Forget South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's acknowledged sexual indiscretions. How bad was it that he went AWOL from his gubernatorial duties?
Many state officials, in South Carolina and elsewhere, interviewed Thursday said that Sanford's lapse was bad indeed -- but they also recommended against holding out for a rash of new laws to curb gubernatorial flights of fancy.
As the world knows by now, Sanford, a second-term Republican, went incommunicado for several days, prompting rampant speculation about his whereabouts. His staff initially said the governor was hiking the Appalachian Trail to clear his head, and his wife suggested that he was working in seclusion so he could write. But when Sanford returned on Wednesday, he held a news conference to explain that he had in fact been in Argentina with his mistress. A smoldering media brushfire suddenly became an inferno.
However, the titillating details of the affair threatened to overshadow what many see as the real transgression -- the abandonment of his state, apparently without instructions for reaching him, when his constituents could easily have been hit by a natural disaster or some other crisis that required the governor's speedy intervention.
"I have no idea about our rules, but the rules of representative democracy demand better," said Kevin Cramer, a Republican commissioner on the North Dakota Public Service Commission. Based on the reported details, Cramer added, he considered what Sanford did "very serious."
"It is a huge deal," said Montana state Sen. Dave Wanzenried (D). "I was Governor Ted Schwinden's chief of staff from 1981 to 1984, a time before cell phones, Twitter, even fax machines, and I always knew exactly where he was."
Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political scientist who spent a sabbatical working for then-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D), said he is not overly concerned about a gubernatorial absence impeding the levers of government, as long as lines of communication are in place. But the symbolism of a disappearance like Sanford's, he said, is problematic. "There is an arrogance and a lack of concern that shines through this entire affair," he said.
Mark Weaver, a Republican consultant in Ohio, agreed that workable systems for handing off power are easy to devise and adhere to. "The bad PR here, aside from the sex, was the flakiness factor," Weaver said. "People like their governor to be stable."
Speaking anonymously in order to be candid, one Republican consultant said that "when you are elected to an office of public trust, it is incumbent upon you to be reachable at all times, either personally or through staff. While not all activity of a governor is released on a public schedule, in this era, people expect their governor to be reachable and responsible."
The consultant added that there is a delicate balance between public time and personal time -- "but you pretty much relinquish personal time when you take the oath of office. All elected officials are placed in the trust of the people, and I would suspect a majority of their offices are now giving a great deal of thought to their operating procedures."
Officials with the National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures said their respective groups did not keep detailed records on when, and how effectively, governors hand over power to an understudy. But they did say that all states have procedures to define how authority is transferred. While these rules vary somewhat by state, most involve the lieutenant governor or another top elected official taking the reins when the governor needs to be away from state business. (Here is a complete list of state procedures, provided by the NCSL.)
In South Carolina, many Republicans as well as Democrats feel a sense of abandonment by their governor. State House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R) called the revelations "disturbing and shocking," according to The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. "There is no excuse.... For five days, the governor let his staff deceive the press and the people of South Carolina regarding where he was and what he was doing."
GOP state Sen. Harvey Peeler, for his part, said he was "deeply disturbed that no one knew where Gov. Sanford was over the last five days," the newspaper reported. "He left the country and deliberately made himself unavailable without delegating power to the lieutenant governor. In the process, he misled his staff, who unknowingly misled the public."
Jack Bass, a political scientist at the College of Charleston, told NationalJournal.com that "the real question here is, 'Why should he not resign?' It was more than being out of touch. It was apparently lying to both his staff and to the people of South Carolina.... The question has been properly asked by legislative leaders as to what would happen in the event of an emergency and a perceived need to call out the National Guard, with only the governor having that authority."
Waring Howe, a longtime Democratic official in South Carolina, said that in his view, Sanford's disappearance without any forwarding information rises to the level of "malfeasance." Suggestions that Sanford resign or be impeached are already floating around the state.
About the only support Sanford is getting at the moment is from Andy Brack, publisher of the Statehouse Report, a nonpartisan political newsletter in the Palmetto State. Brack has posted a column urging the media to back off on Sanford and is planning to post another one today recommending that the governor not resign.
"Some see this as odd, as I am such a vocal critic of him," Brack told NationalJournal.com. "But this thing is personal and has gotten out of hand. He should be criticized on policy, not personal failings."
Brack said that the most the legislature should do is pass a resolution "to encourage any governor to be in constant contact by phone and e-mail if he leaves the state's borders."
He added, "Quite frankly, this guy has governed -- and been a primary spokesman for -- a failed policy position on the stimulus money for several months while his other life was in turmoil. I believe Mark Sanford is a compartmentalizer -- that he can continue to serve as governor as the day job while he cleans up his private life as a night job."
The closest parallel to Stanford's disappearance in recent years -- though it's far from exact -- involved Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri (R), who was unreachable on a trip to visit troops in the Middle East when a major snowstorm hit the state in December 2007. Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts (D) complained that she was hampered in efforts to lead the storm recovery in his absence and said that his aides were unwilling to work with her.
While Rhode Island observers disagree on whether Carcieri was hurt over the long term by the controversy, it did provoke serious concerns at the time.
"There was a considerable amount of outrage about the handling of the December 13 snowstorm, both public and political," said Arianne M. Lynch, a Providence-based political consultant. "The public relations fallout continued for quite some time, culminating in the firing of a top state emergency management official by the governor, the firing of a City of Providence emergency management official and the eventual resignation of the Providence Superintendent of Schools," due to schoolchildren being stranded on school buses as late as 11 p.m.
But actual constitutional changes involving gubernatorial succession are rare. One of the few examples of such a change came in New Jersey. After several instances in recent years in which the president of the state Senate had to become acting governor -- in some cases for months at a time -- New Jersey voters finally created an office of the lieutenant governor in a statewide ballot measure in 2005. The first lieutenant governor in the Garden State is set to be elected this fall.
There's even an example of a gubernatorial candidate being denied the office in part because of a Sanford-like absence. In 2001, Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla., went off the grid on a hunting trip to Idaho that, as chance would have it, coincided with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. When he came back and faced questions about where he was when the World Trade Center fell, Largent was captured on tape uttering an obscenity at a reporter -- video footage that, inevitably, was turned into a campaign attack ad by one of his opponents.
Louis Jacobson is a contributing editor with National Journal.