COLUMBIA, S.C. (CN) – South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford on Wednesday removed all doubt about his mysterious disappearance from the state Capitol late last week, admitting to carrying on a year-long affair with a woman in Buenos Aires. He immediately resigned as chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, but said he would not resign his position as governor.
Standing behind a podium festooned with microphones and digital recorders, Sanford choked up several times as he explained the affair in a corridor of the statehouse jammed with reporters and the curious.
He began by recounting a conversation he had with a reporter from Columbia’s State newspaper after he arrived at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport from Argentina this morning.
“I told her of my years in Congress, and about my years in state office, as well as about the profound frustrations I’ve experienced in office and about how one desperately needs to break out of the bubble of public life,” he said.
“Those things I said were all true,” he continued. “However, they weren’t the whole truth. The bottom line is I have been unfaithful to my wife. I developed a relationship with someone who had been a dear, longtime friend.”
Sanford, who had been considered a possible candidate for the Republican nomination for president in 2012, did not identify the woman involved. He did say, however, that his wife, South Carolina First Lady Jenny Sanford, and his family had known of it for at least the past five months.
Pressed by reporters, Sanford said he never asked a staffer to cover up the affair, nor did he purposefully mislead them when he suggested that he was taking time off to hike the Appalachian Trail.
The stage was set for the unfolding drama in the state Capitol earlier this week when media outlets began asking about the governor’s whereabouts over the weekend. On Monday, his staff indicated that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail to relax after a busy legislative session, and a bruising court battle over the acceptance of $700 million in federal stimulus money.
In a unanimous decision, the S.C. Supreme Court on June 4 ordered Sanford to request the federal money, which the General Assembly had included in next year’s budget for educational and public safety programs.
Sanford claimed, unsuccessfully, that he and he alone had authority to request the funding, and refused to do so unless the Legislature committed an equal amount to paying down the state’s debt.
But the state Supreme Court ruled that executing a budget properly enacted by the General Assembly is a “ministerial duty” of the governor, and that Sanford had “no discretion concerning the appropriation of funds.”
The story might have died there, but reporters knew something was amiss when Sanford’s wife said she had no idea where her husband was, but that she was not worried.
The law enforcement vehicle normally used to ferry Sanford between home, his office and public appearances, was located at the Columbia Municipal Airport Tuesday night, and identified by a parking sticker issued by his children’s school.
Sanford apologized repeatedly to his wife, his four sons, his staff, loyal friends and the citizens of South Carolina, saying he let them down by acting on his own selfishness and through “creating a fiction” about the supposed hiking trip to cover his actions over the past several days.
His voice cracking, Sanford explained that he had met the woman with whom he’s been carrying on an affair eight years ago, at a time when she was newly separated from her husband. “Ironically, in our first conversation, I advised her to try to work out things with her husband for the sake of their two children,” he said. “It was an innocent, but serious conversation, and at the end of it, we exchanged e-mail addresses.”
Until last year, the relationship remained purely platonic, he said.
Sanford didn’t say what precipitated the change in the relationship, but acknowledged that “something sparked” and that he had rendezvoused with the woman on three occasions, the last time before this week being in January.
“We had reached a point of ‘where do we really go from here?’ How do you get all this right? How do you be honest?” Sanford said.
Shortly thereafter, he told his family of “the struggle I was going through in regard to where my heart was and where I was.”
This led to what he described as “a most surreal conversation with my father-in-law a number of weeks ago, and the laying of cards on the table.” He added: “The one thing you find in a situation like this is you really, absolutely want some resolution.”
Still struggling with his emotions, Sanford said he went to Argentina to try to come to grips with the situation one more time.
He said he concluded that on “a heart level, there was something real.”
That said, the governor told reporters that he and his wife have not formally separated, and said in the coming months and years there would be many issues to work through.
“Forgiveness is not an immediate process. It takes some time,” he said, adding, “the odyssey we are all on in life is in regard to the heart, and it is a continual process to get one’s heart right.
“What I would say right now is that I am committed to that process,” he said.
“Sin is grounded in the notion of what is it that I want as opposed to what somebody else wants.”
Acknowledging the large number of reporters who have been camped out in front of the family’s Sullivan’s Island, S.C., home, Sanford asked that a zone of privacy be accorded to his wife and sons.
“As we work through this there will be hard decisions that will have to be made, decisions that are best not dealt with in the prism of the media,” the governor said.