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POLITICS: PennAve

What redemption looks like: After an apology tour, Mark Sanford settles in to Congress

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Politics,Congress,South Carolina,PennAve,Rebecca Berg,Scandal

When Rep. Mark Sanford was sworn in to Congress in May, marking his improbable return to politics after a scandal that was supposed to derail his career, House leaders faced an immediate problem.

No one wanted to work with him.

"There were multiple committee chairmen who expressed concerns with having Mark on their committee," one House aide said. "Mark had gotten so much attention during his race that they didn't really want distractions."

South Carolina's newest congressman eventually found spots on the House Transportation and Homeland Security committees. But if this is Sanford's political redemption, it looks a lot like purgatory.

It's been four years since the then-governor of South Carolina disappeared for six days, his whereabouts unknown to family or friends. His staff said he was "hiking the Appalachian Trail," an erroneous explanation that became a national punchline. When Sanford finally surfaced, the world learned he'd been in Argentina with a mistress he'd known for eight years.

Sanford's fellow Republicans filed ethics charges against him and drafted articles of impeachment when he refused to resign, but settled for a vote to censure. When Sanford's second term ended in 2011, he disappeared from public life, his political career seemingly finished. Then in December 2012 a congressional seat opened, and Sanford stunned many by jumping in. His campaign was mainly an apology tour, and voters in his district granted him their foregiveness.

A sex scandal, it seems, is no longer a political death sentence, if ever it was.

In New York, a pair of previously shamed politicians, also victims of their own sexual transgressions, now lead in two major political races: Anthony Weiner, for mayor, and Eliot Spitzer, for comptroller.

But if the New York Democrats hope to take a page from Sanford's atonement playbook -- or to swipe the book wholesale -- he says he won't help. "I wouldn't want to give advice to anybody," he said.

As a born-again lawmaker, Sanford's political redemption is just beginning. His election didn't allow him to restart his career at the point it stalled. He's basically starting over, beginning his repentance last month in a 10-minute speech to the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition in Washington, an invitation he initially turned down.

"In many ways I recognize the ways in which I am unworthy of offering my opinion or my perspective on a whole host of things given my failures in 2009," Sanford said. "But in some ways, I don't want to spend the rest of my life worrying about the log in my own eye before I worry about the speck in anybody else's, or the speck on any other issue out there."

The crowd's reaction would later be described as "chilly," which Sanford attributes to a speech about fiscal matters rather than social issues, though he didn't want to submit to "over-psychoanalysis."

"You have to ask yourself, will the events of your life refine or define your life?" Sanford added. "All of your critics will always make it definitional. I'd rather refine my life. I'd rather refine how I approach life."

To that end, Sanford is immersing himself in the routine of a new job: picking out office space, hiring staff, building fresh relationships with his colleagues. His approach to building a post-scandal life begins with the little things.

He was spotted in the stands at the June 27 congressional softball game, nursing a Miller Lite and chatting with staffers. He speaks fondly of debating the farm bill with other lawmakers over Chinese food, of post-workout chats with colleagues at the House gym, and of popping by the office Rep. Matt Salmon to catch up and reminisce about when the two of them first served together in the House.

Like a transfer student in the middle-school lunch line, Sanford is scoping out opportunities for camaraderie. "I wouldn't say I'm yet at the point of friendship" with Rep. Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, Sanford mused. But "he's the kind of guy who has a lot of similar views. Someone who could become a friend." In a written statement, Amash described Sanford as "a great defender of liberty and the Constitution."

Sanford, a one-time rising political star seriously discussed as presidential material, is now a rank-and-file member of the House, where leadership aides said he has yet to speak up at Republicans' weekly meetings. But Sanford is happy, he says, just to be back -- and without anything left to prove.

"Maybe it's age, maybe it's experience, maybe it's public failure, I don't know, but some combination that gets you well past the point of having anything to prove," Sanford said. "I am here to be the best congressman I can be for the First Congressional District."

"I think I'm past the point of trying to prove anything," he said, "and at the point of trying to do something."

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Author:

Rebecca Berg

Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner