Gov. Mark Sanford admitted Wednesday to an extramarital affair with a woman living in Argentina and to lying to South Carolinians to cover up his tryst — then asked everyone, including his family, for forgiveness.
The two-term S.C. Republican, a rising GOP star, fought tears during a news conference hours after a reporter from The State newspaper surprised him at the Atlanta airport on his way back from seeing the mother of two during Father’s Day weekend.
Sanford did not respond in the State House rotunda when asked whether he would resign his office. Spokesman Joel Sawyer later said the governor had no plans to step down.
“I’ll lay it out,” a solemn, red-eyed Sanford said as he faced a media throng outside his office. “It’s going to hurt, and let the chips fall where they may.
“I’ve been unfaithful to my wife. I’ve let down a lot of people. That’s the bottom line.”
Sanford stood alone at a podium. Neither first lady Jenny Sanford nor his sons attended.
He apologized to his family, supporters, the faith community and to all other South Carolinians.
His secret South American trip prompted national attention after state officials questioned why no one had heard from Sanford for four days, starting last Thursday. Some demanded to know who was in charge of the executive branch.
Sanford, 49, would not say directly Wednesday whether he and Jenny Sanford, 46, are separated officially.
“I don’t know how you want to define that,” the governor said. “I’m here and she’s there. I guess in a formal sense we are not.”
Later in the day, Jenny Sanford said in a statement she asked her husband to leave their Sullivan’s Island home two weeks ago.
“This trial separation was agreed to with the goal of ultimately strengthening our marriage,” she said.
In e-mails obtained by the state written last summer to a woman in Argentina named Maria, Sanford characterized their relationship as a “hopelessly impossible situation of love.”
Just after midnight on July 10, 2008, he writes: “You have the ability to give magnificently gentle kisses. ... I love your tan lines ... the curves of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself ... in the faded glow of night’s light.”
On July 4, she wrote: “I wasn’t aware till we met last week, the strong feelings I had for you. I haven’t felt this since I was in my teen ages. I do love you.”
FROM FRIENDS TO LOVERS
Sanford said Wednesday he met the woman — whom he did not name — eight years ago. At one point, he said he counseled the mother of two not to give up on her strained marriage.
He said he told her to keep trying for the sake of her sons. The Sanfords have four sons.
“There is a certain irony to this,” Sanford said.
“I have let them down in a profound way,” he said of his wife and sons.
The Sanfords have been in counseling for five months, since the first lady learned of the affair, the governor said.
What began as a casual friendship grew deeper, largely through e-mail conversations, Sanford said. Despite the distance between them, “It developed into something much more than that.”
Sanford said he had seen the woman three times since their relationship became sexual.
He did not respond Wednesday when asked if leaving his family during Father’s Day weekend was tantamount to placing them beneath a mistress.
“I spent the last five days of my life crying in Argentina. I’m committed to trying to get my heart right.”
Sanford said this was his first and only extramarital affair during a 19-year marriage.
He invoked Scripture and his faith several times during the 18-minute news conference.
“Believe it or not, I’ve been a person of faith all my life. There are moral absolutes,” intended “to protect you from yourself.”
He called his actions, “selfish,” and said they carry consequences.
“As we work through this, there are going to be some hard decisions,” Sanford said. “I would simply ... ask for forgiveness.”
Sanford has built a 15-year maverick political career that took him from a wealthy, Lowcountry plantation to Congress and the governor’s office.
Jenny Sanford, an heiress, was instrumental in his career, including running his first gubernatorial campaign — a fact Mark Sanford acknowledged Wednesday.
Sanford developed his adherence to his conservative principles and family values into a political base that was weakened by many contentious fights with the GOP-controlled Legislature, where he garnered many enemies.
In the first political fallout, Sanford said he is resigning as chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association.
He used that platform in recent months to fight President Obama’s economic stimulus package, becoming the nation’s only governor to file a lawsuit rather than accept $700 million in aid for a poor state racked by one of the country’s highest unemployment rates.
Sanford’s frequent appearances on national news outlets fueled talk of a possible GOP presidential run in 2012.
Though Sanford frequently has fought with lawmakers, state leaders largely held their fire Wednesday.
But some said the governor’s actions were unacceptable.
“He left the country and deliberately made himself unavailable ... he misled his staff who unknowingly misled the public,” Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler said in a statement. “We cannot let the Governor’s personal life overshadow his public responsibility, or in this case, his negligence of gubernatorial authority.”
Others reiterated the need to clarify state law about when a governor should hand over power if traveling, ill or disabled.
Some are wondering if Sanford now lacks the standing to lead the state during a troubled economy and should resign.
“The state needs someone who can be effective,” said Greenville-based consultant Chip Felkel. “I don’t think Mark can be effective at all.”
Other political analysts say Sanford’s presidential aspirations are over.
Admitting an affair and failing to stay in touch with the responsibilities of his office is “dereliction of duty,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Last Thursday about 5:30 p.m., Sanford drove a security vehicle from the Governor’s Mansion to Columbia Metropolitan Airport.
The State Law Enforcement Division, others responsible for his security and his own staff could not reach the governor through mobile phone and text messages between Thursday and Tuesday.
Questioned by reporters and state officials Monday, Sanford’s office first said he was recharging after losing the bruising political and legal fight over stimulus money from Washington.
Sanford’s staff declined to disclose his location but said nothing was wrong.
Later on Monday, Jenny Sanford said she did not know her husband’s whereabouts. He left to get away from the boys and “write something.” She said she was not worried.
Late Monday night, the governor’s office said Sanford was hiking the Appalachian Trail to unwind, something he said he has done since high school.
Tuesday, his staff said Sanford had communicated by phone and was bemused by the public interest in his whereabouts.
“I let them down by creating a fiction,” Sanford said Wednesday of his staff.
As the governor returned to Columbia, the black, SLED-owned Suburban he drove to Columbia’s airport Thursday without a security detail remained near a shade tree in Row 13 of an asphalt parking lot.
Inside, a worn canvas bag sat on the front passenger seat on top of a well-worn pair of Asics running shoes.
SLED director Reggie Lloyd said he supports changing the law to require governors to accept security. Sanford has resisted that since he took office, law enforcement officials have said.
Lloyd, a Sanford appointee, said the agencies that make up the detail — SLED, the departments of Public Safety and Natural Resources —should control how protection is provided.
Lloyd also said he is upset with Sanford’s staff.
“I think they were probably not the most candid and honest statements ... made to us as an agency,” Lloyd said. “It’s going to necessitate us to look at our policies on how we interact with staff.”
Sanford flew back to the U.S. Wednesday.
As he walked into Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport about 6:30 a.m., he was met by an aide — and a reporter from The State.
Sanford appeared surprised by the reporter’s presence.
He acknowledged for the first time he went to Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital city. He said he decided against a hiking trip, to “do something exotic.”
Sanford said then, eight hours before his public confession of philandering, that he had been alone. He would say only that he drove along the Argentine coastline.
Contributing: staff writers Rick Brundrett and Wayne Washington. Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664. Reach O’Connor at (803) 771-8358.