrel politics.

He might have been able to survive the firestorm of resentment that followed this pig-and-pig show had the relationship been going well. Of course, he probably wouldn’t have tried it if the relationship had been going well. It hadn’t been. Just a couple of months into his administration, legislative leaders already were complaining that he was blind-siding them, and going back on promises. I dismissed their complaints at first, attributing it to the too-prickly nature of our legislators. As I put it in a headline of a column midway through his first session: “Sanford’s failure to stroke legislators enough causes bizarre rift.”

At the end of that first session, Mr. Sanford said he had learned how important personal relationships were, and vowed to work on improving them. It was the first of many times he would promise to change his ways. Unfortunately, he never did.

Over time, it looked more and more like Mr. Sanford just didn’t want to work with legislators. True or not, it was clear that he wasn’t going to accomplish anything. No government restructuring. No smart budgeting. No comprehensive tax reform. No returning local power to local governments. No paying parents to send their kids to private schools or slapping arbitrary limits on spending — the upside to his poisonous relationship with legislators.

Maybe I was wrong about Mr. Sanford. Maybe he never was interested in coming to the best solutions. Maybe all he wanted was to make himself look good. Or maybe he really did start out as the governor I thought he was, but just wasn’t able to adapt to the State House culture. And then he changed after it became clear that the Legislature was going to fight him at every step. Whatever the case, we just spent eight years getting nowhere. By many measures, we’re worse off now than we were when he took office.

It is outrageous that the Legislature demanded that Mr. Sanford play by its rules rather than seriously considering what he had to say. Even more outrageous that we have a system that allows one branch of government to run roughshod over another.

But we all face unfair and unfortunate realities; those who succeed acknowledge reality and find a way to accomplish their goals within that reality. The job of an elected official is to work with all those other people the voters also elected. A governor who can’t sell his ideas to the Legislature is failing on the most basic level to do his job.

Some states give governors more tools, making it more incumbent on both governors and legislators to try to find common ground. Ours should, but it doesn’t. And that is not going to change until we get a new set of rules. And in our system, that is not going to happen until we have a governor who can convince the Legislature to give us those new rules.

There is no guarantee that Vincent Sheheen can do that. But he’s the only gubernatorial candidate since Carroll Campbell who has both the desire to make those changes and the personality and relationships that make it possible.