By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 29, 2009
SULLIVAN'S ISLAND, S.C., June 28 -- This is the place where the betrayed wife took her stand.
As her husband's affair with an Argentine woman exploded onto the global stage and publicly humiliated her family, Jenny Sanford, 46, and their four sons sought refuge here at their large beachfront cottage on this lush island enclave outside Charleston.
In marked contrast to elsewhere across the state, where residents remain riveted by the scandal of Gov. Mark Sanford's disappearing act and affair, Sullivan's Island is the cocoon protecting Jenny and the boys as they strive for normalcy.
But it has also been the first lady's war room, where she has given her wayward husband a public thrashing. In the process, she seems to have drawn a new path for the aggrieved spouse of a philandering politician, an episode that has become something of a ritual in American politics.
Outside the Sanford home, on Atlantic Avenue near the towering lighthouse, the cameras had disappeared this weekend. Kids splashed in a pool next door and their parents laid under the hot Carolina sun, while other residents biked and jogged along narrow streets lined with palm trees.
The entrance to the Sanford family's driveway was blocked by a security agent in a black sedan with tinted windows, but the Sanford boys could be seen riding their bicycles underneath a basketball hoop. Inside, Jenny Sanford packed to take them on a vacation and visitors streamed through. Her sister stopped by with her new baby, as did the family lawyer, in shorts and sandals and carrying a canvas beach bag.
It was just as Jenny Sanford would have it, her friends here said. She is not a victim, they said, but a survivor.
"Jenny is the hero in this story," said Cyndi Mosteller, a longtime friend and a prominent Republican operative here. "She's the hero to her children, and I think she's the hero to this state. In the midst of this tragedy, she is standing strong to who she is and what she believes in. . . . I think Jenny has not had these types of ambitions, but I think every woman in South Carolina would vote for Jenny Sanford for governor right now."
For Mark Sanford to move South Carolina past a sex scandal that gripped the nation and embarrassed his state last week, family friends here said, he may need help from his wife, who has long been his chief political strategist.
When her husband first ran for Congress in 1994, Jenny Sanford had a 15-month-old and a newborn to care for. She ran the campaign from the basement of the cottage, a role she continued to play in other campaigns.
"He would have never won either of his governor's races without her -- no way," said Will Folks, Sanford's spokesman from 2001 to 2005. "She ran the show. He pointed the direction he wanted to go, and she was the bulldozer that cleared the path and got him there."
But that was all before her husband disappeared for days without letting anyone know where he was, then confessed that he had been in Argentina with his mistress. Maria Belen Chapur acknowledged Sunday in Buenos Aires that she had a relationship with the governor but said she otherwise would not talk about her private life.
"His career is not a concern of mine," Jenny Sanford told reporters camped at the end of her driveway as she left with her boys for a boat ride the other day. "He's going to have to worry about that. I'm worried about my family and the character of my children."
Her husband has been staying in the governor's mansion in Columbia since she kicked him out a few weeks ago. He spent several hours Thursday on Sullivan's Island, where he began trying to repair the damage.
Asked Friday about his marriage, he told reporters: "This goes into the personal zone. I'd simply say that Jenny has been absolutely magnanimous and gracious as a wonderful Christian woman in this process."
Here on Sullivan's Island, neighbors were reluctant to talk about what they called "the events" and said they have an abiding faith that the Sanfords will work it out -- privately.
Inside an art gallery, the owner was skittish of saying anything about the Sanfords, good or bad. "This is a very private community, and this is a personal family issue," Julie Sweat said as she readied her shop for an art show.
Next door at the Green Heron, a small grocery store on the main drag, a sign read "EVACUATE, MEDIA SCUM."
"This was their place to get away from it all," said Jessamyn Jacobs, 47, a manager at Station 22 restaurant. "I feel sorry for them, and the poor woman."
In this small community of mostly full-time residents, everybody seems to know everybody -- and everybody seems to know everybody's business. But, said Taylor McLeod, 21, a barista at the coffee shop here, "It's not like Wisteria Lane, 'Desperate Housewives' standing on the corner gossiping. People keep to themselves and don't air other people's dirty laundry."
Lalla Lee Campsen, a close confidant, was with Jenny Sanford on Wednesday when the governor gave his rambling confession. "It was a day filled with sadness and great disappointment, as well as love, support and hope from family and friends," Campsen said in an e-mail. "It was also a day when Jenny exuded, perhaps as never before, her great strength of character."
Friends said the written statement she issued was classic Jenny Sanford. She told the world that she loves her husband and would strive to repair their marriage, but that she asked him to leave because it was "important to look my sons in the eyes and maintain my dignity, self-respect and my basic sense of right and wrong."
"Did you read her statement?" asked Marjory Wentworth, a family friend and South Carolina's poet laureate. "Brilliant, gracious, effervescent."
Jennifer Sullivan Sanford was born into a wealthy Irish Catholic family in suburban Chicago and graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown University with a degree in finance. She took a job handling mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street, rising to become a vice president at Lazard Freres & Co.
She met Mark Sanford, who was working at Goldman Sachs, at a party in the Hamptons and soon they were married. He was itching to enter politics, friends said, so she gave up an investment banking career to devote herself to raising a family and her husband's ambitions. The Sanfords settled in South Carolina's Low Country, not far from his family's plantation.
Discussing her previous life with the Associated Press once, Jenny Sanford said, "Leaving it and coming down here and following this nice young boy from Carolina was a big jump."
And jump she did. The Sanford house was in a perpetual state of constructive chaos, friends said. Jenny Sanford would be folding laundry and cooking dinner while on the telephone with campaign advisers about what the next television advertisement would say. She oversaw his staff, drafted speeches, set policy and raised money. She even baked oatmeal chocolate chip cookies for reporters and other guests.
Sanford, who still speaks with a hint of a Chicago accent, combines the grace and hospitality of a Southern belle with the street-smart toughness of a Northern businesswoman. Campaign staffers joked that she is "an Old Testament woman with a 170 IQ."
"Make no mistake: She's the person who at the end of the day talking with the governor has the most influence on him," said state Sen. Tom Davis (R), Mark Sanford's longtime friend and former chief of staff. "Jenny was always one to speak her mind. She's absolutely fearless."
Now it appears her husband has to plot his next moves without her firepower.
Sunday, Jenny Sanford and the boys left Sullivan's Island for their vacation -- outside the state.