The dominant images now of Mark Sanford’s eight years in office are of the Appalachian Trail and Argentina.
But Sanford thinks his lasting legacy is yet to play itself out, as the state’s political climate and economic and budget realities push elected officials toward some of the policies — restructuring, school choice and tighter budget limits — he long advocated.
Just as Democratic Gov. Dick Riley is known for his focus on education and the late Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell is known for his focus on jobs that yielded BMW’s mammoth Upstate investment, Sanford says he should be known as the governor who always was the taxpayer’s advocate.
According to a recent Winthrop University poll, about 70 percent of likely S.C. voters surveyed gave Sanford a “C” grade or better — a grade University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato called “incredibly generous.” Of course, that means about a third of the state gave Sanford a “D” or an “F.”
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Question: You came in with a lot of ideas and a lot of things you wanted to change. How much of that did you get finished? How much of that do you think is primed and ready to be taken on here soon? And how much do you think might never get done?
Answer: I remember I thought I had some incredibly brilliant ideas as a freshman, or thereabouts, in Congress. And I went to the then-Speaker (Newt) Gingrich with the idea, and his response was: “You’ve got a good idea. But you’ve got to plow the field before you plant it; you got to plant it before you harvest it; you got to harvest it before you sell it. And you’re over here talking about selling it, but you really have got to go back to Stage 1.”
And I think that’s true with every idea to germinate in the world of politics. We spent a lot of time on issues at times we knew were a stretch. On a range of different issues there was a significant impact made in advancing ideas just through the larger process of education, because until people realize there is a problem there’s no climate, or environment or push for change. We spent a lot of time on that, and that will continue to bear fruit.
The goal, Sanford said, was to make South Carolina a better place to call home. His administration did that, he said, by recruiting jobs to the state — including records for new investment. While more S.C. workers are employed than when he took office eight years ago, more are jobless as well, and the state’s jobless rate has consistently been one of the country’s highest.
Another goal was improving quality of life, which included preserving land and a Medicaid program that Sanford says offered more and better options for patients.
Sanford said he also expanded the governor’s role in the budget process, creating a detailed executive budget to set priorities. He ticked off changes that saved the state money, from consolidating dental care for the departments of Correction and Juvenile Justice, to renting out the Lace and Waring houses.
All those things begin to add up to real savings, which I guess would be the fourth area we promised to work on: Watch out for the taxpayer. I think we’ve indeed done that. At times, I have the scars to show for it.
Q: You notably changed your tactics within the last couple of years to what you called “rifle shots.” Do you think you tried to do too much, too quickly in the beginning?
A: Yeah, I think that would be a fair assessment. What happens is you step in — I wasn’t a part of the South Carolina legislative process. I naively thought there was more power with the executive branch than there was. I didn’t understand some of the confines. You went after a whole smorgasbord of things that legitimately need changing in Columbia. Yeah, we narrowed the focus at the end and saw some results.
Sanford noted some ideas failed, such as creating a university system board of regents to oversee public colleges and universities, but were followed by a moratorium on new higher education buildings. Then, Sanford said, schools announced tuition cuts to avoid the moratorium.
We attempted to exert pressure on a wide swath, ranging from education to health care to spending in Columbia and you saw effects in each different place. I would venture to say you’ll see a number of things that you’ve seen in the executive branch budget, offered for eight years, adopted this year.
Sanford’s final legislative session was his most successful, with the Legislature restructuring the state’s jobless agency and adding it to the governor’s cabinet. Lawmakers also upheld a higher percentage of Sanford’s budget vetoes than in other years.
Q: How much of what you got done in the last year do you think was a result of the impression that you were no longer a national political figure they (legislators) weren’t as concerned about giving you a political victory?
A: People assign you all kinds of motives that didn’t exist. ‘He’s running for President; that’s why he’s doing that.’ I wasn’t running for president. for whatever reason we began to get more and more attention on that front. You began to hear, ‘I’m not going to be part of helping him.’
Q: Do you think it impacted your ability to get things done that you became a national political figure — taking on the stimulus and your role with the (Republican Governors Association)? Do you think you were putting enough emphasis on South Carolina?
A: It’s not like a plan — ‘Oh, I could be national spokesman on stimulus stuff.’ It just kind of evolved. All these people that are Republican governors now running for president, I remember being at the RGA meeting in Miami, and I was trying to get them to take some kind of stand against the auto stimulus package. It was: ‘Hey, too controversial. No one wants to touch it.’ It wasn’t that I was articulate; you know I’m not. It was, he’s the only guy stupid enough to say whatever it was.
My gift has never been communication. I’m not a great speaker like Clinton. It’s been conviction. I knew what I believed and why I believed it. And people respond to that.
Among the highest priorities for Sanford when he took office was creating a voucher or tax credit system for parents sending their children to private schools. Another was reducing the state’s highest income tax bracket. Neither was achieved.
Sanford thinks he missed an opportunity with school choice, pushing for a broader voucher system than some could accept. In the case of income tax cuts, he said, it was clear key lawmakers would never accept his proposal.
Q: What went wrong in the school choice debate?
A: We attempted to be the first state in the country to go to a full-blown choice system. Was that a bridge too far? I think so. I think we probably could have pulled off what Florida did. (In 2001, Florida approved a tax credit program establishing scholarships for poor students to attend private schools.) But we went for a bigger bite of the apple. Incrementalism in the life of a child as it relates to education is a horrible proposition. To say, ‘Oh yeah, in two generations we’re going to be right where you need to be.’ What happens to these next two generations of kids?
Q: Is school choice the biggest missed opportunity of your administration? If you had backed off and taken three-quarters of what you were looking for, could that have gotten done?
A: The question is what would have gotten done? At times, you can get a cosmetic victory. But if you’re dealing with the number of kids we’re dealing with in South Carolina and the statistics we’re dealing with? We have some incredibly great public schools; the only catch is you’ve got to be wealthy enough to live in a wealthy school district.
Yeah, we could have gotten something. I don’t know how meaningful it would have been.
We would have liked to get more aggressive on the income tax. At times, we think incentives are what we offer to the next box that wants to come to South Carolina. The ultimate incentive is what Hong Kong has, which is a great business environment.
On election night, Sanford’s ex-wife, Jenny, said the victories of Haley and other like-minded conservatives and Tea Party candidates justified the things Sanford fought for during his two terms in office. Many have suggested Sanford was Tea Party before the term existed, an idea with which he did not disagree. The Tea Party, Sanford thinks, is a lasting political movement rooted in a fear of losing the American Dream.
Q: What do you think of the Tea Party?
A: I think there is something going on in this country that is much bigger than meets the eye. I think there is a deeper level of angst that we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
I think what they’re really anxious about is more than just the spending. It’s where we are on the opportunity front. If you ever get a real breach in the people’s belief that the system is fair, that’s when the republic breaks down.
I think that they’re real. I think that they’re here for much longer than people believe.
Q: Can the Tea Party and the Republican Party get along?
A: I think that the Tea Party is hard-core focused on economics and sort of tax-and-spending issues. I think the base of the Republican Party is that way, but I think there is also sometimes a disconnect between the base and grass-roots level, and the elected leadership.
I think there’s a difference between conservative and Republican in many cases, particularly on economic issues. I suspect that there will be continuing friction, because it’s a greater battle line, well beyond Republican versus Tea Party. You can see it with the (anti-Tea Party) response of (GOP political strategist) Karl Rove and some others.
There are Republicans who are going to be to the right of where I was. Why? Because they’re freaked-out worried that they’re going to get a primary opponent and get beat in two years. It’s a groundswell I wished would have been there during my eight years.