Nathan on this year's legislative session

“If I’m tired of it, I’m sure the rest of the state is tired of it,” said Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, a Sanford ally. “I saw some progress this year, and then all of a sudden, it falls apart. I thought we (legislators) had delivered on our promises.”

The State | Sanford and legislature still on unfriendly terms
Governor says elections next year may hold key to pushing agenda
JOHN O’CONNOR

Despite an August that’s seen a string of defeats at the hands of the legislature, Gov. Mark Sanford is optimistic he can push his agenda forward over his last three years in office.

A key, by Republican Sanford’s estimation, is having more like-minded lawmakers in the GOP-controlled General Assembly.

Next year’s elections, Sanford said, will be critical for building support for his agenda in the State House. All 170 seats in the legislature are up for election in 2008.

Sanford, who has $1.7 million left from his re-election campaign last year and the ability to raise more, would not say if he planned to help finance legislative candidates.

But it’s clear Sanford is hoping to see new blood in the General Assembly.

“Maybe one more election cycle we’ll have enough members to affect the (Republican) caucus,” Sanford said. “Are the numbers accruing in our direction? Absolutely.”

Such talk frustrates some Republican lawmakers.

Sanford, they said, is planning to target their colleagues in elections, refusing to work hard on behalf of legislation and reneging on pledges.

“I think it’s difficult to expect a legislator who has been targeted,” House Speaker Bobby Harrell said, “to come back in the legislative session and support Gov. Sanford.”

State Sen. Yancey McGill, D-Williamsburg, said Sanford needs to sit down with lawmakers and work with them, a sentiment repeated throughout Sanford’s five-year tenure.

“I’m not sure he really wants a relationship with the General Assembly,” McGill said. “I’d have never thought you’d see Republicans fighting Republicans in this state.”

Despite years of friction, Sanford sees things changing in the General Assembly. A group of like-minded House freshmen, elected last year, prove his message of low taxes and streamlining state government is reaching state residents, he said.

One of those freshmen, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-Lancaster, agrees, likening Sanford to Barry Goldwater. Though Goldwater lost the election, Mulvaney said, he helped change the discussion about what it meant to be conservative.

“I think it’s a shame that we rush to judge the governor by what he’s done so far,” Mulvaney said.

Waning influence?

Is Sanford losing influence at the start of his second, lame-duck term?Sanford insists not.

As he pushes his three-part platform to restructure state government, make state businesses more competitive and improve quality of life, Sanford said he is no less influential now than when he first took office.

“We’re trying to start a wave, rather than ride a wave,” he said, referring to politicians following public opinion.

However, Sanford’s wave-making created a new rift with legislators when the governor blasted “banana republic” lawmakers for electing one of their own, former state Rep. Converse Chellis, R-Dorchester, to replace Thomas Ravenel as treasurer.

Sanford’s hand-picked candidate for the post, Tim Scott, was not even nominated by legislators. The final 122-24 legislative vote for Chellis seemed to put the Sanford-legislature relationship at an all-time low.

Then, Chellis and the two legislative members of the State Budget and Control Board chose Frank Fusco as that agency’s new executive director. (Fusco had stepped down from the post in January, under pressure from pro-Sanford forces.)

Those decisions erased the influence Sanford had gained by naming his former chief of staff to head the budget agency in January.

Legislatively, this year has been hit and miss for Sanford, who won re-election by 10 percentage points last November.

Sanford successfully pushed for income tax cuts, workers’ compensation changes and Transportation Department reform. But the Senate also shut down Sanford’s restructuring plan early in the session.

Despite Sanford’s loss of control over the Budget and Control Board, analysts said Sanford’s influence should not be dismissed.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, who has studied the relationship between executive and legislative branches of government, said that as long as a governor has veto power, the ability to make appointments and influence budgets, he has power.

“No executive is ever irrelevant,” Sabato said.

Sanford has a chance next year to be much more relevant if he decides to recruit candidates to challenge legislative incumbents.

Filing for House and Senate seats typically runs the final two weeks of March. That means the governor would have the first three months of the legislative session to pressure lawmakers, lest they face Sanford-recruited opposition.

But that’s a dicey proposition, Sabato said.

Sabato said Sanford should be mindful of what happened to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938. At the height of his power, Roosevelt set out to defeat a group of fellow Democrats in Congress who did not support his policies.

“He failed in every single primary,” Sabato said. “It’s a dangerous business. Maybe (Sanford) can pull it off. But if Franklin Roosevelt couldn’t do it at the peak of his power as president of the United States, one wonders if Mark Sanford can do it.”

So far, Sanford’s legislative endorsement has carried little weight.

This year, for instance, Catherine Ceips easily won a vacant Senate seat despite Sanford’s support for her opponent. And, last year, groups sympathetic to Sanford scored few successes in ousting targeted House members.

A new approach

Sanford said he has adjusted his approach with lawmakers — opting against sweeping changes proposed in the past, a technique he refers to as “rifle shots.” The key is to repeat the message, he said, using examples such as the Budget and Control Board, which marks up fees that it charges other state agencies for services.

“You have to have flexibility in accepting whatever course,” Sanford said. “We tried inside meetings. We tried going outside the system. You try sugar, you try spice.”

But some lawmakers said the bickering between the legislative and executive branches has prevented progress.

“If I’m tired of it, I’m sure the rest of the state is tired of it,” said Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, a Sanford ally. “I saw some progress this year, and then all of a sudden, it falls apart. I thought we (legislators) had delivered on our promises.” — State staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed

John O’Connor: 803-771-8358; joconnor@thestate.com.