Politics & Government

Sanford leaves constituents cold

Gov. Mark Sanford tries to keep the media back as he makes his way to the State House after a June 26 Cabinet meeting.
Gov. Mark Sanford tries to keep the media back as he makes his way to the State House after a June 26 Cabinet meeting. AP

Gov. Mark Sanford said he was a broken man after admitting an extramarital affair in June, a revelation that required him to pick up the pieces of his administration and fend off efforts to remove him from office.

In the 100 days since he returned from his secret trip to Argentina to acknowledge his affair, Sanford's schedule shows - and observers agree - the Republican governor has turned his focus to the state's moribund economy.

But that new focus came only after weeks of vacations and apologies and a campaign to defend Sanford from questions about his use of state planes.

Bottom line?

Sanford's response to the affair and investigations has done irreparable damage to his relationship with the public, communications and public relations experts say.

Sanford's relationship with the state's political class already was shattered after 6 1/2 years of conflict with the GOP-controlled General Assembly. Legislators view the two-term, lame-duck governor as irrelevant. Most want him to quit.

Even less hostile members of the public who have heard Sanford on his apology tour wonder if he has learned any lessons.

"He says it's all about the people of the state, and the tone comes across as it's all about Mark Sanford," Hartsville resident Bobby McGee said.

"He thinks it's a friendly venue. It's a lot easier than working, talking to these folks. I just don't think he's planted enough seeds and cultivated them."

Sanford declined an interview request for this story. But his office says the governor is looking to the future.

"The governor has been and continues to be dedicated to moving our state forward, and our efforts on this front over the past months have met with real success," spokesman Ben Fox said in a written statement.

PLANT COULD BAIL OUT SANFORD

What has Sanford done over the last 100 days?

- He has been on out-of-state trips or vacations a fifth of the time.

- He has spent another 16 days traveling the state to speak to civic and community groups, generally opening his speeches with an apology.

- He has toured a handful of state manufacturing plants and small businesses and also visited with job-creation and technical school programs.

- He moved, by an executive order, a program for developmentally challenged infants and toddlers to First Steps, an early education program created by his Democratic predecessor.

Sanford's official schedule typically contains no more than three or four items a week.

But Fox said Sanford has met with high-level business executives and small business owners, higher education leaders, his cabinet, students and community groups about the state's economy, which has been hemorrhaging jobs.

More than 20,000 fewer South Carolinians were employed in August than in June, according to state data. During the same period, new or expanding businesses have said they plan to create only a little more than 900 jobs in the state, according to the S.C. Department of Commerce.

But Sanford could win a major success if Boeing chooses South Carolina over Washington state as the site of its second plant to build its new 787 airliner. That plant could bring an unknown - but significant - number of jobs to South Carolina, which has the nation's sixth-highest unemployment rate.

"We are not doing it with press releases and publicity because I don't think that's the best interest of the negotiation process" with Boeing, Sanford told a Charleston television station Tuesday after a Walterboro civic club appearance.

Business leaders say they have noticed Sanford is more involved in economic development, particularly with Boeing.

"If he gets a major economic development coup that brings in more jobs, that will certainly help him demonstrate that he is not stuck in the ditch," said Bob McAlister, chief of staff to the late Gov. Carroll Campbell and a Sanford critic.

Lawmakers say the Sanford scandal is deterring companies from considering locating in South Carolina.

DISCONNECTED?

McAlister said Sanford has wasted too much time and effort defending himself in public.

Top Republicans in the state House, Senate and party have asked Sanford to resign, arguing he will be a distraction until he leaves office.

S.C. Democrats, who say Sanford never showed much interest in governing, called on the Republican to resign Friday.

Sanford argues lawmakers are causing the distraction, by spending time investigating and considering impeachment. In his speeches to civic clubs, he continues to make the case for government restructuring.

"I have heard nothing new," McAlister said. "It's the same stuff he has been talking about for 6 1/2 years that he has yet to change.

"How does he think it will change with this chaos he has created?"

Financial adviser Bobby McGee attended Sanford's Sept. 8 speech to the Hartsville Rotary Club. McGee said he did not hear anything that led him to think the next 15 months - the remainder of Sanford's second term - would be any different from his first 6 1/2 years in office.

Sanford has returned to familiar territory while trying to move forward. He tells the civic groups that he wants to restructure government and cap state spending. He pledges more humility and a more productive relationship with lawmakers.

McGee asked Sanford why he continues to invest so much effort in restructuring, which the General Assembly consistently has rejected. Why not pick another issue, McGee asked, or compromise more with lawmakers?

As he often has done over the last few months, Sanford referred to children "trading marbles" - a metaphor for political deal-cutting to get a key bill passed. Sanford told McGee there was no value to that. Instead, Sanford said he was thinking long term.

"We just kind of looked at each other and knew it was hopeless," McGee said. "There's just a disconnect with him and the people. ... (Restructuring) just doesn't resonate with the people the way he wants it to."

In his Sept. 9 speech to the Forest Acres Rotary Club, Sanford asked members to talk to friends about the need to restructure and restrain state spending.

"He tried to point to the future, things that needed to and could be done during his remaining 15 months," Forest Acres real estate agent Del Soule said. "Is he back to work? I don't know."

Soule said the club gave Sanford a polite reception, adding he has not heard "any enthusiastic backing of his speech" since.

While the speeches have garnered Sanford media coverage, both Forest Acres' Soule and Hartsville's McGee wonder if they were an effective use of the governor's time.

'I ASK FOR YOUR HELP'

The speeches may be doing more harm than good, said Aileen Pincus, a Maryland-based crisis communications and public relations adviser.

"He did come clean, and that was an important first step, but that seems to be the whole entire strategy," Pincus said.

Sanford has tried to change the subject before fixing his many damaged relationships, she said. His defense of his use of state planes - that other governors did worse and university officials fly often - comes off as childish, she added.

As a result, Sanford's statements - that he's back at work, dealing with the economy - ring hollow. "Now, there's almost nothing he can do at this point that the public trusts."

In recent weeks, Sanford has turned to his e-mail list of supporters, urging them to spread his case to friends and family. In the e-mails, Sanford also recaps his activities, giving an accounting that is far more detailed than his public schedule.

The only people interested in focusing on his secret trip to Argentina and the political fallout are his political opponents and the media, Sanford says. The public, he says, has moved on, urging his supporters to help him fend off any attempt by the General Assembly to remove him from office.

"I ask for your help in ever so politely asking the 'powers that be' to move back to the ideas and issues that affect every one of us on a daily basis," Sanford wrote in a recent e-mail. "In all my travels and constant moving around the state, I can say with clarity that it has always been within the context of trying to maximize my days and watch out for the taxpayer in the process."

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