The Magazine

Proud to Be Cheap

South Carolina's governor hones his small-government credentials.

Aug 8, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 44 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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Columbia, South Carolina

PERHAPS the most overused political tag these days is "budget hawk." It's embraced by Democrats who want to balance bloated budgets by raising taxes and by Republicans who want to cut taxes but have little appetite for spending cuts. Then there is a budget hawk like Mark Sanford, South Carolina's GOP governor, whose thrifty ways infect his politics as much as they do his personal life. "The governor is as cheap as everyone says he is," says his former press secretary. "It's not part of his image."

The aide describes a recent staff retreat at Sanford's 3,000-acre farm near Beaufort. For fun, the governor used an excavator to dig a hole in the ground, filled it with water, and dared everyone to walk across a 20-foot beam that spanned it. Halfway across the plank, the aide fell into the mud below. He figured his white pants were ruined, so he tossed them in the trash. The next morning at breakfast, Sanford announced that he had found the pants, removed them from the garbage, rinsed them, and hung them up to dry. He couldn't understand why anyone would throw away perfectly good clothing.

There are also stories that endear Sanford to South Carolina taxpayers, such as when mold was discovered in the governor's mansion, which had to be decontaminated. Rather than relocate their family to a publicly funded rental home, Sanford and his wife moved with their four sons (ages 13, 11, 9, and 6) into the mansion's one-room pool house for six weeks. When he first got into office he downsized his security detail and eschewed a black tie inaugural ball for a barbecue open to the public. Meanwhile, his wife cut the staff at the governor's mansion by 40 percent.

Sanford is an aberration among politicians in many ways. A millionaire former businessman, he has never accepted any PAC money. He often delivers stump speeches at places like Wal-Mart. His wife manages his campaigns. He doesn't require an aide to sit in the room when he talks to the press (and he lets aides tell embarrassing stories). And he enjoys meeting with his constituents: Sanford holds monthly "Open Door After Four" sessions when constituents can talk for five minutes each, make suggestions, or complain. One man wanted to have a beer with Sanford and the governor happily obliged. "He loves it," the former aide says.

Sanford's unique style has won over South Carolina voters. In 2002, he beat Democratic incumbent Jim Hodges by six points. Since he entered the statehouse in 2003, Sanford's approval ratings have risen from the mid-50s to 70 percent. Conservative groups love him. The CATO Institute named him one of the top governors in the country and the Club for Growth gave him a spot on their "Four for the Future" list. The American Conservative Union calls him "serious, courageous, and committed."

Some of his biggest critics, surprisingly, are fellow South Carolina Republicans. They control both chambers of the legislature and have joined Democrats in blocking Sanford from moving much of his agenda--mainly spending cuts.

Lee Bandy, a staff writer for South Carolina's State newspaper, says that at least some of the bad feelings are a result of Sanford's making the legislators feel unimportant. He doesn't schmooze them or invite them to the governor's mansion for a drink or take them out to lunch. "The governor does not like to wheel and deal," Bandy says.

Sanford points to another factor: A handful of South Carolina Republicans used to be Democrats. At least six sitting GOP legislators switched parties in the past decade to stay in the good graces of South Carolina's growing conservative electorate. "There are a lot of RINOs [Republicans in name only] here who want to please everybody," Sanford says. "You can't do that."

He campaigned on gradually phasing out the state income tax, but hasn't been able to move that through the legislature. He also tried to reform property taxes, but the legislature passed a bill that wasn't comprehensive enough and would have actually raised taxes on some people. Sanford vetoed it.

The hostility reached a peak last year, when the general assembly wrote money into the budget that was supposed to come from a tougher tax enforcement program. Since the money wasn't certain to materialize, and state trust funds had already been depleted by overspending, Sanford issued 106 line-item vetoes on that budget. The lawmakers overrode 105 of them.

To protest, Sanford showed up to the next session at the statehouse with two piglets--nicknamed Pork and Barrel--under his arms. "I told them to blame it on me," Sanford says. "I'll be the bad guy. I'll live with that. But once they rejected the vetoes I had to find a colorful way of representing what the voters already know--that there's too much pork."