Mark Sanford Is No Marion Barry. He's Worse!

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In the televised debate Monday night for South Carolina’s US House seat in District 1, Mark Sanford compared himself to Bill Clinton. Huh? Yep. The House’s most conservative Republican former member found common ground with the former Democratic president. You already know it was not an act of statesmanship. Clinton and Sanford were fallen, pushed by demons and desires into sin. Clinton looked to God for redemption. Mark Sanford turned to Bill Clinton.

Since Sanford brought it up, their sins and failings warrant a comparison, especially when a Republican in a Republican district evokes Bill Clinton as his politician savior. Is this a new thesis of mercy or an invitation to temptation? Their crimes do share elements both wide and narrow.

Narrow, as both had hot scandals. Both lied and were caught, both were in the public eye. Both had affairs. After that, the connection breaks down.

Clinton remains married. His wife is our former Secretary of State. Sanford chose divorce. He is engaged (but not yet married!) to the Argentinian woman with whom he had the affair. Clinton never ran again for public office. Sanford, who fervently supported and then broke self-imposed term limits, wants another chance. Clinton was not fined for the private use of government property. He avoided successful impeachment as the first President for whom the bill of high crime (and misdemeanors!) involved oral sex (it really is sex!). His high crime was lying about his risk-taking; his DNA was saved on a dress!

Sanford instead poetically proclaimed his love at a press conference when he returned from a week’s absence on Father’s Day weekend and asked his wife for an open marriage. He repeatedly confuses and commingles his private and public selves. Voting no on every spending bill and twice on the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), he slickly slashed through his own fiscal barriers to fund his impulses and lasciviousness. He flew on his public credit card, in state planes.

His hand in the public till, he jetted off on taxpayers’ money. Eventually, he paid it back. But strange behavior for a man who spent his time in Congress sleeping on a couch and once gave his wife a $25 used bicycle as a combined Christmas and birthday gift! The man who slept on an office cot and voted against every budget took a state plane to get a haircut!

A wide comparison creates more stark differences between Clinton and Sanford. Clinton created 21 million jobs in eight years in office; in four years, South Carolina, with Sanford as its executive, lost 98,000 jobs, with a Republican in the White House. His current priority? In a state in the bottom five of employment, cutting the federal budget.

His claim of attracting Boeing is debunked by a well verified story that state leaders convinced Boeing that legislative support was more important than the governor’s endorsement when they were spooked and on the verge of pulling out because of Sanford’s weird behavior.

Since Sanford initiated a comparison with a Democrat in order to claim the privilege of forgiveness and equal treatment, principles he voted against and failed to fund, another comparison might be effective with a scandal-driven Democratic politician, one who sought and successfully achieved a return to public office—Washington, DC’s former mayor, Marion Barry.

First, I have met Marion Barry and Mark Sanford, and lived in cities and districts where they were elected to govern and procure progress. I have looked closely at the policies of both men and seen them on the campaign stump. Through their period of travails, I have witnessed their efforts at political comebacks. I have seen them put themselves before voters to judge not only policies and promises, but their penalties and crimes.

Marion went to jail. Mark paid $74,000 in fines. Both lost wives. But both are confident, handsome and resilient. Both are polarizing figures, with detractors and supporters. But Mark Sanford is no Marion Barry. He’s worse!

Here’s why: Politics comes down to service, money, and rights.

Mark Sanford, in his service as governor, once walked into the South Carolina State House, carrying a pig under each arm; he named them Pork and Barrel. Termed “an ill thought-out display,” deemed by the Republican Speaker “beneath the dignity of the Governor’s office,” the legislature, controlled by his own party, then promptly overturned, with bipartisan support, 100 of the 106 items he vetoed in the budget. He got his way with six.

This describes Sanford’s duty of service: sleep in his office, sleep with his fiance, proudly turn down stimulus money. And he also touts charter school reforms, including a statewide district, a reorganization of the Department of Motor Vehicles, cutting wait times, restructuring the state’s Department of Transportation, and tort reform. Jobs, wages and health, environmental protection, higher education don’t appear anywhere in his Sanford Seven.

In Congress, he wanted to reform Social Security, a program with a $2.7 trillion surplus (it added $69 billion this year!) and the lowest overhead and administrative costs of any private or public program for income security. He called it “putting tax payers first.” Really?

So he’s known for a little theater, a big temptation to tinker with public money, shorter waits for driver’s licenses, and running around the district this election with new props: cut-outs of Nancy Pelosi and waving hundred dollar bills, claiming this election is being bought—after the Republican National Committee withdrew his funding when it emerged that after repeated warnings, he was charged with trespassing at his ex-wife’s house!

“I had to make the call,” he says in his second explanation of the incident. It was Super Bowl Sunday and his wife wasn’t back yet to receive their 14-year-old son. Enter Mark.

I’m divorced. My daughter always had a key to her mother’s house. But my ex-wife never found me inside. The way you handle custody exchanges is not to enter each other’s dwellings. If the exchange or pickup is missed, you leave a message. It’s simple. “I have the child. You weren’t home yet. Contact me on what you want to do.” You reset. You don’t “make the call” to enter with ease. And then try for the moral high ground in a political ad, under the cover of great parenting skills. (Remember when Sanford was missing on Father’s Day? A time zone away? Out of touch?)

What could have been handled with a phone call or text message (Sanford lived 20 minutes away!) instead led to a full-page campaign ad to spin a clear error in judgment that millions of divorced parents make daily about custody. It also blames the media. It’s arithmetic; his errors multiply.

But what sets Mark Sanford aside from Marion Barry is his unabashed opposition to the dredging of Charleston’s harbor. Charleston ranks three or four in the nation’s busiest harbors, higher than New Orleans, Galveston, Mobile and West Coast ports. Moreover, it has an efficient connecting infrastructure of roads, warehouses and personnel skilled at trade, whose long arms affect the nation. $13 trillion worth of goods are imported through Charleston; $12 trillion are exported. The jobs, income, and multipliers are enormous.

Port of Charleston, unloading containers

To maintain global competitiveness, Charleston must dredge to a fifty-foot depth. If not, the port rapidly falls to being a minor player, surrendering a global advantage for US imports and exports. Shipping companies lock in long-term contracts. If a port can’t handle the largest ships, they abandon the port. It’s a simple call. Spend money, make money. Create jobs. Remain a pillar of the global economy. Protect your district. Secure its future. Build from the middle out. Ninety-eight South Carolina mayors endorsed the port’s dredging as vital to growth and jobs.

Mark Sanford voted against the mayors, the interests of his district and the country’s. He voted no to funds for dredging. He refused to pursue it. He doesn’t dispute it.

Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch greeting port workers

Elizabeth Colbert Busch, his opponent, pointed out in Monday’s debate: “You and I met on a number of occasions,” Colbert Busch said. “You said you would support trade. You said you would support dredging… And, in fact, you didn’t tell the truth. You turned around and did the opposite.”

High or sober, Marion Barry was an unabashed cheerleader for DC, cutting red tape for developers, green-lighting billions in private redevelopment projects, building a modern regional rail convenient to federal offices and neighbors, finding money every year to hire every young child in DC who wanted to work.

And not before, doing or after his drug arrest was Marion Barry accused of any misuse of pubic funds. Surprised? Don’t be: he has had no charges of financial irregularities, personal bribery, corruption or misappropriations during his long tenure of elected public service, from school board to City Council to Mayor and back to the Council.

But Sanford engaged repeatedly in theft. Marion’s a crackhead, a chemistry major who loves pomp and women. But Stanford is a liar and thief who continues to demonstrate inappropriate judgment in his own affairs and in the public trust.

Early in his career, Marion Barry got shot and wounded during a takeover of the District’s Administration Building. He worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor, providing direct services. And even with a crack habit, he showed up and didn’t steal.

But back to the debate. The favorite basket of Republican tactics was in full effect. Sketchy, out of context, overblown negatives about an opponent; projections of her ties to Big Labor, and the usual policy agenda of vouchers, limits and fears, with a Southern thrust.

Elizabeth Colbert Busch pushed back. She confronted Sanford’s ideology and ethics: “When we talk about fiscal spending and we talk about protecting the taxpayer, it doesn’t mean you take that money we save and leave the country for a personal purpose.”

Sanford claims redemption by using the example of Bill Clinton, but in reality, his excesses are closer to Marion Barry’s, albeit of a different stripe; love is different from drugs. But both share a passion for local issues, a love of the political arena, but also have different records of success on economic progress.

What about their faith? Sanford has said, “It is my personal view that the largest proclamation of one’s faith ought to be in how one lives his life.” Will the voters of SC-1 have faith in his proclamation?

I believe in forgiveness, yes. But I was also taught mercy does not endorse the sin. When I compare the crackhead who facilitated progress and the liar and thief who blocked and stood against trade, an important element of progress, to put the nation at risk and his district in recession, and who ignored 98 of his state’s mayors, as Pilate once offered the crowd a choice, give me the crackhead over the thief. Mark Sanford is no Marion Barry. He’s worse.