South Carolina embarrassed by politicians behaving badly

It’s tough these days being from South Carolina. Ask Dick Harpootlian.

He was in Peru, on a train from Cusco to Machu Picchu, when he and his wife began chatting with another couple. Where, Harpootlian asked, are you from? Rio, came the response, and you? South Carolina, Harpootlian replied. Mark Sanford! the couple exclaimed. Argentina!

Later that night Harpootlian returned to his hotel room, flipped on the TV and picked out two words in a stream of Spanish: Joe Wilson. (As in, “You lie!”)

“Thousands of miles from home,” Harpootlian said with a sigh. “In the middle of nowhere.”


Harpootlian is a prominent lawyer, former head of the state Democratic Party and a fierce partisan. Sanford and Wilson are Republicans.

But Harpootlian is hardly alone in his civic embarrassment.

“This is a small state that doesn’t get on the national stage very often,” said David Woodard, a GOP consultant who teaches political science at South Carolina’s Clemson University. “To get on the stage because your congressman shouted at the president, or your governor is running around with an Argentine mistress, isn’t what you want your state to be about.”

It doesn’t help that the state treasurer was sentenced to prison last year for cocaine possession.

Or that the state agriculture commissioner went to jail for ties to a cockfighting ring.

Or that the head of the state board of education resigned amid allegations she used a pseudonym to post erotic fiction on the Internet.

Quite a lively few years in South Carolina, mused Jack Bass, a historian at the Citadel in Charleston. “If you’re thinking of retirement and you tend to get bored easily, come on down,” Bass said. “You’ll enjoy the place very much.”


“Gov. Mark Sanford said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. . . . He was really climbing Mt. Mistress.” -- Craig Ferguson, “The Late Late Show”

So what is it about the place?

South Carolina has a long history of hotheadedness -- it was, after all, where the Civil War started. (In 1860, James L. Petigru, an attorney and Union loyalist, described South Carolina as “too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum,” a line dredged up countless times since.)

The state also has a reputation for some of the nastiest campaigns in the country. Lee Atwater, who grew up in South Carolina, transferred its scorched-earth tactics to the 1988 presidential race as manager of George H.W. Bush’s campaign. Twelve years later, George W. Bush clinched the Republican nomination after operatives here smeared John McCain with claims that his adopted Bangladeshi daughter was his illegitimate black child.

On Sunday, two GOP officials thought they were being helpful when they lauded Sen. Jim DeMint’s thriftiness in an opinion piece invoking a Jewish stereotype. DeMint condemned the comment, and the party chairmen apologized.

South Carolina was once among the richest places in America, thanks to its lucrative plantation economy. Some say arrogance and an obstreperous attitude have been bred into people ever since -- which might account for Wilson’s outburst.

But ask about, say, Charles Sharpe, the former agriculture commissioner convicted in 2005 of taking money to protect an illegal cockfighting ring, and you’re likely to hear about other scandal-stained figures: New York’s Eliot Spitzer, New Jersey’s Jim McGreevey, Louisiana’s Edwin Edwards.

“Some of it is the natural hubris of politicians who believe the rules don’t apply to them,” said Phil Noble, a Democratic strategist in Charleston. “That’s not new to America or unique to the South.”

Matters of the heart are, of course, a mystery, and few profess to understand Sanford’s reckless behavior.

“This is a small enough state where people feel they know their politicians personally, or they know their family or where they go to church,” Woodard said. “His case is pretty astonishing. There’s a real sense of betrayal.”


“Sanford admitted to having an affair in Argentina. . . . Great, now we’re outsourcing mistresses.” -- Craig Ferguson

There is a lot of smiling through gritted teeth these days in South Carolina. It seems outsiders had pretty much forgotten the fight over the Confederate flag, the last big story to gain national attention. (Under a compromise, the banner was removed from the Capitol dome in 2000 and now flaps, somewhat faded, over a Confederate memorial on the Statehouse grounds.)

Now this.

Lee Bussell, who runs a public relations and ad agency in Columbia, was recently at a conference in Little Rock, Ark., where he endured a weekend of ribbing -- “How’s Mark doing?” -- over the state’s Lothario governor.

“You have to be able to laugh at it to keep from being defensive,” said Bussell, who wouldn’t be worth the ink on a news release if he didn’t at least try to make a positive pitch for his home state: “All those incidents don’t represent the mainstream of the people in South Carolina. It certainly doesn’t make me any less proud of where I live.”

So how is Mark doing?

Nearly four months after disappearing, then tearfully confessing he was with his Argentine lover -- not hiking the Appalachian Trail, as he told staffers -- Sanford continues a statewide contrition tour. (He says his speeches to Rotary Clubs and the like are really about promoting economic development.)

The father of four is separated from his wife, who is writing a book, and is fighting the State Ethics Commission in court.

It turns out Sanford’s extramarital excursion was just the start of his woes.

The commission is investigating various accusations, including that Sanford improperly used state aircraft for personal and political trips, failed to disclose flights on private aircraft owned by family and friends, and improperly traveled in business class instead of coach. (The latter might be the equivalent of jaywalking if the pinch-penny governor hadn’t insisted underlings follow state law and buy the cheapest seats.)

One legislator vows to introduce an impeachment resolution next week, when lawmakers meet in a special session to clean up technical language in a jobless benefits bill. But most legislators are awaiting results of the ethics probe to decide whether to oust Sanford, who has about 15 months left in office. The governor has asked the state Supreme Court to block release of the report to anyone other than law enforcement officials.

“If I thought it was best for the state to have moved on, I would have left a long time ago,” Sanford told the Greenville News in late September. Sanford suggested he could be more effective, because “nobody works harder for redemption than someone who fails.”

That, however, seems to be a minority view.


“Mark Sanford . . . held a press conference to reveal he had an affair with a woman from Argentina. People were shocked because Republicans traditionally don’t do well with Hispanic women.” -- Conan O’Brien, “The Tonight Show”

Polls have shown most South Carolina voters want Sanford to go. “He’s not getting the respect he needs to do a good job,” said Alvin Rhodes, 50, sweat pouring off his face as he unloaded cases of wine outside a bistro in Columbia’s trendy Five Points neighborhood. “I don’t think people take him seriously.”

Lawmakers of both parties have called on Sanford to resign, as has the state GOP. The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce recently urged legislators to get on with impeaching Sanford, if that’s their intent. “We don’t want it running into the next [legislative] session, particularly in light of the way our economy is,” said Otis Rawl, head of the chamber.

Like most states, South Carolina has serious budget problems. The unemployment rate is the highest in the region, topping 20% in places. Still, Sanford refused $700 million in federal stimulus funds, prompting a battle with lawmakers of both parties and a lawsuit that consumed most of the legislative term. Sanford lost the fight in a unanimous state Supreme Court ruling and had to accept the money.

A few weeks later he traveled to Argentina; the state capital has been paralyzed ever since, attention riveted on a three-story, stucco-and-mirrored-glass office complex that houses doctors, lawyers, lobbyists and the state Ethics Commission.

“It’s almost like the backwater of a swamp,” said Carey Crantford, a Democratic pollster. “Everything’s sitting there, nothing’s circulating, and the only thing moving is the mosquitoes.”


“During President Obama’s speech . . . this guy from South Carolina begins to heckle the guy, and I thought, ‘OK, so now Mark Sanford is the second-most embarrassing politician from South Carolina.’ ” -- David Letterman, “Late Show”

The jokes are bad enough. Even more worrisome is the possible damage to South Carolina’s national reputation.

Surveys taken during the Confederate flag fight showed that corporate executives around the country were put off by the controversy, which still simmers. An NAACP boycott remains in effect and the state continues to lose business. In July, the Atlantic Coast Conference pulled three championship baseball tournaments from Myrtle Beach when it failed to resolve concerns over the flag.

Some fear this fresh batch of humiliating headlines will only make things worse, scaring off retirees, turning away prospective college students and, most critically, discouraging businesses from expanding or moving to South Carolina.

“If you’re in competition and they say they’re not coming because of Sanford or the flag, that gets told,” said Rawl, who is angling for a Boeing plant that could bring about 3,000 jobs to Charleston. “What concerns the business community more than anything else is the looks we don’t get and never find out about.”

Walter Edgar, head of the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Southern Studies, doesn’t minimize the Sanford affair, calling it “a weeping sore on the body politic.” But he wants people to know “there’s a lot more to South Carolina” than politicians behaving badly; he’ll match the state’s beaches against California’s any day.

“The water’s certainly more comfortable,” Edgar said, “and we don’t have McMansions spilling into the sea.”