SUMTER, S.C. -- Working the room like he was running for office instead of leaving it, Mark Sanford stopped by Sumter Cut Rate Drugs and Soda Fountain for an hour on Friday. It was one of the last stops on his final road trip as South Carolina governor; this time he let the people of the state know exactly where he was going.
Among a mostly friendly group of about two dozen, who asked for autographs and posed with him for pictures, Sanford, 50, seemed relaxed and ready to relinquish the governor's office to his one-time protégé, Nikki Haley
. He shed his casual jacket, shook every hand and signed menus, slips of paper and one baseball. What's next for him? "I haven't figured that out yet," he told me. He did say he was headed back to the coast. "I have salt water in my veins." The Charleston area is also close to his ex-wife, Jenny Sanford
, and their sons.
"I had my turn at the helm," he said. "We had great days, we had bad days, we had everything in between." And now, Sanford said, it's Haley's turn.
The one-time rising Republican star, whose career stalled on a romantic affair and a 2009 side trip to Argentina, spent Friday reminiscing about other things -- his 17 years in politics, the last eight years as governor. "I've always loved the chance to meet South Carolinians," he told the people gathered around the lunch counter. "What we've tried to advance in terms of policy is directly pulled from that reservoir of common sense that makes up all of y'all."
"There's something special about this diner," he said, "something special about small-town South Carolina, in the way you can have a conversation ... in a way that maybe you can't in some of the bigger metropolitan areas."
He picked the right place, a small business that's just celebrated its 75th
anniversary, where Mamie Brown has been making "our famous chicken salad" for close to 40 years, she told me. (And yes, it's tasty.)
However, the economic troubles felt in the country, the state and in this central South Carolina city of about 40,000 are oh-so-contemporary. Shari Moore, an unemployed floral designer from Sumter, asked Sanford why he was "only for the Republicans and the rich people." She said, "The trickle-down effect has not worked for 30 years."
Sanford touted a record of job creation, aid to small business and investment dollars coming into the state. As others in the crowd grumbled at Moore's questions, Sanford signed her slip of paper and said: "Everybody gets to say their say. Isn't that the beauty of America?" He pointed to Chuck Wilson, sitting off to the side, as an example that despite political differences, "we're all South Carolinians." Wilson, the former vice chairman of the state Democratic Party, told me he calls Sanford "a friend," and admires his "fiscal responsibility" as governor. In Sumter, Wilson has an insurance company and is director of music at the Episcopal church, something else he said he has in common with Sanford.
Sonny Freeman, 62 -- the man with the baseball -- wanted Sanford's signature to complement that of Carroll Campbell, the former South Carolina GOP governor who had signed the ball during his term. Freeman said he admired Sanford's "conservatism in spending."
"I think he did great," said James Coleman, 71, who is retired from the post office. He was forgiving of Sanford's personal problems. "It's wrong for married men to mess around," he said. "But it happens. Men will get carried away sometimes." Anita Neville, who works in the store's medical supply department, admitted she was "disappointed" in Sanford, though she said he did "perfectly fine" -- as a governor. "Everybody has ups and downs," she said. "You can't judge that."
Neville -- bothered that Haley "wasn't disclosing enough information" about herself -- voted for her Democratic opponent Vincent Sheheen. But "hopefully, she'll do well. I hope so. She's a woman."
Sanford's last week in office hasn't been all nostalgia. In a final news conference Thursday, he outlined a plan to lower taxes in South Carolina to increase the state's competitiveness, as reported in The State.
He told me on Friday that the message he's heard on his week of traveling is that voters appreciate "the degree to which we tried to watch out for the taxpayers' pocketbook" and "the degree to which we tried to change things in Columbia."
He said he has told Gov.-elect Haley "if you call asking for a thought, I'll certainly give it but I'm not going to call you suggesting ideas because I don't think it's appropriate to micromanage from -- in essence -- the past watch."
His farewell, however, was conditional. "It's been a lot of goodbyes," he said, "although it's never completely goodbye in South Carolina. It's I'll see you in the next chapter."
When a supporter suggested the next step might include a return to politics "in four years," Sanford said it would be enough "if I can survive the week."