By Philip Rucker and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 26, 2009
COLUMBIA, S.C., June 25 -- The only signs remaining here of Gov. Mark Sanford's riveting confession of infidelity were the television cameras staked out on the manicured lawns encircling the copper-domed state Capitol. Inside, the marble-floored rotunda, where Sanford tearfully bared his soul and admitted he was having an extramarital affair just 24 hours before, was nearly deserted.
But across the Palmetto State, South Carolinians were reeling Thursday, voicing disbelief and disgust over Sanford's adultery, his abandonment of the state, and his deception of his staff and the public about his whereabouts for a week. The governor's globe-trotting trysts became such an embarrassment that a state bureaucrat likened it to putting a dunce cap on South Carolina.
Some Republican officials joined Democratic lawmakers in calling for the two-term Republican governor to resign. Sanford's security detail described their anxious and failed efforts to locate the missing governor over the Father's Day weekend and painted a portrait of an erratic politician who often preferred to be alone. And travel documents surfaced Thursday showing Sanford used a state-funded trade trip to Argentina last year to have a secret romantic rendezvous with his mistress, prompting Sanford to say he would repay the state nearly $9,000.
Secluded with his wife, Jenny, and their four sons at their beach home, Sanford struggled to salvage both his increasingly precarious political career and his marriage. The saga will continue Friday at 12:30 p.m., when Sanford returns to Columbia for a hastily called meeting of his Cabinet.
But for Sanford, 49, a rising star once considered a possible presidential candidate, the question is: Will he succumb to the drum beat and step down, or fight through his remaining 18 months in office, even as an emasculated governor with few political defenders?
Glenn McCall, a South Carolina representative to the Republican National Committee, cited Sanford's past criticism of President Bill Clinton's infidelity to accuse him of hypocrisy and said Sanford should resign. Even RNC Chairman Michael S. Steele told a Detroit radio station that Sanford is "yet one more disappointment in failed leadership."
South Carolina House Speaker Robert W. Harrell Jr. (R), while saying the decision to resign is "in the governor's quote," said in an interview that he is concerned that South Carolina was "basically without a governor for five days. Had we had a catastrophe like a tornado or earthquake or if something happened in a prison or a train wrecked, we'd have been without a chief executive."
Added state Rep. J. Todd Rutherford (D): "It is a problem when the CEO of a 4.5 million-person organization goes AWOL and nobody can reach him. It was a gross dereliction of duty."
Sanford found support in a familiar corner Thursday. His longtime friend and former chief of staff, state Sen. Tom Davis (R) -- the man to whom Sanford emotionally apologized Wednesday -- isn't giving up on him. "From what I know about this governor, I wouldn't bet against him," Davis said in an interview.
"I think that South Carolinians, like Americans in general, have a tremendous capacity for forgiveness," he said. "But they can spot hypocrisy and whether or not they see Mark as truthful. If they think he is, it'll be a positive response."
The stakes for forgiveness got even higher Thursday as new details emerged regarding Sanford's affair with the Argentine woman. Sanford led a delegation of state government and business leaders to Brazil and Argentina, for trade meetings from June 21 to 28, 2008. Sanford said he was going sightseeing on June 27 in Buenos Aires, but e-mails show that he was spending that day with his mistress.
"Last Friday I would had stayed embrassing (sic) and kissing you forever," the woman wrote to Sanford on July 4, 2008.
Sanford's travels cost taxpayers at least $9,000 in airfare, lodging, meals and phone charges, according to state records. Sanford said in a statement Thursday he would reimburse the state for the costs.
"While the purpose of this trip was an entirely professional and appropriate business development trip, I made a mistake while I was there in meeting with the woman who I was unfaithful to my wife with," Sanford said in the statement. "That has raised some very legitimate concerns and questions, and as such I am going to reimburse the state for the full cost of the Argentina leg of this trip."
Reggie Lloyd, the director of the State Law Enforcement Division, responsible for Sanford's security, held an unusually frank conference call with reporters Thursday to explain how his office, too, was deceived.
Last week, Sanford left the governor's mansion alone in a state-issued SUV and told his security detail to "stand down," Lloyd said.
"As an adult male, he's free to come and go as he pleases," he said. "There were times when he would want to get away. He's been in office 6 1/2 years. He very much values his time away from the office. It had become routine enough that it was not suspicious."
Security agents did not become concerned about Sanford's safety until they heard he had been spotted speeding on a South Carolina interstate on Saturday, Lloyd said. The security agency's efforts to reach Sanford's staff were unsuccessful for many hours, the devices used to locate the vehicle had been turned off and agents could not determine the governor's location, Lloyd said. Finally, by tracking telephone records, they determined Sanford made a call from his cell phone from the Atlanta area.
Throughout Columbia's downtown, in hotel elevators, at restaurant tables and in fabric shops, people said they were stunned by their governor's predicament and the attention it has brought their state.
"Every time South Carolina's in the news, it's always a negative," lamented Schinita Goodwin, 53, as she measured one yard of white chiffon for a customer who was sewing her daughter a wedding dress. "I think he should resign. He's an embarrassment to his state and to his wife and his family."
Maureen Brazel, 54, a car saleswoman from the suburb of Lake Carolina, was befuddled that Sanford would write such evocative e-mails to his lover.
"If you're married, you're married," Brazel said. "You shouldn't be doing stuff like that. And writing it down? . . . How stupid can he be?"
Should Sanford go willing or is drummed out of office, Lt. Gov. André Bauer (R) would take over. But the political calculations have long since begun. Bauer, who does not get along with Sanford, instantly would become the party's presumptive nominee for the 2010 governor's race, hurting the chances of other prominent Republicans who are in the throes of their campaigns. But Tom Davis is not the only South Carolinian willing to give Sanford a second chance.
"I don't think [the affair] changes the fact that he's a quality governor," said Chris Hinely, 35, downtown Columbia's "Peanut Man" who sells Low Country Cajun and boiled nuts a few steps from the Capitol. "You can go pick out a group of people anywhere in the United States, and you can find a person in an extramarital affair."
And like many, Davis said, the Sanfords are trying repair their marriage.
"They do love each other," he said after speaking with Jenny Sanford on Thursday.
"They're extremely strong-willed." The question remains, though: How strong-willed is South Carolina?
Staff writer Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report. Carol Leonnig reported from Washington.