fbpx

The Two Little Pigs

It’s not an image you see every day: a governor carrying two pigs – one under each arm – to the doors of a legislative chamber. Just a day before, the South Carolina House of Representatives took up Governor Sanford’s 106 budget vetoes and overrode all but one in less than a hundred minutes. Though it seemed like the pigs were solely a response to the veto votes, they were actually the final volley in a battle that began nearly a year earlier. The objective of the battle: establish the governor’s credibility in shaping the state’s budget and inject Sanford’s views on fiscal restraint.

In the end, it got messy – quite literally – as the remnants of that press conference needed to be scrubbed out of the carpet. The memory of Sanford and those pigs lasted longer than the stains. In the end, it also helped him influence the debate for years to come.

An Unconstitutional Deficit

At the beginning of Governor Sanford’s first term, he learned the state had closed the 2001-2002 Fiscal Year with a $155 million deficit, violating the state constitution’s balanced budget requirement. In the summer of 2003, he raised this issue publicly with the chairmen of the legislature’s budget writing committees, Representative Bobby Harrell and Senator Hugh Leatherman.

The deficit was a problem that had caught the attention of the credit rating agencies, who were considering downgrading the state’s AAA bond rating. That pressure brought together the governor and the legislative leaders to reach a rare accord to enact the “Fiscal Discipline Act,” paying off the deficit in three years.

Sanford also pledged to hold a series of public budget hearings to dig deep into state government spending in advance of his first Executive Budget in January 2004. The importance of this first budget was one of the reasons Sanford asked me to relocate from Washington to be Senior Policy Advisor in the Governor’s Office in Columbia.

The First Executive Budget

As I discussed in Road to Nowhere, South Carolina is known as a “legislative state.” The governor’s role is limited except for the megaphone. When Governor Carroll Campbell took office in 1987, he sent a budget to the General Assembly even though there was no official role for the governor in the budgeting process. He repeated this annually and finally, in his last year in office, the law was changed requiring the governor to submit an annual budget. His successors submitted what amounted to a wish list without details over the next eight years, and we wanted to change that.

Executive Budget
Sanford’s first budget released January 2004

Through the late summer and fall of 2003, we held budget hearings, made charts and graphs, and produced a 315-page budget that we submitted to the General Assembly in January 2004. We proposed to pay off the debt in one year, but budget cuts were required to help make that happen. Though the cuts were not popular, the level of detail was. Even our critics conceded that we had taken the mission of budget writing seriously and earned a seat at the table.

We weighed in regularly throughout the process, creating as much pressure as possible to eliminate the deficit. The budget included funds for “increased enforcement,” which gave the South Carolina Department of Revenue added resources to go after uncollected taxes. It also included land sales of unused state property. Even though those projected funds were not guaranteed, they amounted to all but $16 million of the deficit paid off in one year. Being that close, we wanted to finish the job.

Just Give Us Options

David Wilkins 1
Then-Speaker Wilkins after the pig press conference.

We met with legislative leaders to see where we could find the rest of the money. Then-Speaker David Wilkins told the Governor, “Just give us some options and we can make it happen.” Wilkins had no idea he’d opened the door to an avalanche of vetoes.

Over the next five days, we scoured the budget and put together a list of 106 separate vetoes. Not all of the vetoes were aimed at reducing spending; some eliminated “provisos,” which were legislatively-directed policy inserted into the budget. We submitted the vetoes just before midnight on the last possible day, confident we would achieve victory.

Goring Every Ox

When we met with legislative leaders on the budget vetoes, we laid out the arguments and conveyed we understood that not every veto would stand, but we “gave them options.” The reality was that we had gored every ox possible, building a coalition of vote trading that ensured defeat. By the time the House convened to take up the vetoes, they wanted to get the votes over.

The vote was called and taken, one after another. During the process, one member was blowing a train whistle to get members to vote faster. Just one member, former Representative Herb Kirsh, voted to sustain every veto. In fact, at one point, he was the sole no vote and the members chanted “Herb! Herb! Herb!” to get him to change his vote. In the end, he refused, and the Speaker announced the vote as “104 to Herb, the veto is overridden.”

In the moment, we were surprised. After it was over, we realized that we had not considered the breadth of the vetoes and that members would trade votes to save a particular line they supported. Our press secretary had gone on record expressing anger, and Sanford’s response was, “We don’t show emotion. We don’t take it personally.” He publicly walked back those comments, but we couldn’t settle for a 99-minute drubbing in the House.

Eating the Governor’s Lunch

Coincidentally timed with the vetoes, we had scheduled an end-of-the-year reception for legislators at the Governor’s Mansion. It turned out to be a three-hour roast. One member of the House said during the event, “It doesn’t seem right that the governor’s feeding us dinner after we ate his lunch.” It was all smiles during the dinner, but when everyone left, Sanford pulled me aside to talk about the day and the response. He wanted to know what I thought we should do, and all I could come up with was, “Punch’em back.” After all that effort to be credible, we couldn’t let it all fall apart now. Sanford said, “Alright, let’s think about it and talk. Deal?” I agreed, and we parted ways.

We Need Pigs

After our morning staff meeting, the governor and I met to talk response. I didn’t really have anything that didn’t seem either too weak or too strong.

He, on the other hand, said, “Remember those press conferences that Citizens Against Government Waste did on the Hill?”

“Pig Book. We used to have pigs eat money out of troughs. It was great,” I replied.

“That’s what I want to do. We need to get some pigs and have a press conference outside the House chamber.”

I wish I could say I hesitated or even tried to talk him out of it, but it seemed perfect. We needed to keep it quiet – and we needed pigs. We asked Daniel Layfield, a staffer in our press office, to find us some. He called every farm within driving distance and asked to borrow a couple of pigs. He didn’t get a lot of interest until he found a farmer in Lexington County who wanted to know why we needed them. Daniel answered honestly, “The Governor wants to stand outside the House and talk about pork-barrel spending.” The farmer loved the idea so much he told him we could have them for as long as we needed them. Off to get two pigs.

Run Like Hell

 

Tom Davis 1

As everything was coming together, we needed to bring the rest of the staff in on what was happening. Our Senate liaison, Carl Blackstone, and Deputy Chief of Staff Chad Walldorf were completely unfazed when we locked them in a room to share the details. It says a little something about our brand that they didn’t even push back.

We needed to bring in Tom Davis, our Legislative Director and liaison to the House. Tom would go on to be Chief of Staff before me and then leave to serve in the South Carolina Senate. Tom had a rough session already and it was not looking up. He already knew we were about to drop something big on him, since the Governor and a group of staff were waiting for him in a closed-door meeting.

“Just tell me,” he said.

“Tom, the Governor is going to do a press conference in front of the House with two pigs,” I responded.

He paused and looked around the room waiting for us to let him in on the joke.

“He’s not kidding, Tom. The pigs are on the way,” Daniel helpfully added.

Tom sat down and put a hand to his head.

“You have to go back up there and pretend like nothing’s happening.” I said.

“So how am I going to know when it happens?”

“Oh, you’ll know.” I said, “And when it does, run like hell.”

That was the last I saw of Tom for hours.

The Governor’s Got Pigs!

Sanford Pigs 1
Several Democratic members of the SC House greet Sanford.

The pigs arrived and were carried in two crates commonly used for dogs. One was an all white Yorkshire and the other a red Duroc, each weighing about 30 pounds. They had been named “Pork” and “Barrel” to highlight the budget spending and the choice to override the vetoes instead of the deficit. Sanford pulled the pigs out of the carriers and headed for the stairs leading to the House. We went up the opposite steps to basically push the crowd toward the press conference.

“The Governor’s got pigs!” we told anyone who would listen, pointing to the House chamber door.

As Sanford got to the top of the steps, one of the pigs pooped on his coat, his shoes, and the carpet. We’d watch the video of that moment in slow motion many times over during the coming months.

The governor held a 10-minute press conference, announcing he was just having a little fun at the expense of the House since they’d done the same at his expense the day before. He talked about the constitution and the need to live within our means. He encouraged the Senate to take a more deliberate approach to the vetoes and said he hoped we could pay off the whole deficit. He picked the pigs back up, off he went back to the office, and we sent Pork and Barrel back to the farm.

The House Majority Whip, Representative Annette Young stood at the door and yelled, “Somebody better clean up this mess and it better be one of y’all!” pointing at the governor’s staff.

Sanford Pigs 2
Sanford (with Pork and Barrel) in front of the SC House Chamber.

By the time the lobby had cleared, you could definitely tell the pigs had been there. The task of cleaning up fell to Press Secretary Will Folks and Speechwriter Joel Sawyer, who had to round up cleaning supplies and scrub the carpet. The smell lingered for the rest of the day, but they seemed to have gotten the stains out.

The move wasn’t very popular with the General Assembly, and the senators had their own fun while taking up the vetoes. They sustained 12 more, but we fell short of getting the $16 million. The voting public’s response, however, was overwhelmingly positive. The House Majority Leader told me that his poll numbers flipped over the weekend, and two weeks later he would lose his primary to an unknown challenger.

Postscript

In the rearview, we’d fought to a draw, but given that the odds were stacked against the South Carolina governor, I considered it a win. We had established credibility on the budget, and we’d earned respect in the budgeting process. This tension would repeat itself pretty regularly over Sanford’s time in office, and spending was the single most contentious issue between him and the legislature.

A few months later, at the close of the budget process in June, the Comptroller General announced we’d had an unexpected surplus and enough money to eliminate the deficit completely. So in the end, it all worked out.

No pigs were harmed in the telling of this story.

 

 

The Last Ride of Mark Sanford

Sanford Election Night
Mark Sanford conceding on election night. (Source: NBC News)

On South Carolina’s Primary night, political observers closely watched former Governor and current Congressman Mark Sanford’s race for the First Congressional District. His chief opponent, South Carolina Representative Katie Arrington, made Sanford’s criticisms of President Trump central to her campaign. The Tweeter-in-Chief even weighed in on Primary Day by attacking Sanford by name and endorsing Arrington via Twitter. By 11 pm, Sanford conceded defeat to supporters for the first time in his political career.

Pundits explained it was the revenge of President Donald Trump, given Sanford’s criticisms in the national media on several issues. It’s comfortable in this national political landscape to chalk it all up to another #NeverTrump takedown. The president and his supporters have already nailed the Sanford pelt on the wall. Trump critics point to this race as a warning: if you don’t give yourself over to Trump 100 percent, then you will lose. Politics loves a simple narrative because it projects the agenda you want it to project.

Here’s the problem:  It’s not so simple. If you started watching this race a week out, you missed an awful lot.

Near Death Experience

Sanford Pelosi
Sanford debating “Cardboard Pelosi” in 2013. (Source: CNN)

Sanford’s second congressional run in 2013 made national headlines after he won, declaring him, “The Comeback Kid.” After his 2009 disappearance and revelation of an affair, Sanford was thought to be politically dead. Given Sanford’s past, Democrats thought they had their best shot at the seat in decades. Despite being outspent, Sanford with his plywood campaign signs and a life-sized cardboard cutout of Nancy Pelosi, returned to the U.S. House.

After getting a free pass in 2014, Sanford drew a primary opponent in 2016, then-South Carolina Representative Jenny Horne. Sanford ignored his opponent and spent virtually no money on the campaign, a tactic he’d employed in the 2006 gubernatorial primary. In the congressional race, he won by a closer-than-expected margin of 56 to 44 percent.

Under normal circumstances, this should have set alarm bells off. No matter how little you spend, if this is your natural point spread, you have a problem. Typically, the response is to invest heavily in building your grassroots and presence or call it quits before you lose a race.

The Trump Card

In the 2018 cycle, Sanford drew two opponents: Dmitri Cherny – a certified Bernie Bro – and first-term South Carolina Representative Katie Arrington. Cherny was largely ignored for most of the race, staking out the “none of the above” option for Republican primary voters. Arrington focused her attention on Sanford’s criticisms of Trump as her lead punch in the race. Given that all of Sanford’s negatives were already baked in, the “Trump Card” was a visible wedge issue to animate voters and generate support – basically playing the best hand she could against an undefeated opponent. Sanford responded by showing he voted with the President nearly 90 percent of the time and singled out their shared issue of “building the wall.”  The race was close, but the last-minute tweet from Trump gave Arrington just enough votes to avoid a runoff. The national analysis was that Sanford simply became another #NeverTrump victim.

The Perfect Storm

There are no simple answers in politics, though that has not stopped an endless number of them being thrown at voters. In this case, a combination of factors came together to help form the perfect storm.

  1. The Best Defense is a Good Offense: Arrington got out early and framed the debate around Trump. Given Sanford’s long political career, there is a treasure trove of issues to choose from. Invoking Trump’s name is the political equivalent of clickbait, and once you get someone’s attention, you pound home the point. The moment Sanford started defending his voting record and pumping the signature issue of a wall, he ceded the advantage. It was Mark Sanford who pounded the line, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing” into my head. One candidate gets to define the debate, and if you aren’t that candidate, good luck winning.
  2. Court the Voters: Retail politics will never fall out of vogue. After winning the special election in 2013, Sanford’s political operation was more or less mothballed until this year. He is accessible, there is no question about that; he was ranked the third most accessible member of Congress. Campaigns require some infrastructure to energize the grassroots. To do otherwise means you might be asking for the votes of people who have already made up their minds.
  3. Actions Speak Louder than Words: Since Sanford’s 2002 gubernatorial primary, opponents have tried to paint him as “Dr. No,” arguing that he just stands against everything. Since being elected to Congress in 2013, Sanford used social media to communicate directly with his constituents. His long form Facebook posts articulated the subtle nuances of his positions on various issues. While these posts were a great transparency step, without actions other than a vote, it simply reinforced the Dr. No criticism.
  4. Sanford Pigs
    Sanford with Pork and Barrel in 2004. (Source: AP)

    Risk It to Get the Biscuit: Sanford staked out risky political territory in order to build credibility for future battles. In his first time through Congress, he introduced a Social Security reform bill touching the proverbial “third rail of politics.” By 1999, Sanford and then-Representative Tom Coburn offered an endless stream of amendments to force their own leadership to stop the raid on Social Security, and they prevailed. In 2004, then-Governor Sanford offered the first-ever detailed Executive Budget, the product of 40 budget hearings. When Sanford vetoed 106 items in the budget to eliminate an unconstitutional deficit, the South Carolina House overrode all but one in 90 minutes. Sanford responded by bringing two pigs, “Pork” and “Barrel” outside the doors of the House chamber to highlight the problem. Since 2013, Sanford has not found that signature issue to advance his vision.

The Lesson

So, was this defeat about Trump and whether a member of Congress faces the wrath of the voters if they don’t support him? If it fits your narrative, yes. Trump was an issue, but to be effective, there had to be the perfect storm. Representative Arrington and her supporters will stick with the usual politicl David vs. Goliath story: hustle, loyalty, and “it” factor. Not to dismiss it, but losing campaigns also have those things. Remove just one factor of the perfect storm and the story would be, “Sanford survives Trump assault.”

Sanford’s 2018 primary was not short on hard political shots. This is not new to him; both his 1994 congressional primary and 2002 gubernatorial primaries went negative. Sanford adeptly rose above the tone set by his opponent and projected a positive tone. Perhaps the climate has changed so much that such a message no longer resonates. If that’s true, we need to change it.

We had an axiom on Team Sanford: “Even in loss, there is victory.” Politics is a chess match, and sometimes, you sacrifice a bishop to take the king. Given the factors I discussed, losing might be the best possible outcome for Sanford. Ultimately, Mark’s passion for policy has far outweighed his passion for politics. His concession speech was a clear vision of fiscal restraint, free trade, foreign policy, and limited government. It was probably his best speech of the cycle. This is Sanford’s second political obituary, but who knows, the only thing better than a sequel is a trilogy.

At the national level, it seems members of Congress are expected to either defend the president or speak truth to power. It’s a losing proposition because either way someone else is setting the agenda. I believe Congress has a job to do and talking about the latest tweet and getting air time on cable news channels isn’t it. We’ve had serious issues to address, and for nearly a decade, Congress has not closed a deal. The only team in DC with a worse red zone offense than the Redskins is the congressional leadership.

There have to be legitimate differences between the parties, but right now, they both simply start the next election cycle after the last, promising it’s going to be different next time. There is only one group who can stop this cycle and that’s the voters. Time will tell when and if that happens.

The Road to Nowhere

One of my favorite well-worn political promises is when a candidate announces that they will “run government like a business.” Sounds good, carries meaning to the voter, and rarely happens. Why? A business is composed of people with a shared set of goals working together to accomplish them. Government is composed of competing interests and power bases that are not upended easily. Unlike the CEO of a business, a governor needs the support of a legislative body with its own agenda. The Founders designed our system of government to be rife with conflict to prevent a concentration of unchecked power. Pick any state capital in the country, and this debate is alive and well. In every case, it is a tug of war over power: working toward or away from a balance between the two branches.

State governments are designed on one of two models: tradition or crisis. In South Carolina, our brand is crisis. From its beginning, South Carolina’s government was premised on a diffused Executive Branch. A myriad of separately elected officers, boards, and commissions managed small parts of government. South Carolina established the cabinet form of government in 1994, the final year of Governor Carroll Campbell’s administration. The impetus for this reform: an FBI corruption probe known as “Operation Lost Trust” where scores of lawmakers, lobbyists and others were convicted of taking bribes for appointments and other political favors. When Mark Sanford took office in 2003, there were nine constitutional officers, 200 boards and commissions, and 13 cabinet agencies. By the time he left office, three more agencies would be added to the Cabinet, each one born out of a crisis that finally forced change. One of those, the Department of Transportation, would be partially reformed. Given its past, it was unbelievable to even see some change.

1929 Bond bill signing
The signing of the 1929 Highway Bond Bill

The battle over the Department of Transportation has gone on since the creation of the Highway Department in 1929. There are two critical issues: control of the agency and the equitable distribution of funds around the state. The first attempt by a governor to reform the agency embraced both issues and included an armed takeover of the agency. Ironically, this move not only failed, but it set back Executive Branch power for six decades.

South Carolina’s New Dealer

Johnston and Patterson
Olin Johnston with his daughter and future Congressman, Liz Patterson

In 1934, Olin D. Johnston was elected governor on the “New Deal” platform of Franklin Roosevelt. Johnston was originally from Honea Path, SC, in Anderson County, dotted with textile mills like much of South Carolina’s Upstate region. The greatest concentration of South Carolina’s working class claimed the Upstate as home. As governor, Johnston set out to be the working man’s hero, but like many before and after him, he met head on with the “legislative state.”

Johnston served in the South Carolina House of Representatives for three terms. While in the legislature, Johnston developed an agenda to improve the standard of living for his neighbors in the Upstate. In Columbia, he encountered the influence of the “rings” – that era’s equivalent to today’s “swamp.”  Johnston first ran for governor in 1930, but lost narrowly in the Democratic primary, which in those days was the General Election. He ran again in 1934, defeating former South Carolina Governor and U.S. Senator Coleman Blease to secure the Democratic nomination. His margin of victory was large enough for him to believe he had a mandate coming to Columbia.

Johnston Button

When Johnston took office, he declared an end to the “ring rule” of South Carolina and
promised reforms. By the end of his term, he would claim as successes the creation of a rural electrification process, pushed for the first workers’ compensation act, creation of the South Carolina Ports Authority, and the state’s first Department of Labor. While those initiatives had broad support around the state, his efforts to help the textile workers from the Upstate met with stiffer resistance, particularly in the Senate.

The Highway Ring

Johnston knew he needed more leverage in the form of patronage to build a lasting legacy. The “highway ring” as he called it had to be broken so he could win key votes in the legislature. Given the relative weakness of the Governor’s Office and the enormous size of that agency – 3,000 employees around the state – it was his best bet. Upon taking office, Johnston demanded the resignation of the Highway Department commissioners appointed by the previous governor. They refused. He attempted to forcibly remove them from office, but the Supreme Court, elected by the General Assembly, refused him. He pushed reform in the legislature, but the commissioners, led by Chief Commissioner Ben Sawyer, lobbied to stop Johnston from gaining more control. Out of options, Johnston made one last desperate effort to change the balance of power.

A State of Emergency

Johnston Columbia Record
In October 1935, Governor Johnston declared a state of emergency to stop “a state of insurrection” within the Highway Department. Johnston’s logic was that governors had used the National Guard to impose order during strikes in the mills. Surely the same defiance in government could be met with the same brute force. So, a unit from Orangeburg, SC was dispatched to take over the Highway Department, sealing off the building and posting two machine gun nests to ensure order. The commissioners were barred from the building, and Johnston’s appointees were installed.

Johnston’s opponents cast him as a dictator by trying to take control with the barrel of a gun. A legal battle ensued, while Johnston took his case to the people, casting it as a battle between the elites and the working man. While legislative leaders condemned him, thousands of mill workers wrote letters, appearing at rallies and lobbying legislators to back Johnston’s play for the Highway Department. He was “their guy,” and he should be running the state, not those blue-bloods from Charleston. The simple effort to balance power in South Carolina exposed the sharp regional and socio-economic divides of the state.

Johnston fared better in the court of public opinion than in the Supreme Court. In December, the court ruled that Johnston overstepped his authority and had to withdraw the National Guard. As a result of that ruling, there is a law restricting the governor’s state of emergency powers that remains in effect to this day. Johnston refused to remove the soldiers without assurances that he would get his reforms. A stalemate played out until a compromise of sorts was arranged, creating a supervisory board until a permanent solution could be enacted.

The Return of the Ring

Johnston Greenwood Index

The following January, the legislature met and considered reforms. Even pro-Johnston legislators had lost faith after the armed confrontation, and in the end, the legislature passed what was known as the “Triple Road Bill,” stripping away any power the Governor had over the Highway Department. His support had weakened so much that he could not muster enough votes to sustain his veto.

Johnston did what any governor would do, take the fight to the voters. If the members of the legislature were going to defy the will of his mandate, they should be returned from whence they came. He recruited candidates to run for office and campaigned around the state. Supporters wrote to demand the identities of those who betrayed him, and Johnston responded to each one with a list. In the 1936 election, a dozen House and three Senate pro-Johnston candidates were elected, improving his outlook for the last two years of his term.

At the beginning of 1937, Johnston’s handpicked candidate for Speaker, L.C. Wannamaker, took on Sol Blatt of Barnwell County, the preferred candidate of the “Establishment.” Given the electoral successes in 1936, observers believed the race would be close, but the influence of the “highway ring,” the conservative senators, and the lasting effects of the armed showdown, most of Johnston’s allies to support Blatt. In the end, Blatt was elected Speaker by a vote of 74 to 8, making the governor the unifying enemy among even the most strained legislative factions. The governor as a unifying force for the South Carolina General Assembly has become a familiar theme many times since then.

With a clear defeat in hand and a fully unified legislative state, the General Assembly proceeded to strip the weak governor of even more power – from budget authority to appointment powers and more. Little would change until “Lost Trust” brought change. Even then, the idea of reforming the Highway Department, now known as the South Carolina Department of Transportation, was considered unthinkable.

Seven Decades Later…

To understand the significance of reforming the agency, it’s important to understand the far-reaching political implications in South Carolina history. In 2007, control over the South Carolina Department of Transportation shifted slightly back toward the governor after a study of mismanagement and waste were made public. The hero of that story is not an elected official, but an appointee with a business background and a willingness to dig deep. The battle was never supposed to go public, but when it did, all hell broke loose. More on that in the next post.

 

In Times of Crisis

88703100
Governor Mark Sanford and Chief of Staff, Scott English going to a Cabinet Meeting, June 2009

In the world of politics, one of the most overused words is “crisis.” Many times, it’s applied to internal meltdowns that mean relatively little to people outside of that circle, or when an event creates a public outrage. Politics is largely driven by narratives – my own posts reflect the use of dramatic moments to illustrate points or reveal lessons learned. Unfortunately, like a good fish tale, “political crises” can get polished over time – especially when the narrator becomes the hero of a story, not just a participant.

Ask any political operative about a crisis and they’ll give you the wisdom of John Kennedy, who once said, “In the Chinese language, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity.” It’s a very potent line that illustrates the duality of crisis in leadership. The problem? Kennedy was dead wrong about the interpretation. Chinese linguists have debunked this popular belief for over five decades, but they can’t compete with Camelot.

Churchill QuoteAnother classic quote comes from Winston Churchill, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” This is a wink and nod to operatives.  When a crisis arises, use it to make a political point – or better yet – leverage it to build up a cause or candidate. Here’s a better quote: “If you want something to sound clever, tell ’em I said it.” – Winston Churchill. Neither quote is real, but both fall into the “true enough” category. Worse, the quote shifts the focus from the people in need to politics.

The best quote on the topic is both accurate and relevant: “In the midst of a crisis, solve the crisis.” I know it’s accurate because I said it myself, and it’s my First Rule of Crisis Management. One of the failings of modern political leadership is forgetting you serve the people first and your own interest second. Too often, we see opportunism or paralysis instead of solutions. Fortunately, most of the so-called crises are self-inflicted political wounds that kill careers and not people. I’ll talk about those separately, but for now, let’s look at actual crisis. I have some rules that have served me well over the years.

Rules of Crisis Management

  1. In the midst of a crisis, solve the crisis. Think of this as another variation of “stop the bleeding.” There are several roads people take here: try to find someone to blame, hide their own responsibility, or seek opportunity. Ironically, political careers are never made this way, but the temptation has never subsided. Taking the wrong path here can actually make matters worse by distracting the very people needed to end a crisis or inflaming the public further.
  2. Define the crisis. There are two types of crises: threats to health and safety and threats to economic viability. What’s more important is understanding the impact on the public. Some threats are incredibly localized, while others can go state- or even nationwide. When balancing the needs of a larger population, localized threats are a big deal in the affected community but might mean almost nothing to anyone else. Before acting, be sure you and others understand the nature of the threat posed.
  3. Bring calm and purpose. Times of crisis understandably elicit emotion from the public, largely because they feel helpless. In 2005, following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a pipeline rupture in the Gulf Coast created a gas shortage in the Southeast, sending gas prices soaring. To prevent hoarding or public safety threats, in the South Carolina Governor’s Office, we provided regular tips to help citizens manage resources through the crisis. In short, everyone can navigate through disruptions, but it’s your job to educate them on how best to do so.
  4. Communicate, communicate, and after that, try communicating. Misinformation loves a vacuum. If you aren’t providing information regularly to the public, idle speculation will fill the space. When that happens, you’re no longer battling a crisis, you’re battling public perception. This is where credibility in leadership dies. It is essential that information and action are communicated regularly to the public – this is especially true for threats to health and public safety when events change almost constantly.
  5. Relax, accountability will happen. There is no greater temptation than to demand someone’s head – almost immediately – but this does little to actually fix the problem or establish calm. Resist the temptation. In today’s 24-hour news cycle, editorial standards sometimes give way to the “scoop.” Getting to the root of the problem is basically piecing a puzzle together and shouldn’t be rushed. This is truer in the social media age as information travels at light speed. Gathering the facts should be deliberate so that accountability is real, and you’re able to avoid repeating the same mistake twice.
  6. Mind the VIPs. It’s critically important to engage the local leadership in the midst of a crisis. Not only are they able to bring resources to the table, but they’re also influencers in the community. It’s difficult, from their perspective, to understand the scale and scope of the threat because they serve a different constituency. In many cases, the crisis affects their entire community, and they need to be a part of the solution. Aside from being the right thing to do, taking this step helps the crisis manager build better relations with the VIP and within the community.

Bad things happen, what you do next matters most. It’s absolutely critical that solving the problem is your first objective, and that this is clear to those affected. Don’t plan photo-ops that disrupt efforts to address critical needs or are transparent attempts to pander to the public while doing nothing. Ultimately, people need leadership when there is a crisis, and failure to deliver is almost certain to end a political career.

 

My Marvel Hero

There are those who push us to be better than we are and people who show us there are better versions of us. While many have been fortunate enough to be pushed at some point in our lives. Having someone show you a better version of yourself is a transformational act of faith. In my senior year, I met a man who saw a version of me I didn’t even know existed and, through acts of faith, transformed my life.

About Me

I grew up in a small town in Maryland, the son of blue-collar parents. My family was somewhere between poor and middle class. We had food, a roof over our heads, and clothes on our back – the byproduct of a strong work ethic and focusing on needs over wants. It provided a sense of security, and for that, I am grateful. Growing up, I expected that I’d like high school either to get a job or join the military like my father. Neither of those options motivated me in school.

Early on, I tested into advanced classes and worked just hard enough to maintain that through junior high school. When getting out is my only motivation to be in school, I start doing just enough to get by. My parents can probably recount all the times I played chicken with my grades, rallying to avoid failing at the end of the quarter. It sounds like an excuse, but since college wasn’t in the cards, it was my reality.

By high school, I added undisciplined to my portfolio, devising shortcuts and exploring the world of juvenile delinquency. Call it smart, lucky, or the divine hand of God, I, somehow, managed to avoid getting arrested and forever soiling my “permanent record.”

Strangely, getting a job in my junior year pushed me to improve my grades but financed bad behavior out of school. I had no guide for going to college – I’m not really sure if I knew anyone with a college degree outside of my teachers – and I was on the bubble with most of them. When I looked at colleges, I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. I knew that if I was going to have even a shot, I had to pick up the pace.

In my senior year, I had to take Contemporary Issues, known as Civics or U.S. Government in other schools. Our teacher for the class was Mr. Don Marvel, who had been assigned his first College Preparatory class in years. Little did I know on that first day of class that Mr. Marvel would become one of the most influential figures in my life.

Meet Don Marvel

Mr. Marvel
Mr. Marvel’s entry and inscription in my senior yearbook.

Mr. Marvel was an unassuming man who projected calm and warmth to anyone he met. He was a product of the very high school where he taught after serving his country in the U.S. Army and graduating from Ranger School. As a high schooler, he was a year-round athlete from wrestling to cross-country to baseball. Even in his teaching days, he was an avid runner and remained so until just before he passed away. There must be something to distance runners that instills a patience that most of us envy – because he had it in great supply.

The most important thing about Mr. Marvel was that he loved his students and the subject he taught. You have to imagine the uncertainty of teaching a class based on U.S. government where anyone could label you as “indoctrinating” your students. Truth is, to this day, I couldn’t tell you if he was a Republican, Democrat, conservative, or liberal – or even a Communist. He loved our country and accepted the incredible burden of turning teenagers on the brink of adulthood into good citizens or attempting to do so at any rate. He trusted us enough to figure out what we believed, but he didn’t want his students to miss out on the value of being engaged citizens and it showed.

Interact Club2
Easton High School Interact Club (1988) – I am in the last row (second from left).

He did this, not only as a classroom teacher, but as the advisor to the Interact Club, sponsored by the local Rotary. The club’s purpose was to serve the community, and members were required to do volunteer service throughout the year. The club was not only one of the largest in school but also one of the most active, and Mr. Marvel worked tirelessly to give us opportunities to serve. He encouraged me to join and made sure I was in the club photo, even though it wasn’t my nature.

One of the most memorable events happened when he colluded with one of my classmates to search her purse during class, which ended with her storming out of the room. I missed the whole exchange but heard about it quite a bit the next day. In the following class, he let on that it was planned but that we would have a mock trial. For reasons I will never understand, he asked me to be his lawyer. In those days, I was not an eager public speaker, so arguing a clearly unwinnable case was the most intimidating thing I’d ever done. We got a hung jury in the case, more on his popularity with the students than my amateur lawyering. That trial was the final reason I dedicated my career to public policy.

The Note

The class awakened my passion for policy and our country, the reason I entered politics after college. That alone was a gift but not the reason I am writing this.  The reason is a simple note card sent in March, 1988. The envelope, addressed to my parents, simply had the school’s return address.  In my experience, that never meant good news. The note contained words that still carry great meaning today:

It is truly refreshing to be around a young man with such enthusiasm and such willingness to participate and to volunteer. Thanks for sending him to us!

The Note

I remember thinking first that the note had to be for someone else – but there was my name. Ironically, in my last year of school, one of my teachers actually thought enough to send home a note to say I was doing something good. After debating for a week, I finally decided to thank him for sending the note to my house. I told him I wasn’t sure I was worthy of the praise, but I really appreciated it.

He looked at me and said, “Scott, the only failure you’ll know is what you are too afraid to do. You have everything you need to do good things. Don’t ever sell yourself short. I expect to see you do it.”

The Lesson

Mr. Marvel admitted to us at the end of the year that he’d rarely enjoyed teaching College Prep students – in hindsight, I get where he’s coming from. But, he said, slightly emotionally, we were different.

Truth is, he may have sent a nice note to everyone in the class. It doesn’t matter. The note symbolizes the faith he put in me – from being his lousy attorney to showing me that graduation wasn’t the end of my story…just the beginning.

Don Marvel.image
Mr. Marvel in his later years.

I still carry that note with me thirty years later. After all I’ve achieved, Mr. Marvel was right that I would be my only limitation. Don Marvel died in 2015 after a long battle with kidney cancer. Although he left us all for the next life, a piece of him travels with me every day, and one of his unexpected legacies is the man writing this piece today and the life that came with it.

Today, that card symbolizes something much bigger — the transformational power of faith in each other. While it was in short supply in 1988, it is nearly extinct today.

Placing our faith in others – whether it is a person or even our government – gets targeted by cynicism at a rapid-fire clip. And so, rather than risking it, we leave it to others to exercise it, and well, here we are.

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” Mr. Marvel saw past my faults and exercised more faith in me than any human being ever had. If I have done good in this world, it stems from the act of kindness he showed me.

It also instilled a faith that, while tested, makes me a believer in our future. A faith that no matter how bad things may seem, we can repair our faults. We need to awaken that faith on a broad scale. To repeat the words Mr. Marvel said to me in 1988, “The only failure you’ll know is what you are too afraid to do.”  I hope like hell we find that faith again.

The Glimmer Twins

Jagger Richards
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in 1971

Keith Richards once characterized his relationship with Mick Jagger like this: “The only things Mick and I disagree about is the band, the music, and what we do.” The volatile nature of their relationship has been as much fuel for The Rolling Stones as the talent that each brings to the band. Mick Jagger, with all his production of performance, has carefully calculated his and the band’s image since the 1960s. Richards, the malcontent who shoots from the hip without aiming, typically hitting the target – even if it’s Jagger. Yet for five decades, they have made it work, becoming one of the most enduring and influential bands in history. Early in their careers, they came up with a pseudonym, The Glimmer Twins, for their writing and producing credits after a vacation together.

My relationship with Mark Sanford bore an uncanny resemblance to Jagger and Richards, the image-concious frontman and the moody wildcard. As the brand creator, he wanted to make sure that everyone on the team understood and adhered to the brand. This was, at times, done to the point of tedium and micromanagement – which, in my view, was most of the time. I was the movement guy, placing each debate within the context of the “perpetual struggle,” with a variety of theatrical embellishments to create chaos where necessary. I was basically the guerilla wing of the Sanford team. We drove each other crazy, something I readily admit, and he would probably deny. There were two occasions, almost nine years apart, that drive this point home. Both occasions involve me being blindsided with a promotion.

Beggars Banquet – Washington 1999

Beggars Banquet
The rejected cover of the 1968 cover for Beggars Banquet by The Rolling Stones.

In the fall of 1998, Sanford’s long-time Legislative Director announced he would be leaving to join a think tank. Having been on the staff for two years, I thought I would be the ideal candidate for the job. I talked with our Chief of Staff, and she took it to Sanford. One day, I got a call that Sanford wanted to discuss the position with me in his office. I walked in and was prepared to make the sales pitch, but before I could sit down:

“Uh, April told me you want to be the LD. You’re a smart guy, but you’re not really organized, you don’t look beyond the 30-day range, and we have to make a plan for the last session, and I don’t think you’re up to it. So, sorry, but it ain’t happening.”

There it was. I’d been weighed, measured, and found wanting before I even had a chance to make my case.

I walked out, angry, and called the Chief in Charleston, “You have a week. I want a $7,000 pay raise and a promotion to Senior Legislative Assistant or I’m gone.” There was no plan, no job options and a third child on the way, but I was pissed and there was no debating it. Admittedly, I reminded her every morning. Without negotiation or discussion, she called me on the seventh day and pronounced success. My mini-crisis was averted.

Over the next four months, we would have not one, but two, Legislative Directors. Both were incredibly nice guys and completely unwise to the ways of Mark Sanford. Some would say that was two strikes against them. With the imminent departure of our second Legislative Director at the end of January, Sanford came back to the pit one night. He let me know that our LD was leaving. I pulled out a giant stack of resumes and said, “Good luck.”

“I already have the candidate. You.”

I panicked. We’d been down this road and now, two LDs later, the reality of losing my job became too real.

“No thanks. I have a child on the way and you’ve already told me how incompetent I am. Nothing could have changed in four months.”

“We’ll be fine. It’ll be great.”

We went back and forth like this for five minutes.  Here’s a personal note; I had a habit of throwing Sanford’s words back at him, time and time again. Often to the point of personal discomfort for everyone, but me.

Finally, he just said, “Show up tomorrow to be LD or clean out your desk. Just pick one.” Checkmate.

We had a good session – very aggressive, and we put together an awesome team for a departing member of Congress. I still miss those days in “The Legislative Pit” debating issues and “fighting the struggle” as we called it.  I learned a lot in that role, and I’m grateful to have the chance. Sanford learned one thing, too. Asking me to do something I don’t want to do is a terrible idea.

Dirty Work – Columbia 2008

Sanford English 2009
Meeting with Sanford in the early days of the post-Argentina press conference. (Mary Ann Chastain/AP)

In February 2008, our Chief of Staff, Tom Davis, decided to leave the Governor’s Office to run for the South Carolina Senate in his hometown of Beaufort. Tom and I had a pretty agreeable narrative; he was the likable ideological warrior evangelizing the message, and I was the hammer who earned nicknames like “Mr. No.”  When he decided to leave, it meant having to either find a new “good cop” or risk upsetting a balance that seemed to work well.

With the news of Tom’s departure, I started developing a list of possible candidates for Chief of Staff. My hope was to cut off another notorious “Sanford hire” that Mark thought deserved a chance to fail and then usually delivered in short order. I had ten candidates, all ranked on pros and cons with two good recommendations – or so I thought.

With my list in hand, I tried getting Sanford to talk by phone until he finally told me we’d discuss when he got to the office. When he arrived in the afternoon, he breezed through the door and asked the scheduler to get the staff together in his office.

We gathered, and I took a seat in the back and opened my notebook. I habitually carried a notebook into our meetings, so I could pretend to take notes. It was a ploy to choose when I would actually engage in the meeting rather than look like I was waiting to be called on.

“As you all know, Tom’s leaving us to run for the Senate. I’ll be visiting down there to help as much as I can, and it will be nice to have another ally in the Senate.”

Considering we could count on six senators, he was wrestling the obvious to the ground.

“That means we’re going to need a new Chief of Staff, and Scott’s going to take on that role.”

Just like that, I felt 20 heads turn in my direction as I was scribbling in my notebook, pretending to take notes.  I looked up and said with all the confidence I could muster, “What?”

“You’re going to take on the Chief of Staff role and we’ll keep moving forward.”

“Oh. Okay.” What in hell did he just say!?

Whatever else he said after that was a blur to me since I was processing the fact that he’d just named me Chief of Staff in front of everyone. When the meeting was over, the staff filed out. I walked to his desk and pulled out my list of candidates and slid it in front of him.

“What’s this?”

“That’s the list of candidates for Chief of Staff I wanted to go over with you.”

Without even looking at me, he slid it back to me and said, “I don’t need this.”

“Look at it, Mark.”

He picks up the paper and looks at the list and then sticks it out for me to take.

“What do you see on that list?”

“What’s the point, Scott?”

“Did you see my name on the list?”

He looks again and says, “No, why?”

“Because I don’t want the job. I’m the designated bad guy here. No one really wants to deal with that guy.”

“It’s no big deal. You know me, and it’ll be fine.” He was really right and really wrong at the same time.

“You know, it’s usually customary to ask the guy you want to be Chief of Staff if he wants the job.”

“Well what would you’ve said if I did.”

“No. Probably ‘Hell No!’, but definitely no.”

He smiles and says, “Well, I’m glad I didn’t ask.”

In the rearview, it was either an act of desperation or a nudge toward helping me grow. I waver on which it was depending on the day. My best guess is that Sanford didn’t want to break in someone new, so he picked the obvious choice among those who knew him best.  The next three years would be full of challenges, and from that I learned a great deal. It also solidified the Jagger/Richards relationship that we’ve had for twenty years now.

The Wizard

Our political system is a finely-tuned battlefield for the age-old debate of belief versus faith. All of us have a set of beliefs; some are commonly-shared while others are not. Beliefs are what we know to be true. Faith is the willingness to act without knowing.  To be successful in politics, you have to move people from belief to faith, and that usually comes in the form of a political figure.

DorothyIt’s a bit like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. She embarks on a perilous journey to the Emerald City so that the Wizard can send her back to Kansas. When she arrives, she finds that the Wizard is merely a man behind a curtain.

Unfortunately, some people who came to work for Mark Sanford were looking for the Mark Sanford I wrote about in The Enterprise. At some point, the man became more important than the policy. For people inside the world of politics, having faith in a man despite your beliefs is far more dangerous than believing in the issues despite the man.  Sooner or later, you’ve ended your trip down the Yellow Brick Road and met “The Wizard.”

The Meeting

I met Sanford for the first time on December 7, 1994, just after he’d been elected to Congress and almost two years before I went to work for him. At that time, I was four months into my job with Citizens Against Government Waste and we were hosting a reception for the newly-elected members of Congress. The Freshmen, as they would become known, was a large class of members elected in the historic 1994 election that gave Republicans control of the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years. They were in town for orientation, and CAGW held a reception for them in the Rayburn House Office Building.

As the “new guy,” my critical role was greeting the guests and handing out name tags.  I had spent the better part of a day debating whether to call these new members “Congressman” or “Congressman-elect” since they would not be sworn in until January. I had settled on Congressman or Congresswoman, but our very first guest threw all of that out the window.

Fifteen minutes before the reception was to start, our first guest, a tall guy wearing a blue sports coat that I would come to know so well in my life popped up before me.

“Hey, Mark Sanford from South Carolina. Is this the Citizens Against Government Waste thing?”

“Yes sir, Congressman Sanford, I have…”

“Uh, just call me Mark.”

I didn’t think that was even allowed, so I just nodded my head, handed him the name tag, and pointed him to the door. He disappeared.

As the evening wore on, I was finally relieved of this duty when it was decided any stragglers could be left to pick up their own name tags.

I worked my way over to the food and found my new friend “Mark” grazing on shrimp. We did the awkward thing where I called him “Congressman” and he reminded me that it was just “Mark,” and then we talked about government spending, deficits, and the debt. It was what he had campaigned on and he wanted to get to work.  He was basically searching for “good ideas,” and I didn’t have any particularly useful insight. After our brief chat, he moved on to meet other people – probably more insightful than me. Pretty uneventful for two guys who would spend 15 plus years in the trenches together on policy and political fronts in Washington and Columbia.

The Lesson

wizard-of-ozMeeting Mark Sanford did not inspire me to work for him. Ironically, it did insulate me from becoming a Dorothy. The faithful invest in The Wizard all the way to the end. Usually, meeting the man disillusions them in a number of ways.

When people ask me about working for Mark, it’s generally curiosity or pity. Curiosity because they want to know all about “Argentina” but are too polite to ask. Pity because “they know someone who worked for Mark” and they already know.

Truth is, Sanford is incredibly demanding and that probably won’t ever change. If all that amounted to was frustration, I wouldn’t have lasted a year, but it was more than that.

The problem is that politics, including the Sanford world, is littered with people more interested in working for The Wizard than for their beliefs.  For me, Mark gave me limitless opportunities fight for issues I believed in. Working for him was not the end, but rather the means to it. Flawed as he might be, I was able to see some of those changes and learn an awful lot along the way.

Coming Out

I have to make a confession. I was a Democrat. It’s true, but I didn’t inhale. The decision to leave the party set me down the road of politics. Ironically, the man who put me on the path of Republican politics is and always has been an unapologetic Democrat. Coming out as a Republican to turned out to be harder than I expected.

My childhood home was basically a chapter of the Democratic National Committee. Every election cycle was dominated by who needed the votes and the terrible things that would happen if this Democrat or another lost. Every four years, we would gather in front of the television for four straight days of indoctrination by the mother ship during the Democratic National Convention.

People who believe that adults can easily brainwash children have never raised teenagers. I started running with a bad crowd – Young Republicans – getting myself into debates about the free market, U.S. foreign policy, even admiring tax cuts. I was a fan of President Ronald Reagan, but I couldn’t really talk about that at home.

My father is the ideal Democratic voter: supporter of the status quo candidate, votes faithfully in every election, and tireless champion of the party’s nominees.  To demonstrate that point, I recall vividly the 1984 Democratic Primary where former Vice President Walter Mondale was challenged by Colorado Senator Gary Hart. Mondale was the party’s man, stalwart servant of former President Jimmy Carter, it was “his turn.” My sister, like many young voters of the day, chose the more exciting Hart, who four years later would achieve a level of scandal that is all too familiar now.

In 1984, the idea of supporting anyone but Mondale was heresy in our house and my sister’s rebellion played all the way through to the Democratic Convention. As my sister and father debated which was better, I blurted out, “What difference does it make? Reagan’s going to win.” The chilling silence and stare made all too clear that I’d said those words out loud. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” my father said, and we left it at that. November came soon enough, and my amateur prognostication was overwhelmingly correct.

By 1990, I was a young college student volunteering for my first campaign for the First District of Maryland. The 1988 election had proven difficult for the incumbent Democrat, so seven Republican candidates filed for the race in 1990. I volunteered for a local state House member who seemed like a decent guy, working at a grocery store when he wasn’t representing the people in Annapolis. In those days, volunteers stuffed envelopes, licked stamps, waved signs, all the usual stuff to get your candidate elected. One night I was leaving, and the Campaign Manager stopped me because he’d noticed I wasn’t on the precinct list in my hometown.

“Oh, I’m a Democrat, so I’m probably not on the list.”

He looked at me for a second and said, “Hey, you’re a nice guy and I’m sure you’re on the team, but don’t you think you should be registered to vote in the primary? I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression.”

He pulled out a registration form and handed it to me.  “It’s totally up to you, but I can’t really spend time explaining having you on the team if you’re going to stay a Democrat.”

Before he’d even finished the sentence, I’d started and almost finished filling out the form.  I thought, “What did I care?” I honestly didn’t see a future in the Democratic Party and I really agreed with this candidate.

So, I handed the registration form back to the Campaign Manager and told him he could send it in and I’d be back the next day. Simple and easy, right? Not really.

It’s no exaggeration that I would have gotten less grief for bringing a boyfriend home than a Republican voter registration card.

The Episode

About two weeks later, I came home from school one day and walked into my parent’s house. At the dining room table, my father sat on one end and my grandmother on the other. My dad asked me to come sit down. Seemed like one of those conversations where someone was in the hospital or dead.

“What’s going on? Is everything okay?”

My father pulled a card out and handed it to me. “You got this in the mail today.”

It was my voter registration card. “Okay. Where’s Mom? Everyone’s okay, right?”

I was waiting for a terrible shoe to drop.

“There’s a mistake on there and I thought you ought to know so you can fix it.”

I looked at the card – name, address, everything checked out. “Looks right to me.”

“Can’t be.” my father is not known for shouting, but clearly, he was not happy, “That says you’re a Republican and I know that’s not right.”

“Oh, that.  I switched parties because…”

Those were my last words for about 45 minutes. My father, with an assist from my grandmother, proceeded to inform me how wrong this was, someone had talked me into it, basically any explanation they could think of that I could not possibly mean to register as a Republican, and I needed to fix it.  It’s no exaggeration that I would have gotten less grief for bringing a boyfriend home than a Republican voter registration card.

The Aftermath

One of the few known picture of me and my parents.

We spent the better part of the next decade arguing – not debating – politics, as I graduated from college and moved to Washington, DC to work on Capitol Hill. After the Thanksgiving Dinner of 2000 while the Bush/Gore Election hung in the balance, the arguing reached its peak. My mother would ban political talk during special occasions from that point forward. Once my father became a local elected official and had to work with people from all parties, I became his son, THE Republican. And I was no longer a fool. Instead, I’d been raised to “think for myself.” Give my the old man credit, he has spin.

 

My father was right; I was fiercely independent. But the switch happened because after I was exposed to ideas, I challenged them, and formed my own opinions. That discovery made me understand the power of ideas and want to be a part of shaping policy. Those who don’t live in the world of politics may not see the difference between the operatives and the policy people, but there is a huge difference. While operatives know how to make campaigns run, work, and even succeed, they manage. The real power in politics was the policy, the “why” we fight for what we believe in, the leaders. Thanks to my parents, and an awkward coming out, I’d chosen to become a policy guy who worked in politics. Little did I know where that would put me in the years to come, but in the rearview mirror, it all makes sense now.

The Enterprise

Sanford the Man
Mark Sanford at the now-infamous June 24, 2009 press conference on his disappearance. (Mary Ann Chastain, Associated Press)

The hardest thing for politicos to admit is political figures are really two people occupying the same space: the person you see and the person they are. Understandably, people interpret that to mean fake and in some cases it does. Usually, it’s more like when your parents take you out to a sit-down dinner. The whole time, you’re reminded that your behavior is how the entire world sees your family. It’s a lot of pressure.

I don’t want this to sound cynical, but politics is theater. Politicians have a job to do and they have to play the part: unattached and unemotional. Everyone watches their moves, analyzing everything from whether they hold their spouse’s hand or ignore a crying child to whether they said thank you to each and every person along the way. It’s just part of the deal. When you work for a politician, you have to work for The Enterprise, not the man or woman. I know politicos who are friends with their respective boss, but that came after the lights went down or life moved on.

Good or bad, I am forever linked to Mark Sanford, who went from GOP rising star to cautionary tale to comeback kid. I joined his congressional staff in November 1996, went through a gubernatorial campaign in 2002 and served all eight years when he was governor. For reasons that remain a mystery to most people, I also spent seven months in his congressional office in 2015. So, most of my professional life.

The day his second gubernatorial term ended in January 2011, we sat in the empty room that had been my office, reminisced and laughed. Just before he would turn the office over to Nikki Haley, we stood up and he said, “I love you, man” and hugged me. By nature, I’m not a hugger or an emotional guy, but I felt obliged. Most people never thought he’d make it to that day after the infamous “hiking the Appalachian Trail” adventure that destroyed his ambitious future. That episode is when Mark Sanford, the Man, replaced Mark Sanford, the Enterprise, in my life.

firstpinch
Mr. Spock applying the Vulcan Nerve Pinch to Captain Kirk. (Source: www.startrek.com)

My role in The Enterprise was clear. I was Spock to his Kirk. Whenever Mark Sanford, the Man, came aboard, I had to be ready with the Vulcan Nerve Pinch to take him down to save The Enterprise. That creates a strange dynamic for both of us because I start viewing The Man as a threat and, from time to time, he needed to be human. Unfortunately, as a political Vulcan, I’m not really equipped to deal with humanity as well as I’d like. But how did we get there?

The Origin Story 

My moment of clarity came on July 24, 1997 when I had to write floor remarks for Sanford on an amendment to eliminate the sugar program. My legislative director managed my expectations saying Sanford didn’t read prepared remarks, so I shouldn’t take it personally if his speech wasn’t at all like my talking points. I knew the information, the perfect hit points, and drafted what I thought was the most important speech of my early career. Here is where I tell you that he would get exactly one minute to deliver remarks on the floor. I gave Sanford the talking points, expecting to go over them and get feedback. He thanked me, shut the door to his office and proceeded to practice his speech. Only when he delivered the remarks an hour later did I get a sense of whether he liked my work. He delivered the speech, hitting the three major points and my stats. I knocked it out of the park!

The Lesson

Later that day as we walked to a committee hearing, I said, “You did a good job with the sugar speech.” I couldn’t take it anymore, I needed some kind of direct feedback. He stopped and turned to me and said, “Why?”

This pretty much caught me off guard because I was expecting a simple “Thank you” or even, “No, YOU did a great job, Scott!” Instead, I got a lesson:

“Well, you made the point that the program cost taxpayers…”

“Did you notice I was leaning on the podium?” he asked.

“Well no, but you also brought up the Fanjul brothers and…”

He stopped me again, “Did you notice I had a pen in my hand and was pointing at people?”

“Yeah, but…”

“Look,” he started, “You’re a smart guy. You know this program and the points I should make. But when I’m leaning on the podium and pointing a pen at people, they stop listening to what I’m saying and start wondering what’s wrong with me. I need you to deliver good product and then tell me how I can do better. No one buys your arguments if they don’t buy you. Got that?”

“Of course.”

“Then don’t kiss my ass,” he said, “Tell me what I screwed up and how to fix it. You’ve got to hit me over the head. I can pay some college kid nothing to tell me I’m good, but we’re in the business of making arguments. Any questions?”

The Choice

I stood there for what seemed like 10 minutes thinking to myself, “Jesus, I just wanted an ‘Atta boy.'” I shook my head and he pushed the button to the elevator and when the door opened, he smiled at the three people on the elevator and said, “Heyhowyou?” like he always does (yes, it is one word when he says it) and we were off.

That exchange is the clearest managerial direction Sanford ever gave me. For me, I suddenly saw two Mark Sanfords, one who was driven to fight the national debt, wasteful spending, and for limited, constitutional government and the other, a socially awkward guy who cared more about The Enterprise than himself.  So, in a hallway in the Longworth Building in 1997, I was enlisted to protect The Enterprise, even from Mark Sanford, himself. Sadly, that story didn’t end so well. But we’ll get to that another day.

Not Pictured

“You should write a book.”  Every time I hear that, I cringe. Only remarkable people should write books because they have something to give the world. The rest of us…

“More interesting on the internet than real life.” Scott English, self description

When you live in the world of politics, you get trust and access to other people’s stories. It’s hardly fair to peel back some of those layers later in life just to make a few bucks. To be perfectly honest, after spending most of my adult life with political people, it turns out they’re not as interesting as you might think.

Remember in high school when the Yearbook staff organized the club photos? They were hastily arranged pictures on your worst hair day wearing a band T-shirt you definitely did not want memorialized for the rest of time. It was then and there I mastered, Not Pictured. Sadly, it was not perfected until later years, but my high school yearbooks are largely devoid of Scott English pictures.

In politics, I took this to a whole new level, cultivating an image of being the Jackal (felt more than seen). In the 1990s, I worked on the staff of then (and now) U.S. Representative Mark Sanford (SC-1). In his first round through Congress, Sanford limited himself to three terms meaning he was to depart after the 2000 elections. In the waning days of his third term, Sanford asked the Washington staff to join him on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to take a group shot. It’s a sharp looking group and one “not pictured.”

Team Sanford 2000
Team Sanford 2000 (l to r): Michael Royal, Tracy Wilson, Tucker McNeil, Sanford, Michael Burchstead, Kara Borie, Brent Gibadlo, Jim McGuire. Not Pictured: Scott English

I can only imagine that my former co-workers have forgiven my transgression of being a ghost in the last staff photo. If they had known then what they know now, they might have missed this photo too.

In my case, I was cultivating an air of mystery to add a little fear to the equation. Combine that with habits picked up from professional wrestling and the wild card instincts of the youngest child, and I managed to bluff. A lot.

In the abstract, I have been blessed to live an adventure of a life: from a very young age to this very day and hopefully for a few more decades.  Where am I going with all of this? I have no idea.