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County Republicans split with state party on censure

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Georgetown County Republicans were in the minority this week as the state party voted to censure Gov. Mark Sanford for leaving the state on a secret trip to see his lover in Argentina.

Local GOP activists supported a call for Sanford’s resignation.

“The reaction has been outrage,” said Tom Swatzel, the county party chairman. “I’ve seen very few things that have caused the outpouring that this one has.”

Georgetown County was one of 10 local parties that want Sanford to resign. There were 22 votes for censure and nine votes of support. It took four ballots and about four hours on a conference call Monday night for the state GOP executive committee to reach a decision.

The censure resolution said Sanford’s “public and private conduct” failed to live up to the “core principles” contained in the GOP platform.

“Gov. Sanford’s conduct, in addition to falling below the standards expected of Republican elected officials, has breached the public’s trust and confidence in his ability to effectively perform the duties of his office,” the resolution states.

In addition to revealing his affair with Maria Belen Chapur, Sanford admitted that he misled his staff about his whereabouts when he was gone from the state for five days in June. He also said he planned to spend the remainder of his term “building back the trust of the people of this state.”

In a follow-up interview with the Associated Press, the governor provided further details of his relationship, calling Chapur his “soulmate.”

Swatzel said that further inflamed local party members. “He seemed ready to bolt for Argentina at any time,” he said.

He said he was surprised to learn during the conference call that some county parties are split between members who think Sanford should go and those who support him.

“One of the more compelling arguments I have heard is that if it had been one of Sanford’s staff or appointees, he would have lasted about an hour,” Swatzel said.

Sanford carried Georgetown County as congressman for the 1st District, and in two campaigns for governor. The state Constitution limits him to two terms.

“He had tremendous support,” Swatzel said. “He’s somebody who let us down big time.”

Jill Kelso, who represents Georgetown County on the state party’s executive committee, said her vote for resignation reflected the wishes of the local party, but she isn’t sure how she would have voted if it had been a personal decision.

“It’s a very emotional thing,” she said. “I have to look at this logically. I can’t look at this emotionally.”

She ran for state House District 108 last year as a supporter of Sanford’s efforts to reform state government, losing in a close race with incumbent Democrat Vida Miller. Those reforms are still important, she said.

“Do I regret running as a Sanford Republican? Absolutely not,” Kelso said. “Any movement that’s dependent on one human being is not a valid movement.”

However, “I still feel very profoundly disappointed,” she said.

County Council Member Glen O’Connell is the interim treasurer of the state GOP. He listened to the debate, but didn’t have a vote.

“The thing that is overwhelming is just the level of disappointment,” O’Connell said.

Sanford had support within the party, but had almost no connection with the party organization, he said.

“It’s common for the governor to use the party as a vehicle,” O’Connell said. “Sanford has always kept it at arm’s length.”

O’Connell said the party can’t afford to let Sanford stay in office to repair his standing. “He shouldn’t be doing that on my dime as a party member. Do that on your own time,” he said.

If Sanford doesn’t resign, it will make the 2010 elections more difficult for Republicans at all levels, he said. That will be particularly true in District 108.

“Vida is in a district that is not demographically a safe Republican seat. A point or two could be significant,” O’Connell said. “This does not help Jill.”

Kelso announced on Election Night that she would run again in 2010. Miller last week called on Sanford to resign. “The actions of our governor have left us effectively leaderless, and with no way to tackle the mounting problems we were already facing,” she said.

Swatzel said he believes there is still public support for Sanford’s reform agenda, which Sanford says will cut waste and increase accountability.

“As long as he’s there, reform is going nowhere,” Swatzel said.

Swatzel also leads a group that has pushed for school choice legislation, something Sanford supports. “That legislation is still alive in the state Senate,” Swatzel said. “With the governor in place, it’s very doubtful legislation like that is going to go anyplace.”

Sanford has battled with leaders of the GOP-controlled legislature. “He’s going to be a lame duck at best,” O’Connell said. “They’re going to eat him up.”

Kelso isn’t convinced Sanford’s affair will further harm his relationship with the legislature. “How easy was it going to be if nothing had happened? That contentious relationship had been there since Day One,” she said.

But she also believes Republicans are ready to move on.

“The sense that I’m getting from everyone is that there’s anger, there’s hurt, but we’ve got business to do,” Kelso said.

The state executive committee’s resolution states that “barring further revelations, [the reprimand] will be the party’s last word on the matter.”

“The state party’s mistaken if it thinks this is the last word,” Swatzel said.

Susan Smith, president of the Waccamaw Neck Democrats, understands how the Republicans feel. She was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention last year for John Edwards.

Edwards delegates were courted by the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton camps, until Edwards revealed his extramarital affair.

“We thought we were so special,” Smith said.

And it’s a story that won’t go away, even after Edwards left the public arena.

“I’m just a little bit sick of all this stuff,” Smith said.

Alan Houghton, a retired Episcopal priest, knew Mark and Jenny Sanford when they were members of his church in Charleston. He wrote them both after the scandal broke to express his concern for their well-being.

“He needs to get out and get on with it,” Houghton said. “It’s destructive on him, on her and on their children.”

Kelso said she spoke with Sanford. “I have spoken my piece to the governor. That’s between me and the governor,” she said.

Although there are many sides to the debate over Sanford’s future, Kelso said, ultimately, “this is a moral argument. There really is no black and white in this.” Swatzel agreed that the moral issue is getting more focus than the leadership issue.

“Hypocrite is going to be a word that’s going to have to be in any story about this,” O’Connell said. “The moral aspect of it; the Republicans make it a big part of the platform.”

He called it “the politics of self-destruction” that began when Republicans went after former President Bill Clinton for extramarital affairs.

“You could argue that we Republicans brought this on ourselves,” O’Connell said. “Now the Democrats are as guilty as we are. You miss the days when people could have disagreements and carry them on in a civil fashion.”

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