by Sam Spence
At about 6:15 a.m. five years ago today on June 24, 2009, reporter Gina Smith, then with The State newspaper, stood at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport as the lone reporter sent on a hunch to look out for Gov. Mark Sanford, who was suspected to be returning from an international trip that morning. At the time, Sanford was considered an emerging conservative superstar, fresh off a contentious legislative session in which he battled with lawmakers against accepting $700 million in federal stimulus money, a rebuke of the federal government that Sanford was early among his Republican colleagues to take on.
Sanford spoke briefly with Smith in the airport before being whisked away by a staffer, presumably longtime Sanford aide Chris Allen, to drive the governor back to Columbia. Allen would tell CNN a year later that the experience was, "awkward, emotional, almost fictitious, and at this point a blur," referring to Sanford's pained conversations with his wife, Jenny. The two are now divorced, with their continued family struggles an object of ongoing scrutiny with both Mark and Jenny maintaining prominent public lives—the former first lady was recently elected to the Charleston County Aviation Authority and earlier this year openly expressed interest in becoming president of the College of Charleston.
The week that followed Sanford's return saw the governor's infamous ad hoc teary press conference in the basement of the state Capitol, the birth of the awkward 'Tom Davises of the World' phraseology, the elevation of Washington enclave of politicians on C Street SE into national parlance, and triggered The State's release of emails it had received anonymously six months earlier. The messages were over-the-moon sappy personal dispatches that the New York Times reported had been "hacked" from the email account of Sanford flame Maria Belen Chapur, to whom he is now engaged.
A half-decade later, now-Congressman Mark Sanford, who has gone from the Palmetto pariah who retreated to his family farm in the years following his "hike" to taking up the same fiscal conservative causes he did in his first stint in D.C., where he was known as a notorious penny-pincher. Only now, with the ascendance of the conservative populism of the tea party, Sanford's issues are more en vogue than when he labored to explain his principled stands against the young Obama administration on cable news in early 2009. That's not saying that Sanford's return to the halls of Congress has been an easy one, last summer the Washington Examiner described the former governor "like a transfer student in the middle-school lunch line ... scoping out opportunities for camaraderie." Sanford tells the Post and Courier today, "I've been blessed to experience human forgiveness and human grace and kindness."