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SC Gov. Sanford Prepares To Exit Politics... Perhaps

The South Carolina State House at sunset.

In a few weeks, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford leaves office, and even among his supporters, the reviews are mixed. Listen to Terry Proveaux (PROVO) and Denise Hill: "I don't like how the end of Sanford's campaign went, but he looked strong for a long time," says SC voter Terry Proveaux. And Denise Hill adds, "I admired what he was trying to accomplish, but the general frustration was his inability to get anything accomplished." Sanford has spent a lot of time the past several weeks trying to remind South Carolina of what he did accomplish, as well as answering yet more questions about his infamous trip to Argentina. WFAE's Julie Rose covered those topics - and more - in a recent interview with the outgoing governor. There are two moments in Governor Mark Sanford's tenure that have taken a place in South Carolina folklore. One is the day he marched into the ornate chambers of the General Assembly with a couple of piglets to protest a budget he said was full of pork. The other moment - and the one that really introduced him to America - happened in the lobby of the Capitol Building. That's where Sanford - just back from Argentina - held a press conference and announced he'd had an affair. "I uh, I've been unfaithful to my wife," Sanford tearily confessed. The moment catapulted him to the center of late-night jokes. "Hiking the Appalachian Trail" would enter the lexicon as a euphemism for sneaking off to see your lover. Sanford's marriage would soon end. And today he's able to admit he was fair game for the late-night circuit. "You know the reality of life is that we all mess up," says Sanford, seated on a couch in the governor's office, wearing shirtsleeves and a tie. "We all make mistakes. And so yeah, I would say I deserved whatever it was I got at the time. It was part of the consequence of, again, a mess up." "You know, you walk out and you see an absolute sea of television cameras and you know this is not gonna be a good day," he adds. . . . or a good six months. But Sanford now believes "that storm" - as he often calls it - had a bit of silver lining because people stopped being so obsessed with whether or not he was running for president. (And he swears he wasn't, by the way.) "We actually got to debate - not the trajectory of Mark's political star - but the issue at hand," says Sanford. "Oddly enough - and I never would have guessed this - it became one of the most productive years we had in, in, you know the eight years here." In their last session, South Carolina lawmakers sustained a record number of Sanford's budget vetoes and passed some reforms he'd long sought. Contrast that with the first seven years of Sanford's service marked by little more than a stand-off with lawmakers. He seemed to enjoy antagonizing the Republican-controlled legislature, a la the "pigs in the capitol" scenario. Many lawmakers and pundits say the main reason for the improved situation this year was a change in Sanford himself. "I think he conducted himself more carefully in this last session," says University of South Carolina political scientist Mark Tompkins. "He probably brought a sense of humility that he may not have brought before. He has always had a reputation for being a little full of himself." He does seem more humble, though Sanford uses words like "broken" and "diminished." But there's still some of the old bravado. Does he think now that maybe a diplomatic approach would have yielded more of the budget and tax cuts he desperately wanted? "No," says Sanford, firmly. "I mean, I could have all the meetings in the world with you, but if at the end of the day you're gonna go a different direction, you're gonna go the different direction." All he could do was warn, he says. Lawmakers let state government grow and took federal stimulus money when he tried to stop them. They overrode mountains of his budget vetoes. And now Sanford - whose political ideology is built on the idea of pinching pennies - leaves the governor's office as South Carolina faces a billion dollar budget gap. It's an irony Sanford sums up in four words: "I told you so." "For eight years we've been saying 'We've got to put money aside because these great times won't last forever,'" says Sanford. "And indeed, they didn't. It wasn't that we were prophetic. It was that we could add." Sanford's years of waging battle with lawmakers may have yielded a short list of accomplishments, but he clings to the incremental victories. Reducing the wait time at the DMV, for example; overhauling the state's unemployment system; boosting land conservation; cutting taxes for some, though not all. His great regrets - that he didn't completely overhaul the state budget or pass full-scale school choice - are also mingled with hope at signs that both could gain more traction under the state's new governor. Perhaps the greatest irony is the timing of his exit from the political stage just as the Tea Party Movement gains steam. Sanford says one friend called it a "Greek tragedy." "This friend came to me - practically in tears - saying 'The very moment when all the things you've been talking about as a voice in the wilderness for 15 years are coming to fruition - you're not there,'" recalls Sanford. "And I said, 'You know, that's life. It has ups and downs. You're not gonna bat a thousand in life.'" Sanford's also not ruling out a future in politics, or punditry. Many a fallen politician has staged a comeback, after all. In the near term, though, he's headed to his farm in the South Carolina low country and probably back to his real-estate developer's roots. And the Argentine woman he called his soul mate? Last May they spent a weekend in Florida and Sanford said at the time they were exploring the possibilities. Will he continue that when he leaves office? "I've said everything I have to say about my personal life, and then some," responds Sanford. The thought of having only a personal life - no more parades and press conferences and nosy press - makes Sanford smile.