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."

The pig stunt enraged both parties in the legislature. "The governor needs to take his medication," Jim Harrison, a GOP representative from Columbia, told the Greenville News. "It's going to be very, very hard to work with him after this," another Republican, Bob Leach, added. "I don't know if anything else will be accomplished at all."

This year, after $707 million in new revenue came in, Sanford set his sights on restoring $500 million to those reserve funds. When the budget landed on his desk, the general assembly had allowed only $117 million for the trust funds. So Sanford issued another 163 line-item vetoes, worth $95.9 million.

Republican (and former Democrat) Verne Smith, a 33-year veteran of the state senate, told the News that Sanford's vetoes were "mean-spirited." "He's just in that mindset, kind of a libertarian mindset," he continued. "I know I'm going to try and override every dad-jim one of [his vetoes] because I don't have any spirit for him."

Sanford brushes such criticism aside. "I'm acting in a way that's consistent with the promises I made voters," he says. "Ideology has nothing to do with it. It's the ultimate mean-spiritedness to allow government to grow faster than peoples' paychecks. . . . Rank and file folks I talk to don't want the government to grow faster than they can pay for it." As his wife Jenny Sanford puts it, "Mark and I would rather lose an election than do something that compromised our principles."

Sanford still has big plans for reform. He recently introduced the Taxpayer Empowerment Amendment, which would make it illegal for the government to spend more than yearly population growth plus inflation. Last year in South Carolina, the combined increase in population growth and inflation was only around 4 percent. Yet the budget grew by 9.1 percent. If Sanford can convince two-thirds of the legislature to vote for the amendment, it will show up on the ballot next November. Despite the past overrides, Sanford says he has talked to members in both houses and thinks it has a good chance of passing.

He makes it clear which legislators are on his side by posting a list of "Taxpayer Heroes" outside his office in the statehouse. He has also launched "Waste Watch," an email newsletter that urges supporters to vote for the amendment and asks for their suggestions on how to eliminate waste and inefficiency. Sanford says he'll publicly recognize the best idea at the end of the year.

In the meantime, he must also prep for his reelection bid in 2006. Sanford may face a primary challenge from Republican Oscar Lovelace, a doctor who has never held public office. Lovelace complains that Sanford hasn't provided leadership on education and health care issues. The doctor faces an uphill battle. Sanford already has over $3 million in the bank. "He can raise money like you wouldn't believe," Bandy says. "He'll have no trouble getting reelected."

Then what? As might be expected, Sanford's small-government conservatism has sparked presidential-race buzz. (There's already a "Draft Mark Sanford for President in 2008" petition pinging around the Internet.) Sanford has been to Washington before. He won a House seat in 1994, representing South Carolina's first district. In Congress, Sanford (surprise, surprise) voted against nearly every spending bill. He often bucked the GOP leadership with his friend Tom Coburn, the former Oklahoma congressman-turned-senator. "When our party didn't stand with us, we didn't stand with them," Coburn says. True to form, the frugal Sanford slept on a futon in his office and traveled back to his district as often as possible.

A true believer in "citizen-legislators," Sanford went home for good in 2000, when his self-imposed three-term limit was up. Asked why other politicians have such a hard time leaving Washington, he explains: "Everybody needs to be needed. They see their names in the paper and begin to think of themselves as irreplaceable. Politics should be more like musical chairs--as many people as possible should have a turn." As for a potential White House bid in the future? Sanford says he's "flattered," but "just trying to survive this week."

Rachel DiCarlo is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.