S.C. governor's hike causes a ruckus

THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVERJune 24, 2009 

  • South Carolina's chief executive isn't the first to earn headlines for acting odd. A look at other governors' unusual behavior:

    Earl Long, Louisiana governor, 1939-1940, 1948-1952 and 1956-1960: Long had an affair with a stripper, Blaze Starr. In 1959, Long got into arguments with legislators at the State House and his wife at the mansion. He was committed to the State Hospital for the Insane but released after using his authority as governor. He removed the hospital director and replaced him with a doctor who was his ally.

    Jimmie Davis, Louisiana governor, 1944-1948 and 1960-1964: Well known as the "Singing Governor", Davis gained international fame with his version of the song "You Are My Sunshine." Even while serving as governor, he kept his hand in show business and set a record for absenteeism during his first term with trips to Hollywood to make Western "horse operas."

    Lester Maddox, Georgia governor, 1967-1971: Maddox was known for quaint sayings, such as calling constituents "little people," and outrageous gestures such as riding a bicycle backward.

    Jesse Ventura, Minnesota governor, 1999-2003: Ventura traded his pinstriped suits for referee stripes when he took part in a WWE "SummerSlam" event in Minneapolis. Later in his term, he moonlighted as a football commentator for the failed XFL. He also tried to make Capitol reporters wear press credentials dubbing them "Jackals."

    Eliot Spitzer, New York governor, 2007-2008: Elected on an anti-corruption platform, Spitzer resigned after becoming embroiled in an investigation into a high-end prostitution ring. Referred to in court papers as "Client-9," Spitzer spent tens of thousands of dollars to arrange visits with prostitutes, law enforcement officials said. Prosecutors ultimately declined to file criminal charges.

    The Associated Press

He has slept on the floor of his office, taken pigs to the legislature and once, during a tough fight over his budget proposal, flew to Bermuda for a yacht race.

But rarely has South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford generated as much attention as he has by his mysterious six-day disappearance that left state officials scratching their heads and the media buzzing from coast to coast.

Not even his wife knew where he was.

Aides said Monday he was on the Appalachian Trail. A Greenville, S.C., TV station was reporting Tuesday night that Sanford was seen boarding a plane in Atlanta.

The 49-year-old Republican, often mentioned as a 2012 presidential candidate, is expected to arrive back in Columbia today. To some, however, the damage is done.

"This shows a guy and a team that's just not ready for prime time," said Charlie Cook of the Washington-based Cook Political Report. "He's going to be remembered as the guy who turned up missing."

Sanford left town Thursday in a black Chevy Suburban assigned to his security detail.

A cell phone tower near Atlanta reportedly picked up a signal late last week from his phone, before it was apparently turned off.

Didn't phone home

Not until late Monday did aides say he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Tuesday, they said he called his office to check in and was "somewhat taken aback by all of the interest this trip has gotten." He had yet to check in at home.

"I am being a mom today," Jenny Sanford told a reporter Tuesday. "I have not heard from my husband. I am taking care of my children." Earlier the mother of four boys had told reporters the governor missed Father's Day because he "wanted some space to get away from the kids."

Even in a state used to its governor's eccentricities, the mystery absence sounded alarms.

"The voters have appreciated that he marches to his own drummer, nothing wrong with that," said Bob McAlister, former chief of staff for the late GOP Gov. Carroll Campbell. "It raises the stakes, however, when nobody can find him."

Republican state Sen. Jake Knotts, a former police officer and frequent Sanford critic, called the disappearance strange.

"When you go out and pull this type of bizarre behavior," he said, "you leave South Carolina with no power at the helm."

Another GOP senator Tuesday announced plans to introduce legislation that would mandate security coverage for the governor and put the lieutenant governor in charge during the governor's "temporary absence."

"While we can all sympathize with Mark Sanford's need for rest and relaxation," the senator, Glenn McConnell said in a statement, "these are issues that are bigger than a single person and fundamentally affect how we operate as a state government."

Republican Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, interviewed by at least three TV networks and newspapers across the country, said "Clearly the media has blown this out of proportion."

"The real story," he said, "is people in South Carolina are concerned for the governor's well-being."

On a losing streak

Sanford made news this spring when he fought taking federal stimulus money for his state, a fight he lost in the S.C. Supreme Court. And two days before he left town, the Republican-controlled legislature overrode 10 of his vetoes.

"I guess last week when the legislature came back and essentially told him to take a hike, he took it literally," said Carol Fowler, the state Democratic chair.

As a member of Congress, Sanford slept in his office to save taxpayer money. As governor, he took pigs named "Pork" and "Barrel" to the General Assembly to protest spending. His stimulus fight earned more kudos from conservatives and encouraged talk of a White House run.

A lasting stain?

Whether this latest episode has a lasting effect is unclear.

"I suspect he'll come back ... and be able to explain himself," Bauer said. "And this will be a one- or two-day story and we'll move on to something else."

But Charles Bierbauer, a former CNN correspondent now the dean of the University of South Carolina's school of communications, said it depends.

"If he were to become a candidate," he said, "it would become part of the lore -- 'The guy who goes wandering down the trail.' It becomes another piece of the idiosyncrasies of Mark Sanford."

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