In January of 2012 I had the opportunity to have dinner with Mark Sanford, the former Governor of South Carolina.
Besides our love for politics and more than a decade of success in the arena, Mark and I shared another common experience. In the summer of 2009 we were both embroiled in controversy and scandal when our extramarital affairs were exposed and made national headlines – his more so than mine.
I knew all-to-well what it was like to endure the public scrutiny and pressure that came with this exposure. While Mark stayed in office after his affair was exposed, I resigned my Senate seat, hoping to salvage a marriage that was already on life-support. His marriage had also hit a barrier when his wife took their four boys and moved out of the Governor’s residence shortly before she filed for divorce.
The commonalities we shared allowed us to develop a quick bond. We talked about our children, the challenges of parenting post divorce and our changing relationship with our former spouses. I felt some relief because outside of the occasional financial issues I still had to address with my ex-wife, our relationship is quite good compared to other divorced couples.
Over dinner I commented how some of his former constituents seemed friendly toward him along our walk to dinner. But what both of us had grown sensitive to was the occasional cold stare we got from people. It was hard to tell if we were catching the eyes of someone who was just having a bad day or if we were being tried, convicted, and executed behind some of those icy stares.
My intention was not to do most of the talking, but I ended up sharing about my journey and encouraging him to come out of his shell and get back into the public eye. Mark was curious about how I handled everything and I shared how my faith and a few friends had been the saving grace for me. I knew he felt secure in some of the valuable friends that were helping him in his journey.
We discussed how our mistakes had hurt our former spouses, our children and some of our colleagues and supporters. For that we were genuinely sorry.
We briefly talked about what future, if any, we had in politics. What we both knew was that we were good legislators and in his case, a good executive, and our affairs aside, worked hard for our constituents.
On our way back to the hotel, a young lady stopped us and asked to have her picture taken with Mark, to which he graciously agreed. After I snapped the photo and we walked away, Mark expressed concern that the young woman might post it on Facebook or other social media accounts.
“What if they do?” I asked. “You’re the former governor and you should comply with people’s request to pose with them. You can’t help it if anyone puts anything online but hold your head up and be proud of who your are.” It was advice I needed to hear myself too.
We chatted a handful of times after our dinner but it was nearly a year later that I learned that Mark was considering running for elected office again.
I sent him a message with three items I thought he needed to consider prior to making a final decision to run.
First, he needed to sit down with his ex-wife, Jenny, and make sure she wasn’t going to torpedo his race. This was not only critical for his chances of winning but for the welfare of their four boys.
Second, he needed to poll his sons on their thoughts on running and only run if all four boys said it was okay.
Finally, even though he was engaged to be married, I strongly recommended that Maria, the woman with whom he had the affair with and now his fiancée, not make an appearance at a campaign event, or for that matter, even set foot inside the state. If and when he won, that could change, but not now; it was too much of a risk and would draw unnecessary negative attention.
Mark indicated that the first two recommendations were successfully checked off his list and that he agreed with the third.
I also advised him that even though his opponents would continue to bring up his past mistakes, he needed to publicly apologize one time and one time only and then let the issue go. I think his first television ad did a good job in conveying that message.
As expected, he claimed the top spot in a crowded primary field with over a dozen candidates but had to face off against Curtis Bostic, a conservative evangelical who secured the endorsements of Dr. James Dobson and former Sen. Rick Santorum in a run-off.
Running a strong and disciplined campaign, Mark had little problem fending off Bostic. I understand Bostic is a good man and would have represented the district well if elected, but when Mark’s detractors say that the GOP needs to recruit a social conservative to run against in 2014, they must remember that is a hurdle Mark has already overcome and the voters were quite clear on Election Day.
However, it was on run-off election night that I feared the Sanford campaign took a dangerous turn.
His fiancée Maria showed up and appeared on stage during Mark’s victory speech. This should have never happened and had I been on his staff, I would have escorted her out of the building before anyone knew she was there.
The fact that she was first introduced to Mark’s son on stage was not only awkward, but also inappropriate.
Making matters worse, when news of the complaint his ex-wife, Jenny, filed against him surfaced, I was deeply concerned that a large segment of the district’s female voters would turn against him. This also demonstrated that the former first lady was not one of his supporters.
Mark Sanford won the general election because voters knew of his fiscal conservative roots and because his opponent, Democratic nominee, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, was a weak candidate. Voters forgave Mark for his marital indiscretions and I found that to be encouraging.
Mark and I learned some valuable lessons from our mistakes. We learned that serious mistakes often come with severe consequences. We learned to ask for and receive forgiveness, how to respond when forgiveness was not granted and how to get up and move on in life. It’s a lesson we all could learn.
Today we are both in great places.
I am a journalist and the political opinion editor for The Christian Post and my friend Mark Sanford is the new Congressman of South Carolina’s first congressional district. I am proud of him for picking himself up and getting back in the game. Now it’s up to him to conduct himself as a public servant should.
You may not agree with his past indiscretions and neither should you have agreed with mine. However, Mark genuinely asked for and received God forgiveness as did I, which changed us both for the better.
I’m sure Mark will focus on being the best Congressman he can possibly be – I know he is up for the challenges that being in Washington D.C. presents.
And I look forward to our next dinner together.