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Tainted S.C. governor tries to get back to business

Saturday, June 27, 2009

(Photo)
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford makes his way through the video cameras and reporters for the start of his cabinet meeting Friday in Columbia, S.C., where he apologized to his state agency chiefs for keeping them in the dark when he went to Argentina to see his mistress.
(Mary Ann Chastain ~ Associated Press)
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It was a routine state Cabinet meeting, one with reports on declining tax revenue, the number of children on Medicaid and an update on a drunken driving campaign.

Routine, except for the 20-plus television cameras and reporters scrunched into a tiny room in a building next to the state's Capitol. They were there to watch South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford conduct his first official meeting since making a public admission that although he has been married for 20 years, he'd carried on a passionate love affair with a woman in Argentina.

Sanford, it seemed, anticipated the media scrum. As he walked to the meeting down a corridor lined with camera bags, tripods and snaking power cords, he held his head high.

"Hey, guys," Sanford said to the media in an even tone. "How are y'all?"

Yet the question remains: Can Sanford effectively govern, now that details of the affair have come to light?

None of the 12 Cabinet members present during Friday's meeting asked Sanford about the romance. They didn't have to.

It had been the stuff of tabloid headlines and intrigue since he returned to South Carolina Wednesday after jetting off to Argentina for a secret rendezvous with his mistress.

And Sanford kicked off the meeting by apologizing to each of them as cameras clicked and reporters scribbled notes and recorded it all.

At one point, he likened his confession and future to the biblical plight of King David -- and looks of nervousness and incredulity crept into the officials' faces.

Maybe they were afraid that he would launch into another emotional confession -- like he did Wednesday, when he revealed during a news conference that he had "spent the last five days of [his] life crying in Argentina." Or that he would address the purported e-mails back and forth to his lover, in which he praised her tan line and curvy hips.

But Sanford was all business.

"What's it all mean and where do we go from here? I have been doing a lot of soul searching on that front," he said. "Every one of you all has specific duties to the people of South Carolina that you have to perform, and that is with or without me doing right on a given day or doing wrong at a given day, those responsibilities still exist."

The Cabinet then updated the governor on affairs of the state that he had abandoned for nearly a week while in Argentina. South Carolina, the agency heads reported, isn't doing well: Sales tax revenues are down 8 percent and the individual income tax revenue is down 16 percent. The day after he left, the state's jobless rate set a record as the nation's third highest.

The only good news, which yielded a tension-relieving chuckle, came from Corrections Department head Jon Ozmint, who reported that cows at the prison are producing lots of manure.

"We've got folks literally fighting to come in and ... build a methane digester," he said.

Post-meeting, some cabinet members said Sanford handled himself well Friday.

"We all have things in our personal life that we don't want to shine under the spotlight," said Buck Limehouse, head of the state's transportation department. "There's nothing to be accomplished by rehashing this over and over. The needs of the people of South Carolina are more important than the personal issues."

Mark Keel, the director of the state Department of Public Safety, said neither the affair, nor the media attention, is a distraction for him.

"I've got enough to do without having to worry about these other things," he said. "I'm trying to focus on getting drunk drivers off the roads."

Yet Henry Kodama of the state Forestry Commission acknowledged it will be challenging for state officials to focus on the day-to-day business "because of the magnitude of the issue."

Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, a fellow Republican and the man who would replace Sanford for the next 18 months if he were to step down, told The Associated Press that he spoke to the governor a day earlier and "could tell he had done a lot of soul searching."

The two, who have not been allies and don't run on the same ticket, didn't discuss the possibility of the governor stepping down. Bauer said he wasn't immediately calling for a resignation.

"Mark Sanford is still my governor and regardless of what his decision is, I'm going to stand by and try to help him," Bauer said.

Others were more forceful. State Sen. Jake Knotts, R-West Columbia, encouraged other legislators to call for Sanford's resignation and urged him to "do the right thing" and step down voluntarily.

And the drumbeat grew. The head of the group that's pushed Sanford's school choice effort called for him to resign. If Republicans are going to criticize Democrats for moral failings, Sanford has to go, said Randy Page, president of the conservative advocacy group South Carolinians for Responsible Government.


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