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Illegal acts, not sex, destroy political careers
Calls for South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s resignation are intensifying in response to his confessed extramarital affair, but if recent history is any indication the governor doesn’t need to start packing his bags just yet.
Lawmakers caught up in sex scandals who brazen out the initial spate of bad publicity are almost always able to finish their terms without being forced from office, say analysts.
“Every politician who has ever had an affair become public has faced pressure to resign,” said Republican political strategist Dan Schnur. “Those that don’t succumb to that pressure generally see the pressure ease off after a period of time.”
Examples abound. Prominent politicians who have weathered the infidelity storm in recent years include San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana.
Not only did each avoid resignation, all four have moved on with nary a blip in careers. Mr. Villaraigosa and Mr. Newsom are regulars on the California Democratic Party’s gubernatorial short list. Mr. Romer, a Democrat, finished his third term and took over as Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent. Mr. Vitter, a Republican, is running for re-election in the Senate.
The most recent example of a political sex scandal is Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, who admitted in June to an affair with a woman on his campaign staff. So far, Mr. Ensign has resisted calls for his resignation, although he did step down as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee.
Whether Mr. Sanford can survive politically will likely depend on how events transpire over the next few weeks. The governor, a Republican, has said repeatedly that he won’t leave office before his term expires in January 2011, but he’ll have to withstand considerable political pressure to do so.
A SurveyUSA poll released Thursday showed that 69 percent of those surveyed thought Mr. Sanford should resign. The poll, conducted for WCSC-TV in Charleston, S.C., also showed that 63 percent didn’t think he could be trusted. The poll was conducted Wednesday, with 500 South Carolina adults responding.
South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Karen Floyd added her voice Friday to the chorus of those calling for Mr. Sanford to resign. The list now includes a dozen Republican state legislators, a Republican congressman, six state newspapers and the state Democratic Party.
But the tide may be turning. Two Sanford allies, state Sens. Tom Davis and Greg Ryberg, issued statements Friday saying that the governor should remain in office, citing a state police investigation that cleared Mr. Sanford of misusing state travel funds to visit his mistress.
Mr. Davis, the governor’s former chief of staff and a longtime friend, said he had asked the governor to resign several times “for the sake of his marriage and his family,” but that he now believes Mr. Sanford can complete his term.
“[U]nless any new facts are disclosed, I think it is time for me and other public officials to get back to work on the serious challenges facing our state,” said Mr. Davis. “That said, and as Gov. Sanford knows, he has no margin for further error in this particular matter. South Carolina simply cannot afford any additional embarrassment.”
Some Democrats grumble that Republicans have gotten off easier in recent years - Mr. Sanford and Mr. Ensign are resisting calls to resign, while New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, did leave office - but the record shows that those who resign and those who don’t depends more on extenuating circumstances than party affiliation.
When officeholders do abandon ship, it’s often because their indiscretions led them to cross legal or ethical boundaries. Mr. Spitzer’s resignation in 2008 had less to do with the shame of cheating on his wife than the threat of prosecution for paying a prostitute for sex.
Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, a Democrat who also left office in 2008, was accused of being involved with a stripper and his chief of staff during his six-year tenure, but those liaisons were small potatoes next to the litany of civil and criminal charges filed against him. He ultimately pleaded guilty to two felonies: obstruction of justice and lying under oath about an affair.
About the Author
Valerie Richardson covers politics and the West from Denver. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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