Sanford returns home to impeachment rumblings

Did South Carolina's missing governor commit a 'serious offense' by going underground in Argentina?

By , Staff writer

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    In this April 3, 2009 file photo, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford fields questions during a news conference in Columbia, S.C. Gov. Sanford told a newspaper Wednesday that he was in Argentina during his unexplained 5-day absence, not hiking along the Appalachian Trail as his office previously said.
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UPDATE:  Read the transcript of the live blogging session that took place during Governor Sanford's press conference.   "The Vote" blogger Jimmy Orr spoke with Gary Karr during the event.  Karr is a longtime South Carolina political pundit serving as a reporter for the State House and as press secretary for former South Carolina Governor David Beasley.

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What began as a story of a quirky Southern governor going on a mystery walkabout took a more serious turn Wednesday morning, with reports of impeachment talk bubbling out of South Carolina's capital.

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The disappearing act by Mark Sanford, a gubernatorial hero of the GOP who resurfaced after a five-day incommunicado absence, has not played well, even among members of his own party. The impeachment rumblings, first cited by Southern Political Report editor Tom Baxter, are more grave, though. In a bulletin Wednesday morning about the impeachment talks, Mr. Baxter quotes “well-placed sources” in Columbia.

The governor's trip – taken together with the bitter intraparty battles over the budget in South Carolina and Sanford’s profile as a potential GOP presidential contender – is raising questions about whether he committed “serious misconduct” as chief executive, which is an impeachable offense under South Carolina's constitution.

Complaints are that the governor turned off his cellphone without making plans for succession and that he apparently misled his staff about his whereabouts. According to his office, he had told them he was going hiking on the Appalachian Trail and instead traveled to Argentina, where he’s said to have taken quiet drives along the beach.

More than a 'screwball South Carolina story'

“This story has taken on more gravity because of these revelations in the last few hours,” says Baxter in a phone interview. “I think for the first time now you can pose the question of whether this is just a screwball South Carolina story or something bigger that relates in part to the trouble Republicans are having finding any traction at any level of government.”

It may not be quite “State of Chaos” – as the headline splashed across Tuesday's Wall Street Journal declared. Sanford, after all, had gone missing before, on industrial-relations trips and during vacations to his summer home on a South Carolina island. He also fulfilled his duty as a national guardsman while retaining power in Columbia. But this was the first time the governor had been completely out of touch, his staff has said.

Sanford is considered to be a somewhat distant executive, who as a congressman during the 1990s left Washington at every opportunity and who at fundraising events would often stand in the corner, quietly chatting with friends.

A tough year for Sanford

Sanford has had, by all accounts, a tough year. He scored big points with conservative Republicans nationally by refusing to take some federal stimulus money for his state (ultimately losing that battle in court), but he’s faced criticism from and fought with state Republicans over budget cuts.

“It’s fairly evident that Sanford has had a rough go of it here with the stimulus, the budget, the recession, and really sort of rank disagreements between a Republican governor and Republican legislators, all exacerbated by his being out of the country and not telling people," says Charles Bierbauer, dean of the University of South Carolina's communication department and a former political reporter.

“It’s a head-fake, a diversionary tactic,” Mr. Bierbauer continues, “where we could’ve had the whole [US] Forest Service out marching the Appalachian Trail looking for this guy, when he was down in a bodega drinking Argentine wine and having a nice steak – not huddled out on the trail eating beans out of a can.”

Not exactly 'chaos'

Political scientist David Woodard of Clemson University, who worked with Sanford on Capitol Hill, says he’s surprised to see the story go national.

“Look, he waited until the end of the legislative session. He knew he was going to get his teeth beat in [by the legislature], so he planned to get out of town as soon as the session was over and he did. I haven’t seen tanks in the streets. You could’ve fooled me that we were in chaos.”

Sanford, when reached Tuesday by his staff, was apparently taken aback by the furor over his mysterious absence.

No help for national party

The now-solved case of the missing governor comes at a difficult time for Republicans. Already struggling to fashion a message for an ever-more-diverse country, they are seeing some of their top names stumble on national TV, a la Bobby Jindal, and feud with network stars, a la Sarah Palin with David Letterman. Now there's Sanford's disappearance to Argentina, a country known for its legacy of the politically “disappeared” during the “Dirty War” in the late 1970s.

For at least one South Carolina politician, impeachment would be a mistake. State Sen. Ralph Anderson, a Democrat, says Sanford's absence did not rise to the level of serious misconduct. He says he would personally filibuster any impeachment hearings.

“Impeachment would create the worst image of South Carolina throughout the nation than anything else," said Senator Anderson, in a phone interview. He blamed the governor’s problems on his unwillingness to compromise with the legislature.

Whatever happens with impeachment talks in South Carolina, Sanford’s decision to leave the state is likely to have national political consequences.

“The worry is that this is going to come back as the governor who went walkabout,” says Bierbauer at University of South Carolina.

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