Stateline Story

Frugal Governor Finds State Government A Tough Sell

On a recent trip to West Virginia, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) decided to save his state a few dollars by booking one hotel room for both him and his press secretary.

Problem is, the room had only one bed.

"At least he made-up the couch for me," said press secretary Will Folks.

Sanford's penny-pinching ways are by now the stuff of legend. During his three terms in Congress, he made a name for himself by sleeping on his office couch and returning his housing allowance to the federal treasury. This saved the federal government $3,000 a month. Now, as a first-year governor, Sanford is trying to bring his model of personal efficiency to the structure of state government, which even he admits is a tough sell.

"I think we have a real problem in government in that we generally don't spend money like it's our own. We'll begin next year's budget $350 million in the hole. A hotel room ain't gonna make or break it one way or the other. But this is indicative of the way I want our shop to run," Sanford told Stateline.org.

Sanford assumed the governorship last January after beating incumbent Gov. Jim Hodges (D) in the November election. Sanford ran as an outsider, promising to restructure and streamline state government. His approach has yielded some successes.

"We've cut the size of the commerce department by 26 percent. We've gone from four floors down to two. We've gone from 11 divisions down to four. You want to talk about something that was exempt from state scrutiny, that's commerce. And though it was an entity built around reaching out to the businessperson, it wasn't built on a business-like basis," Sanford said.

But Sanford's first year has had its struggles too. His government restructuring plans, which include making elected statewide positions such as the education superintendent, the treasurer, and the secretary of state positions appointed by the governor, have been coolly received tepidly by the Legislature and the public. And his relations with South Carolina's political establishment have been notably rocky.

"I think it's important to note that Sanford is the first governor in half a century not to be a product of the General Assembly. Once you put that in perspective, you understand that anybody coming into this position, not having served in the General Assembly, not having built relationships, will have to take time to build those relationships," Rep. David H. Wilkins (R), the speaker of the House, told Stateline.org.

But that kind of relationship-building and the wheeling-and-dealing it often entails does not come naturally to the governor, said Brad Warthen, editorial page editor of The State (Columbia).

"He's a real puritan. He cannot stand politics as usual. ...When somebody he has to deal with politically comes to him and says, 'Hey, you've got this appointment to make, could you appoint my brother-in-law?' He is just appalled," Warthen said.

In addition to fiscal conservatism, Sanford is known for his strong views on states' rights. During a recent meeting with Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge, for example, Sanford criticized the extent to which the strings attached to federal security funds are shaping policy decisions at the state level.

"We're wasting a lot of money buying stuff that won't be used," Sanford recounted to Stateline.org. "My point was you [Ridge] have to give us more flexibility."

The issue of homeland security aside, Sanford's focus on states' rights, a focus that cuts across many issues, is unnerving for some people in the South Carolina civil rights community.

"I think when he says it, he says it with pure motives. When other folk say it, I hear a return to the antebellum South. But it's hard to separate that out sometimes," said Joe Darby, pastor of Morris Brown AME Church and an official with the local and state chapters of the NAACP.

Darby nonetheless praised Sanford for trying to be an inclusive governor, even if that hasn't meant shaping public policy in a way that's favorable for African-Americans.

"He really wanted to get some black folk in his administration who shared his concerns and Republican philosophy, but they are as scarce as hen's teeth in South Carolina," Darby said.

For his part, Sanford said he will continue to fight for a strong state role in the federal system, whether the issue in play is homeland security, energy or social services. In the process, he said, perhaps he'll help rehabilitate a loaded phrase.

"States rights have meant bad things in the past. But that can't help it from meaning either good or bad in the future based on what we decide to do with it," he said.