South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford admitted yesterday that his first thought as the scandal broke about his extramarital affair with an Argentinian woman was to leave office with 18 months to go in his last term. Close spiritual and political associates urged him to instead fight to restore the public's — and his family's — trust.
"Resigning would be the easiest thing to do," he said he thought.
He's sticking it out and now faces endless questions about the affair, whether he used public money to visit his lover and whether his 20-year marriage will continue. Add to it a barrage of criticism from South Carolina politicians who think the two-term Republican should step down.
"Part of walking humbly is you've got to listen to your critics out there," the 49-year-old Sanford said. "And all of us will have critics, and the higher you go, I suppose, the more critics you have."
Sanford, his wife, Jenny, and sons were in separate cars leaving their beach house on Sullivans Island, headed to his family's farm — where his 83-year-old mother lives — in Beaufort, an hour south.
He looked like a man of leisure: faded khaki shorts, T-shirt, bare feet. But behind the casual attire, Sanford appeared contrite and spoke of falling from grace and rebuilding his life.
"I am sorry," he said. "I apologize for letting everyone down."
The governor admitted last week to a yearlong affair with the woman he says he's known for about eight years. He and Jenny say they will try to reconcile. Reconciling with fellow lawmakers and constituents also is ahead of him. Some lawmakers want his resignation because he secretly visited his mistress during a state-funded 2008 trip, and because he was out of touch with his staff during his recent weeklong visit to the country to see the woman. His staff had told the public he was hiking along the Appalachian Trail before the real story of his mysterious absence came to light.
Sanford has agreed to reimburse the state for some of the more than $8,000 in taxpayer money spent on the Argentina leg of the economic development trip to South America last year. On Sunday, he repeatedly said he never used public money to see the woman.
Later Sunday, 41-year-old Argentinian Maria Belen Chapur said in a statement to news network C5n of Buenos Aires that she was having a relationship with Sanford.
She says e-mail exchanges with Sanford that were widely published by US media and elsewhere were obtained by someone who hacked her account. She says her 200-word statement will be her only comment on it.
When it comes to his critics — most notably Republican state Senator Jake Knotts — and their calls for him to step down, Sanford said he understands where they are coming from.
"I don't begrudge the Jakie Knottses of the world," Sanford said. "He's going to do what he's going to do. I gotta do my part."
The governor's efforts to stay in office appear, in the minds of some lawmakers, to hinge in part on his ability to salvage his marriage. While several critics wants a criminal probe and others want him to step down, reconciling with the first lady does have sway among legislators.
"That's almost become a proxy for how some are looking at this. They're looking at Jenny," said state Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican and former Sanford chief of staff. "In large measure, it depends on how things work and how people see things are working out between the governor and first lady."
As far as his marriage, Sanford said he and his wife are working on it.
"If there wasn't healing going on, I wouldn't be here," he said, pointing to his beach house, where he had dinner with his family Saturday night and where he took a run at sunrise on the sand with one of his sons.
Sanford added that he has been overwhelmed by the support he's received.
"It's only in the hard times you get a sense of how blessed you really are," he said.
Regardless of what politicians in the Statehouse think, his Sullivans Island neighbors are supportive.
During Sunday's interview, several folks stopped to say hello as they strolled by on their morning walks. One man, driving a golf cart festooned with red-white-and-blue decorations, paused to invite Sanford and his family to a Fourth of July celebration.
"How are you?" the man asked Sanford.
"Considering the circumstances, all right," Sanford replied with a wan smile.