Tumultuous ending to political partnership

wwashington@thestate.comDecember 12, 2009 

Gov. Mark Sanford lost more than a wife when Jenny Sanford filed for divorce Friday. He lost an important political adviser as well, one he said kept him grounded amid the trappings of high office.

Jenny Sanford has been described as the force behind her husband's political career, but those who worked with or observed Mark Sanford said that probably exaggerated her influence.

"She's a smart woman, but he's not dumb, not by any stretch of the imagination," said Clare Morris, who served as Mark Sanford's press secretary when he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. "When he was in Congress, she wasn't as instrumental in the day-to-day as I understand she was when he became governor."

Jenny Sanford fit neatly into the political narrative that propelled her husband's career. He was the ordinary, frugal guy who, fed up with what he saw as an arrogant, out-of-touch group of politicians in Washington, D.C., started a long-shot campaign for Congress that led to his election to that body and then to the governor's office.

In his 2000 book, "The Trust Committed to Me," Mark Sanford described the early days of his first run for Congress in 1994.

"At first we set up shop in our family kitchen, with my wife Jenny as campaign manager," he wrote. "Eventually, as the campaign got moving, and the phone calls, paperwork and general mess started growing, we moved headquarters to the basement, what Jenny would call 'the dungeon.'"

Sanford survived a hard-fought Republican Party primary and run-off before moving on to the general election. He gave his wife credit for helping him get there.

"Jenny had managed the primary and runoff campaigns like a pro," he wrote.

Mark Sanford won that general election, but victory brought marital difficulties that now seem to have foreshadowed Friday's divorce filing.

"It was rough on our young family," Mark Sanford wrote of his early service in Congress. "There were new strains in my relationship with Jenny. Although the hours had been long during the campaign, at least Jenny and I were still in the same boat. With few exceptions I was home every night. Now I was gone for extended periods, and for all practical purposes Jenny was raising our infant boys as a single parent. Her consistent refrain was that I wasn't the only one in the family who supported term limits."

Morris, now chief executive officer of the Clare Morris Agency, a marketing and communications firm based in Columbia, said Jenny Sanford's influence was felt during some policy discussions.

"Mark and I would talk about something, and he'd say, 'Well, Jenny thinks we should look at this.'" Morris said. "I'd say, 'Sure.' And we'd look at it."

But Jenny Sanford was not a day-to-day presence, Morris said.

Another former staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that changed when Sanford became governor. She was frequently in the office and was a potent figure in his inner circle.

She sought - sometimes unsuccessfully, the staffer said - to get the governor to wear better and newer clothing.

With Jenny at his side, Mark Sanford served two terms in Congress, beat an incumbent to become governor and cruised to re-election.

Before he disappeared from the state in June to visit his lover in Argentina and publicly admitted to their extramarital affair, Sanford frequently was mentioned as a candidate for president.

Now, that possibility has as much life as roadkill.

He has a year left on his term as governor, and it promises to offer challenges.

A General Assembly he has frequently tangled with is poised to censure him for his June disappearance.

In what could be a politically lonely final year in office, Robert Oldendick, director of the Institute for Public Service and Policy Research at the University of South Carolina, said Jenny Sanford's absence from her husband's inner circle won't add to his troubles.

"My sense is that it will not matter at all," Oldendick said. "The impact has already been felt."

Indeed, Oldendick and others said Jenny Sanford's political influence had already begun to wane.

"In his first term and in the election process, she was a pretty important component," Oldendick said. "In the second term, she's sort of stepped back."

Morris said her old boss, frequently underestimated, will be fine.

"He's very, very smart," she said.

Reach senior writer Wayne Washington at (803) 771-8385.

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