Day 2 Second Chance: The Mark Sanford Story

U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, whom Republican chairman Mark Hartley called “a star in the Republican party,” watches returns after he won his 1998 congressional race.


Mark Sanford's victory in Tuesday's congressional election added yet another chapter in his amazing political journey. Inside today's paper, read the second excerpt from a new Post and Courier e-book, Second Chance: The Mark Sanford Story. The full e-book details how Mark Sanford's roots at his family farm in Beaufort County, Coosaw Plantation, shaped his ideology and quirkiness. It shows how he and his wife, Jenny, fell in love, and how she discovered a restlessness about him she didn't quite understand. This excerpt picks up their story as they make a home in Charleston.

By 1990, Mark and Jenny Sanford had moved from New York to Charleston, largely because of Coosaw's magnetic pull.

Just an hour away from Coosaw, Charleston was an interesting setting for an ambitious young couple to start a life together. For Mark and other budding real estate entrepreneurs, land and buildings here were cheap compared to the Northeast, a place to buy low and surf the country's demographic shift to the South. For Jenny, Charleston was exotic, a place entirely different than the leafy suburbs of Chicago where she grew up.

Charleston's history was like two sides of a page, with a story of wealth on one and poverty on the other. Early on, its merchants and planters made their fortunes from trade in rice, indigo and slaves, and were among the young nation's wealthiest people. When a census was taken in 1790, Charleston was the fourth-largest city in America, a high-living, decadent port whose white residents filled their days with long meals, gambling and drinking. They also were surrounded by slaves, foreign forces, first the British then the North, and periodically decimated by fires and fevers. Thus, Charlestonians lived in constant fear of losing what they had. A fortress mentality was branded into the city's mythology, a sense that the world was headed toward chaos. The Civil War, which left the city in ruins, reinforced this feeling, as did later traumas such as the devastating earthquake of 1886, the march of the boll weevil, and the Great Depression. Charleston's economy sputtered under these assaults, and the result was a city preserved in amber.

As communities across the country demolished and replaced buildings that today would be landmarks, Charlestonians were too poor to hire wrecking balls. The city's fabulous 18th- and 19th-century homes and buildings stayed, silently reminding residents to maintain their slow, Southern rhythms and traditions. For much of the 20th century, the city was, as Charleston artist Elizabeth O'Neill Verner once wrote, “different from any other city in America ... so confined by its rivers and harbor that it has been compressed and become an essence of itself.”

This isolation lasted through the 1960s and 1970s, as white flight to the suburbs continued to keep the city's tepid economy in stasis. The City Market area, once the city's commercial center, remained a collection of tawdry bars and decaying warehouses, a place, according to one common refrain, where ten dollars and ten minutes would get you a steak dinner, a bottle of liquor, a tattoo and a social disease.

But Hurricane Hugo in 1989 marked another cycle in the city's history as billions of dollars in insurance money poured in and allowed homeowners to fix up and sometimes spruce up their properties with new roofs and Jacuzzis. Mark and Jenny found one such house just north of the City Market with roof damage. It was on Wentworth Street on a row of handsome, tightly packed homes. The house had been built in 1839, stood three stories tall and, like Coosaw's main home, was made of brick. They plunked down $350,000 for the house and a vacant lot next door and went to work.

The young couple soon discovered they made a good team. Jenny had the organizational skills; Mark's frugality paid off in good deals with contractors. They built a new four-story house on the vacant lot and sold it for $402,000. They fixed up the old house for themselves. It was a large house for a young couple – nearly 4,000 square feet with three bedrooms and three bathrooms, but they soon would start filling these rooms with the first of four sons, Marshall III.

Mark was a doting dad but, in Jenny's mind, often seemed to have other things in his peripheral vision. Two weeks after Marshall was born, he set off with friends to climb Mount Rainier in Washington state, one of Mark's lifelong goals.

This was exactly the kind of thing Mark wanted to do in life. It was reminiscent of one of his favorite quotes from Teddy Roosevelt: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.” At 14,410 feet, Mount Rainier is the highest and most heavily glaciated peak in the Lower 48 states. Climbers typically take two days to reach the summit and use ice axes and ropes to prevent slips from turning to slides over cliffs or into crevasses. Routes take you by places with names like Disappointment Cleaver, and near the top, because of the quick ascents and the altitude, climbers take four or five breaths per step. Mark made it up to the summit, another life goal checked off. What next?

“Jenny, with the exception of that little man, I'm bored with life,” he told her one evening as baby Marshall slept. “I want to be stretched and pushed to the point of exhaustion. I want to be consumed. I don't want to just exist.” Jenny recalled in her memoir, “Staying True”: “His restlessness was awake again and apparent on his face.”

In 1980, Phil Lader and his wife, Linda, also were restless. Lader was a businessman from Hilton Head and former college president, and he and his wife were concerned that the nation's top idea leaders weren't interacting enough. They decided to throw “an intellectual house party” on New Year's Eve, which launched what would become known as Renaissance Weekend. Over the years, the weekend grew into a dizzying array of seminars and social events. Entry was by invitation only. First names were encouraged. Conversations were off the record.

Sanford had briefly worked for Lader and was invited in 1992. He sat in on one seminar by Jim Davidson, chairman of the National Taxpayer's Union. Davidson gave an apocalyptic speech about the growing deficit and how the national debt threatened the country's future. Sanford left the room a changed man. He pored through Davidson's other writings. His passion spilled out during conversations with Jenny, who was grateful to see him passionate about something, and friends, including Buck Limehouse.

With his thick silver hair, mustache and deep voice, Limehouse carried himself like Bonanza's Ben Cartwright. As a young man, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress but kept his hand in politics, eventually spending two years working for the Republican National Committee in Washington, D.C. Later, he developed hotels in downtown Charleston and had large real estate holdings near Coosaw. Sanford wanted to pick his brain, and one day they met for lunch at a Mexican restaurant around the corner from Limehouse's office on Cumberland Street. Both wore the Charleston uniform of khaki pants, penny loafers, blue jacket. Sanford started sermonizing about the debt, and Limehouse interrupted.

“Quit complaining, and do something about it,” he said.

“Like what,” Mark replied.

The 1st Congressional District seat was up for grabs.

“You could run,” Limehouse said. “Don't spend a lot of money. Just get in a pickup, get some signs, go to every country store you can find, any bridge club and see what happens.” Privately, Limehouse didn't think Sanford had a chance. Sanford had no name recognition, no organization, no political experience at all.

“But,” Limehouse recalled, “I saw how wrapped up he was in the possibilities of it all.”

The 1994 Sanford for Congress campaign began at the Old Exchange Building in downtown Charleston, a grand Palladian building at the end of Broad Street. It had a balcony from which the Declaration of Independence first was read to the city's residents. Below, slaves once had been sold, and even farther below in a dungeon, pirates and prisoners had been kept in shackles. Reporters and television people had been summoned to hear Mark Sanford's announcement. Friends and family gathered around as he made his case.

“I believe that unless we do something about the deficit, it has the capacity to undermine the financial foundation on which all of our businesses, jobs and savings rest,” he said. If elected, he vowed to stay in office three terms — six years — at most. It was his first time under the glare of TV lights, and the whole experience left him soaked in sweat. His brother, Billy, joked that he was glad he didn't have to hand over an air sickness bag.

Sanford took Buck Limehouse's advice. He and Jenny and their two boys went to every festival they could find: the Hell Hole Swamp Festival in the middle of the Francis Marion National Forest; the Flowertown Festival in the Charleston suburb of Summerville. He spoke to Rotary clubs, Exchange clubs and Optimist clubs. His sister, Sarah, was put in charge of signs, and many ended up being made by hand to save money. His mother, brothers and in-laws did other campaign tasks. Running it all was Jenny.

He had broached the idea when she was in the hospital after their second son, Landon, was born, Jenny recalled in her memoir.

“Jenny, you are going to run my campaign,” he said.

“Me? You have got to be kidding! I've never even volunteered on anyone's campaign!”

“But you're free.”

She said she thought her plate was full, but he had meant he wouldn't have to pay her.

“I need someone to keep the trains running on time, and you are great with that kind of stuff.”

She thought about it some and then decided it would be therapeutic.

“I'll run one campaign. Only one.”

That year, she started a scrapbook, beige with a forest green spine. In it went photos of the campaigns: Mark balancing his son on a blue pickup truck; Jenny lugging a son on a backpack; Mark wilting in the heat and pushing a tandem stroller; young Marshall smiling in the stroller and holding out a bumper sticker, and baby Landon taking a nap under a floppy hat. Jenny pasted in newspaper clippings, fundraising invitations, and a fake $1 billion bill.

Mark's smiling face was on the bill, and to the left was a sentence: “This note is funny money for career politicians' debts to special interests.” The campaign printed 5,000 of the bills. Mark told reporters they would hand them all out in a “Five Trillion Dollar Walk” to bring home the size of the national debt. Next to photos of Mark at a festival, Jenny scribbled, “Still Walking …”

Sanford was among eight Republicans vying for the party's nomination that year, and he knew he was a long shot. After one function in Georgetown, a small town next to a steel mill, he said goodbye to Jenny and the boys, who were headed back to Charleston while he headed north to Myrtle Beach and another event. A tear fell as he said, “There's no way we can win this thing.”

A month before the primary, The Post and Courier, Charleston's daily newspaper, did a poll. After all the bumper stickers, stunts, speeches and handshakes, just 2 percent of the voters said Sanford was their pick, far behind the frontrunner, Van Hipp Jr.

Still, the poll had one number that gave the Sanford campaign hope: One quarter of the voters hadn't made up their minds. And because so many people were in the race, it was unlikely that one candidate would get more than 50 percent and win the primary outright. All Sanford needed to do was come in second and hope for a miracle in a runoff election.

By now, Jenny's battle wagon was in full throttle. The campaign took out newspaper ads with the title “A personal message from Mark Sanford.” It flooded the airwaves with television commercials. “The ads really opened my eyes to the power of that medium,” Mark said in his political memoir, “The Trust Committed to Me.” Suddenly, he was being treated like a contender. “Instead of being snubbed by party players, I was being sought out.” Another poll showed him gaining ground. “Try to sleep … just two weeks!” Jenny wrote on one scrapbook page.

On primary day, Van Hipp came in first but didn't reach 50 percent. The biggest shocker, though, was Sanford's total – 19 percent of the vote, second place. It was Hipp versus Sanford and a two-week sprint to the runoff.

Hipp was an heir to Carroll Campbell's increasingly loose hold over the party. Taking pages from strategist Lee Atwater, Hipp unleashed a barrage of negative ads and press releases. His campaign sent mailers saying “Jane Fonda's husband (Ted Turner) gave $500” to Sanford's campaign, and that Sanford was “pro-abortion” and “for universal health care.” Voters received calls from push pollsters that accused Sanford of being a Bill Clinton-friendly liberal. The blows stung, and one night, Sanford decided to do something about it, man to man.

He drove to Hipp's home in Mount Pleasant after midnight and knocked on his front door. Under the glow of a porch light, and holding a running tape recorder in his hand, he saw the door open and Hipp standing there in his boxers with a puzzled face.

“Why do you need this on tape?” Hipp asked.

“So there is no misunderstanding between the two of us,” Sanford answered.

“That's the weirdest thing I've ever seen, man,” Hipp said, asking Sanford to turn off the recorder. Hipp denied he was behind the polls.

On the night of the runoff, the Sanfords gathered at a building around the corner from their house on Wentworth Street and waited for the voters' verdict. Cheers went up when the media called it. Sanford had won, 52 percent to Hipp's 48. The headline in the next morning's paper was, “Last night, David slew Goliath.”

Sanford had won the party's nomination, and since the 1st District was so conservative, he would easily beat his Democratic rival that fall. Jenny pasted more clippings into their scrapbook, including one newspaper headline that said, “Mr. Sanford goes to Washington.”

Schyuler Kropf and Robert Behre contributed to this story.