Sanford's Sex Scandal: Assessing the Damage

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Davis Turner / Getty

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford tearfully admitted to having an affair during a news conference in Columbia, S.C., on June 24, 2009

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford has never shied away from talking about his religious faith. So perhaps it should have come as no surprise that he invoked "God's law" throughout his long, rambling press conference on June 24 — after going missing in Buenos Aires for six days — to confess his yearlong extramarital affair with an Argentine woman. But in acknowledging his infidelity, Sanford was actually admitting that he had broken a state law: adultery is still punishable in South Carolina by up to a year in prison and a $500 fine. Fortunately for Sanford, the statute is an unenforced relic. But even if he faces no criminal penalties, Sanford is painfully aware that he will pay in other ways. "I guess where I'm trying to go with this is that there are moral absolutes, and that God's law indeed is there to protect you from yourself," Sanford said at the state capitol in Columbia. "And there are consequences if you breach that. This press conference is a consequence."

It didn't take long for Sanford to experience the range of other unpleasant consequences of his behavior. Even as pundits were writing the political obituary of a fiscal conservative many had touted as a GOP presidential hopeful for 2012, The State newspaper of Columbia published personal e-mails the governor had sent to his paramour, named Maria. (Thursday's edition of Buenos Aires newspaper La Nacion identified her as Maria Belen Chapur, a 43-year-old divorced mother of two who lives in the fashionable district of Palermo and works for an agricultural company.) In one, Sanford gushes about Maria's "magnificent gentle kisses," tan lines, hips and "erotic beauty." And while he acknowledges that they are in a "hopelessly impossible love," his "heart cries out for [her]" and for "an even deeper connection to [her] soul."

The embarrassing missives were just the latest twist in a bizarre scandal that had gripped the state and political observers across the country even before the governor returned from his unexplained absence and revealed his affair. Not even his staff seemed to know exactly where the governor was, and until he was greeted at Atlanta's airport on the morning of June 24 by a reporter from The State, the official line was that Sanford had been hiking on the Appalachian Trail to clear his head after a tough legislative session. Though even his toughest critics seemed to feel some measure of sympathy for Sanford after his confessional, many believed his admission of "selfishness on my part" applied as much to his public transgression as his personal indiscretions. Going AWOL in South America for almost a week without even telling his staff his whereabouts, they argued, reflected a blatant disregard for the workings of government that has marked his seven years in office.

Sanford, in fact, has always been more effective as a conservative icon than as a conservative governor, a figure popular with the Republican Party's red-meat base but in chronic conflict with South Carolina's GOP-controlled legislature. When TIME ranked him in 2005 as one of the nation's worst state chief executives, it was because his fiscal hard-liner theatrics (carrying piglets under each arm to the door of the state legislature to protest pork-barrel spending) rarely yielded real results. In too many instances, his conservative principles thwarted the economic development of a poor Southern state that has the country's third-highest unemployment rate and some of its most decrepit schools. Still, South Carolina's deeply conservative voters re-elected him in 2006, and last year Sanford became chairman of the Republican Governors Association. "But he always seemed to care more about his ideology than about rolling up his sleeves and figuring out how to get things done," says Bruce Ransom, a political science professor at Clemson University in South Carolina.

The latest showcase involved President Obama's $787 billion stimulus package. Sanford led a group of GOP governors, including Alaska's Sarah Palin and Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, assailing it as fiscal suicide. Sanford even likened it to the hyper-inflationary policies of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, and he spent the past spring fighting to reject a quarter of South Carolina's $2.8 billion share of the funds unless he could use it to reduce the state's debt.

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