MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. — It was 20 years ago that Mark Sanford made his first run for political office, the political newcomer an unlikely winner of a hotly contested race for a South Carolina U.S. House seat.
Now, after serving three terms in Congress and two as governor and weathering a widely publicized fall from political grace, he is once again back in the House.
And while the bottom-line issues Sanford has always discussed – reining in the budget and deficit and assuring the nation’s fiscal future – haven’t changed, the congressman says he has.
“I try to go the extra mile in listening to someone else’s story maybe in a way I probably didn’t do before,” he told The Associated Press during a recent interview in his district office, reflecting on his first months back in the House. “You can’t possibly be as strident at 53 as you were at 33 if you have dealt with some of the hiccups and the downturns of life.”
Sanford surprised political pundits by winning the state’s 1st District seat back in 1994. He limited himself to three terms, honoring a campaign promise, and in 2002, he won the first of two terms as governor.
Sometimes mentioned as a potential presidential GOP candidate at the time, Sanford’s political career seemingly imploded in 2009 when he told his staff he was out walking the Appalachian Trail but was really in Argentina seeing the woman to whom he is now engaged. Sanford and then-wife Jenny, the mother of their four sons, later divorced.
Then last year, Sanford, who has never lost a political race, made a comeback defeating Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of political satirist Stephen Colbert, to win his old House seat. Sanford was sworn in last May and since then has been concentrating on getting his congressional office up and running. In some ways, he says, little has changed in Washington.
“It is fairly remarkable that you go back after a 13-year absence and indeed see many of the issues no further along than when you left and in some cases worse,” he said. “I would say that tragically, there is less focus on the debt and the deficit and government spending than there was in the early ‘90s.”
That’s true, he says, even in light of the recent government shut-down.
“It’s episodically dealt with,” he said. “Washington seems to surge these days from one crisis to the next, which is what I think a lot of people are frustrated about.”
During last year’s campaign, Sanford said his personal troubles have left him more willing to listen to other points of view.
“It’s been more true than I would have thought,” he told the AP. “Now I have the most amazing conversations, at times with Democrats, that I would never have had before – not about philosophic issues but just about life.”
Last month, Sanford met with about 200 people on Hilton Head Island to talk about immigration reform at a session organized by the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition, a group supporting comprehensive immigration reform.
Sanford opposes an immigration bill – passed by the Senate last June – that would increase border security and create a 13-year wait for citizenship for those living in the country illegally. He says he has questions about the cost of the bill and how it could be enforced.
He said he probably would have attended such a meeting if it had been held 20 years ago “but it may not have affected me the way it does now.”
He added that “the fire still burns and I believe very strongly on the debt and deficit but I try to go the extra mile, whether on that issue or others, like to say to people help me understand your perspective.”