Politics & Policy

Mark Sanford: I’m Running for Congress

A conversation with the former South Carolina governor

Mark Sanford, the three-term congressman and two-term South Carolina governor, is preparing his political comeback, running for the House in the district recently represented by Tim Scott. 

Sanford garnered national headlines in 2009 as the first governor to turn down President Obama’s stimulus funds — and then made even bigger headlines later in the year when it was revealed that he had departed the state to fly to Argentina to meet with his mistress. A messy divorce followed; a state legislative ad hoc committee voted to censure but not impeach him. He served out the remainder of his term, and his preferred successor, Governor Nikki Haley, scored an upset win in a hard-fought GOP gubernatorial primary.

The coming weeks will reveal whether Sanford’s political career has a few more chapters waiting to be written, with the first hurdle coming in a GOP primary March 19. There will likely be a runoff on April 2.

Geraghty: The word is that you’re going to run for the House of Representatives in South Carolina’s First Congressional District.

Mark Sanford: Officially we’re going to announce tomorrow, and then it’s off to the races.

Geraghty: Why are you running?

Sanford: For 20 years I’ve been out there, if you look at my record in both Congress and the governorship, talking about the fact that this moment would come. If we didn’t get our nation’s financial house in order, there would be dire consequences to the American taxpayer and to the American dream and for those in this generation and the next. I think we’ve reached that day of reckoning. It seems that we’re averting a new fiscal cliff or crisis every few months these days, and what the numbers point to is that the trend is going to intensify.

What I’d like to do is take all that I’ve learned in my time in Congress and my governorship, on my way up and on my way down, and apply it to what is probably the most important debate that we will have in regard to the future of our country. I’m running because I care deeply about spending, and the mathematical impossibility of us continuing down the path we’re on.

Geraghty: What would you say to voters who are troubled by the events of 2009?

Sanford: You have to, in essence, look under the hood. There’s a larger philosophical question. In life we’re all going to make mistakes, we’re all going to come up short. The key is, how do you get back up and how do you learn from those mistakes? . . . But I think that the bigger issue is, don’t judge any one person by their best day, don’t judge them by their worst day. Look at the totality, the whole of their life, and make judgments accordingly.

I think if you look at the almost 20 years in the larger federal or state debate, what you see is an amazingly consistent record on looking out for the taxpayer and trying to impact that which I think worries a lot of people right now, that spending locomotive that we have going in Washington right now.

I was rated No. 1 in Congress by National Taxpayers Union, and No. 1 by Citizens against Government Waste in efforts to limit federal spending, rated by Cato as the most fiscally responsible governor in the United States. I was the first governor to turn down stimulus funds. I won’t go through all the merit badges, but I could give you dozens of different occasions where I stood very solidly on the side of the taxpayer.

You’ve got to look under the hood. There’s that sensational headline, to look and say, “Wow, big ethics charge.” Beyond the headline, what does that mean? You say, “Hm. There were 37 counts the ethics committee brought, and did you know half of those are for taking a business-class ticket?” You look under the hood and you say, “Wow.”

In South Carolina, if there’s a supposed wrongdoing or question or allegation for [a member of] the house or senate, it gets examined by the house or senate. Only for the executive branch is there an ethics committee, solely funded by the house and senate. Its very existence is dependent upon house and senate appropriations.

Look at the charges. There was a charge in there that I had an unitemized receipt for $40. That’s one of the 37 claims. Does anyone believe that I’m trying to get some money out of the campaign? Forty bucks? There’s some things that don’t make sense.

If you look at the house and senate, the senate never moved forward on impeachment. The house, after doing their study, dropped 32 of the 37 questions. Think about that. If you were to look at the history of my dealings with the house, you would know they weren’t exactly a fan club. But even they went in and looked and said, “This is ridiculous.”

Every governor has traveled business class on international flights when crossing the Atlantic or the Pacific. [Governors ] Beasley, Hodges, Campbell, Riley, the current governor. The accounting office before 2009 would look at all of those receipts and sign off on them without question. Not only every former governor, every former secretary of commerce, a number of different senior staffers, and house and senate members — in essence, the people who had been prosecuting the case! — had been on the exact same trips I was.

Some former governors wouldn’t take business class because they took the state’s private jet instead. When I came into office, we sold the jet. If you look at the Hodges administration, they spent just shy of $400,000 on that jet. Just the cost of that jet alone, selling it, you immediately lost a $10,000 monthly maintenance fee, you lost operating costs, and so on. Those savings alone paid for all of the operating costs of my flying.

I’m the only governor of South Carolina who ever got into a single-engine Cessna owned by the DNR and used that for flights. We saved $60,000 per year because we kept the King Air 350 at one-seventh the operating costs — it was cheaper. We discontinued the use of a particular airfield and saved $70,000.

 . . . One of the charges was that I got into a state plane and flew from Columbia to Myrtle Beach for the opening of Hard Rock amusement park in Myrtle Beach. At the time, it was the largest single tourism investment in the history of South Carolina. Tourism plays a major role in the economy of South Carolina, particularly on the coast, for Myrtle Beach and Grand Strand. This was a big event; I thought it was appropriate that I go, to show support for this very significant development. Ethics said, you shouldn’t have made that trip. I maintain that it was the right call, and that’s the call we made. We could have spent months contesting that.

I took a flight from Charleston to Columbia. They said, “You came back for a hair appointment.” We said, “No, that’s not the case. We just wrote down every little detail on the schedule as things evolved.” It may have been a mistake to do that, in terms of publicity, but we were wrong to write everything down. No question about events before, no question about events after. And we said, “Why would I take a flight to get to a haircut place that doesn’t take appointments?” It was the Hair Cuttery, for a ten-dollar haircut, walk-in only with no appointments. I was coming back to Columbia anyway, but that’s the way the ethics commission wrote it up.

Some people said it was a witch hunt, some people said it was political payback time, I was a guy who kicked up a lot of dust during my time in Columbia. . . . If you look past the headline, at the individual merits or demerits, a very different picture emerges.

There are a lot of businessmen out there who settle cases not because they’re guilty for one second but because they say, “I’m not going to bog down the business on this for the next year and a half or two years.” We looked at this and said, “I only have a year and a half left in office. I could spend it contesting this stuff or I could just pay it and move on.” We looked at it and decided it makes more sense to pay. I think we were right on that claim. There was no admission of guilt.

Look at the Boeing deal, the largest economic development deal in South Carolina history, that occurred afterward because of the reforms we had been working on for five years at that point. We had the highest number of vetoes sustained in any year, $260 million worth of vetoes.

Oftentimes in politics, it’s not what the idea is, but whose idea it is. Prior to my implosion, there was a lot of talk about me running for higher office. . . . When it became abundantly clear that I wasn’t running for higher office, they let a number of different things go through, things we had been working on for five or six years. So I think we made the right call — maximized the time we had remaining in office — and in terms of making a difference in other people’s lives.

As to the other part, the dissolution of a marriage, it’s tragic in every sense of the word. I certainly made mistakes. Nobody’s going to bat a thousand. Tragically, a lot of people get divorced in the United States of America, and I suspect many of them have missteps along that path. All you can do is try to make it as right as you can with the people in your life and lift your head up and try to move forward.

Geraghty: Are you prepared for your opponents in the primary, and perhaps the general, to try to make your candidacy about this?

Sanford: Yeah — “put your football helmet on!” That’s an inevitable reality, that folks will try to highlight these different things. I’m not questioning my failure in certain areas, I certainly mishandled things in that chapter of life.

But what people are most anxious about these days is what’s going to happen to the value of the dollar, what’s going to happen to their Social Security, their Medicare, Medicaid, or just sustaining the American dream.

Okay, the guy made a mistake. Let’s look at the magnitude of that mistake and let’s judge it in the light of other areas where he hasn’t wavered, as a champion of the taxpayer and reforming government and common-sense solutions.

Geraghty: There was a CNN article about your engagement last year. Did you marry Ms. Chapur?

Sanford: I’m going to marry her, it’s just that simple. . . . It got pushed back with this latest exercise, and our early summer activity is looking like a late summer activity, and I’ll leave it at that.

Geraghty: How are things with your sons?

Sanford: Really good. That’s a whole other journey. You struggle as a dad with letting them down, letting others down, that whole chapter of life, with the whole notion of reconciliation and forgiveness. I’m probably in a boat with literally millions of couples of America — things may not work in a marriage, but they certainly love their kids and their kids love them.

I’m very proud of them. Marshall, my oldest, is at the University of Virginia, and he’s going to graduate a year early. He got into a master’s program in finance, and so he’s going to leave after four years with a bachelor’s and master’s degree — that’s something I couldn’t have pulled off as a kid.

Landon is a freshman at Vanderbilt. He had a 3.98 GPA, which is something I couldn’t have pulled off as a freshman. So they seem to be doing real well, and I’m real proud of them, and I see them a lot.

Geraghty: What’s your take on the state of Republicans in the House right now? How would you assess the job John Boehner is doing as speaker?

Sanford: John’s between a rock and a hard place. He’s got an executive branch that won’t negotiate with him. A lot of people in terms of the far-right base feel anxious about where we are and where we’re headed. The question for the speaker is, do you stick with Republicans or try to reach a deal with the Democrats to move legislation? I think he’s become increasingly I wouldn’t say harder line, that’s the wrong word — I think if you look at him over the course of his speakership, he seems to be moving to the right based on negotiations that were somewhat hollow from the executive-branch side.

I think that as much as he moves toward the principles that made the party great in the first place, he will be successful. I put it in terms of a brand. Think of a company like Caterpillar or John Deere — when they get into trouble, they don’t try to produce airplanes and boats and broaden their product line. They go to back to what [Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr.] talked about in In Search of Excellence, which is “sticking to the knitting.” The GOP House membership has to go back to what made party great and viable in the first place.

Boehner’s been put in a tough spot, but he’s swinging in the right direction, and I think that’s well-advised.

Geraghty: In the upcoming debate over raising the debt ceiling, what should be Republicans’ goal? How would you define an acceptable result of these upcoming negotiations?

Sanford: I think an acceptable result would be tying debt-ceiling increases to spending reductions. In the same way that President Obama talked about equity and fairness, in that he wanted to have all of us share and be in it together — and for any increase, you know, in debt reduction [to be offset by] increases in taxes, etc. — well, let’s flip that coin around. Let’s make debt-ceiling increases with offsetting spending cuts. You’ve got to pay as you go. I remember pay-as-you-go rules going back to Gramm-Hollings, way back when.

Our civilization is at a tipping point, where you have to recognize that we can’t keep going on, and I think the international markets are at the cusp of picking this up. We can’t continue on the road that we’re on.

Forty cents of every dollar [the federal government spends] is borrowed. The Chinese government is buying a fair-sized piece of that, and their job is to protect Chinese citizens, not Americans. Given that mathematical reality, it is important as an end goal to absolutely tie any debt increase to spending reduction.

It’s important in this instance to look under the hood and say, “Wait a minute, they keep talking about default, and that’s just not true.” You can prioritize spending. When I was in Congress, I remember a GAO report that said that Treasury has the capacity. There’s no statutory requirement for them to default. They could prioritize their spending, and they’re doing things in the short run, to shuffle things around, all based on prioritization.

I remember seeing numbers back in November, we had roughly $27 billion in interest payments due, and we had $161 billion in tax receipts. There is enough money to cover it, if you said, “We’re going to prioritize; our first thing is interest on the debt, our second priority is Social Security, our third priority is medical.” You don’t have to default on the debt.

[Pennsylvania senator] Pat Toomey even has a bill that sets a sort of prioritization process in place. They need to link spending and the debt ceiling to move us from borrowing as we go to paying as we go. And we need to eliminate this fiction that beginning to tighten the belt means default on American debt. That’s not the case.

Geraghty: Spending and debt will be big issues on Congress’s plate this year, but what other priorities would you have in Congress if elected?

Sanford: Well, look at my background, it’s been controlling spending, controlling spending, controlling spending. . . . You’re not going to get there without lifting the big rocks, and the big rocks are the entitlement reforms.

Everyone wants to talk about the “little rocks” of waste, fraud, and abuse. Certainly there are plenty of pebbles out there, but you’ve got to get there with some big things. So entitlement reform is an offshoot of spending.

I would say American competitiveness. As governor, I dealt firsthand with the way business looks for an educated work force. I have always been a fan of market forces within education; I don’t believe monopolistic systems ever deliver the best product or the best service. Choice in education is an awfully important reform tool.

Under that same theme of competitiveness, energy independence is pretty important as well. But the biggest single item in returning to a more competitive state is getting our fiscal house in order.

Geraghty: How long have you been thinking about a return to politics?

Sanford: This came out of the blue, for all the obvious reasons. I thought my time in politics was over. That was a chapter of life, and I had moved on.

I’m not saying it was God-ordained or anything like that, but a series of rather miraculous events have coincided here, that did not escape the attention of the friends who were urging me to look at this.

Senators retire once every thousand years, and the governor appoints, lo and behold, the guy who held the seat and district that I used to represent years ago in Congress. Then the phone lines light up, and you start getting e-mails. That’s sort of normal if you’ve once been in one spot, but the duration and intensity is unusual.

I was coming out of my building I live in, and an old-timer stops me and grabs me, and says, “Mark, you’ve got to do that. You were a good congressman. You’ve got to run for Congress.” Then that night, I was going for a run, running through the streets of downtown Charleston at night, and somebody starts flashing his [car headlights] at me. I have no idea who it is, and then I see it’s a local city-council guy and he’s telling me, saying, “Mark, you gotta do this.” It became absurd. You have to listen.

Tom Davis, a guy I went to college with years ago, now a state senator in Bluffton, said, “You’re wasting your life right now. You’ve always cared about government spending and its impact on the direction of our country. You were talking about this stuff when few people were and the country wasn’t focused on it. If you take what you’ve learned as a congressman and governor, on the way up and the way down, you can actually make a difference at a time when people really are focused on this.” . . . 

Is there bit of trepidation? Absolutely. Is that part of what’s kept me back and forth over the last ten days, two weeks, certainly. But at some point you listen to the voice inside and listen to those you care about the most and you make a decision, and this is the one I’ve made.

Geraghty: Have you and those around you been polling the district, and if so, what have you found?

Sanford: Yeah, we did. I’m not into exercises in futility. When we got serious about this, we needed to take a look. Some people will give you a second chance, some people won’t. We had to make sure you weren’t asking people to contribute, to give of their time, to talk to their neighbors if it’s just going to be an exercise in futility.

What that poll said was the obvious, and said what my gut was telling me: that there was a road to victory worth pursuing. It wasn’t a gimme, but there was absolutely a road back. It was one of the last tees we had to cross.

Geraghty: Did that poll find you have a higher favorable rating than unfavorable rating?

Sanford: Yes.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.


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