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StarBulletin.com

A governor's wronged wife builds her own career


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POSTED: Saturday, November 28, 2009

As the political standing of Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina continues to crumble, the career of his wife, Jenny Sanford, seems to be taking off.

She is writing a memoir, “;Staying True,”; to be released in April by Ballantine Books, about grappling with her husband's marital infidelity. She has applied to trademark her own name in order to sell clothing, mugs and other items, though she is independently wealthy. She will appear next month on a Barbara Walters special on ABC as one of the “;10 Most Fascinating People of 2009.”;

She has set up a privately financed personal Web site, JennySanford.com, complete with news releases and photographs. And she has endorsed a candidate to succeed her husband, state Rep. Nikki Haley, a Republican and the only woman in the race.

“;She is stepping from the background into the foreground,”; said Jack Bass, a professor of humanities and social sciences at the College of Charleston. “;She has moved from promoting him as a loyal spouse to using those same talents on behalf of herself.”;

In South Carolina, some politicians and experts believe she may run for office. They are quick to note that she has served as campaign manager during her husband's races, shares his conservative fiscal values and acted as de facto chief of staff briefly in his first term.

“;Yes, if I had to bet, I think she will run,”; said Robert Oldendick, director of the Institute for Public Service and Policy Research at the University of South Carolina. “;Just look at what she's doing externally.”; Sanford declined to be interviewed for this article, and her friends downplayed the idea of a run for office.

Sanford's re-emergence is accelerating at the same time that her husband, a Republican, is battling an impeachment resolution in the state Legislature, dismal approval ratings and 37 charges of ethics violations over his unreported use of friends' airplanes and improper use of campaign contributions. For many in and out of the state, he became an object of ridicule after his confession in June to an extramarital affair with a divorced Argentinean woman named Maria Belen Chapur, whom he called his “;soul mate.”;

After the admission, the Sanfords separated but did not dissolve their 20-year marriage. She is believed to be the only governor's spouse in such a separation, although Gov. Jim Gibbons of Nevada has filed for divorce from his wife, Dawn Gibbons.

Sanford moved out of the Governor's Mansion with their four sons and cardboard boxes of belongings and rebuffed his attempts at reconciliation. A defiant Vogue interview and some choice words about her husband later, Sanford had become a reluctant poster woman for not standing by her man.

“;All I can do is forgive,”; she told Vogue. “;Reconciliation is something else, and that is going to be a harder road. I have put my heart and soul into being a good mother and wife. Now I think it's up to my husband to do the soul-searching to see if he wants to stay married. The ball is in his court.”;

But these latest image-raising moves—the book, the Web site, the endorsement—suggest a person who is growing more comfortable as a headline-maker.

“;Initially she may not have been interested in being in that spotlight,”; said Danielle Vinson, the political science department chairwoman at Furman University in Greenville. “;But it's clear that it's not going away, and she seems to have embraced it.”;

By staying married but separated, friends say, Sanford has the best of two worlds as part first lady, part independent woman. She enjoys the perks of political office (a staff assistant, expert advice, ready publicity, admiring colleagues) without the pitfalls (a breakneck schedule of photo-ops and glad handing beside a politically toxic husband). Sanford has one full-time employee in the governor's office, Meg Milne, an assistant and spokeswoman.

While Sanford does not receive a salary as first lady, she works on initiatives about promoting healthy eating and preventing cancer. She does not appear in public often, but she is scheduled to attend a holiday open house on Dec. 3 at the mansion, although not necessarily with the governor.

Sanford would make a strong candidate for office but could face a negative reaction if she were viewed as capitalizing on her husband's affair, said Adam Fogle, the editor of the Palmetto Scoop, an online publication about South Carolina politics.

“;At the end of the day,”; Fogle said, “;she's got Sanford at the end of her name.”;

Sanford has not expressed plans to run for office. Her friends dismissed the notion of a Jenny Sanford campaign as far-fetched.

“;That would shock me as much as the news about Mark shocked me,”; said Sally Shropshire Williamson, a close friend and antiques business consultant. “;I do not think that's how she would see herself as being beneficial.”;

Sanford's political views are closely aligned with her husband's, especially on reducing taxation and government spending, said Joel Sawyer, a former communications director for the governor. But much of her work as first lady has been on public health. She serves on the boards of organizations for children's health and cancer prevention and founded an initiative called the Healthy South Carolina Challenge that advocates healthy eating, exercise and not smoking.

These days, Sanford spends most of her time caring for her sons, ages 11 to 17, and writing the memoir in a simple ocean-view house on Sullivan's Island with a view of Fort Sumter. A Georgetown-educated former investment banker, Sanford is surrounded by a close-knit circle of professional women.

“;She's creating her own identity,”; said Marjory Wentworth, the state poet laureate and a longtime friend who lives in nearby Mt. Pleasant. “;So many people have written her e-mail messages and letters of support. Here and there, when something matters to her, she will respond with a statement about her beliefs.”;

One such statement concerned Haley, whom Sanford endorsed for governor. A conservative, 37-year-old Indian-American state representative from Lexington, Haley has attracted considerable attention in a state of older, mostly male and white politicians.

An ally of Mark Sanford who distanced herself from him after the scandal, Haley was described by Sanford in the endorsement as “;principled, conservative, tough and smart.”;

Few details have been released about Sanford's memoir. But Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, calls it an “;inspirational memoir”; that “;will grapple with the universal issue of maintaining integrity and a sense of self during life's difficult times.”;

That is consistent with how Sanford is beginning to present herself: in selective sound bites that emphasize her independence and resilience.

“;She was always the driving force behind Mark Sanford, the engine that powers the car,”; said Fogle of the Palmetto Scoop. “;Now the car broke down, and she's on her own.”;