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Sanford completes trek from Congress to 'Appalachian Trail' and back again

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Speaker of the House John Boehner, left, greets Peggy Sanford, right, mother of U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, second from right, Sanford's fiancee, Maria Belen Chapur, center, and members of Sanford's family before a ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol May 15, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

 

Mark Sanford’s comeback story is complete.

House Speaker John Boehner swears in former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford as the state's newest representative on Wednesday March 15, 2013.

The former South Carolina governor is now officially a congressman again, sworn in Wednesday on the House floor after winning last week’s competitive special election in the state's 1st District.

As Sanford took his official oath late Wednesday afternoon, he echoed the same themes of redemption he used in his winning campaign.

“I stand before you with a whole new appreciation for the God of second chances,” Sanford said.

The Republican’s return nearly 13 years after he left Capitol Hill is all the more remarkable for his having overcome the scandal that derailed his governorship.

In 2009, Sanford disappeared from the state, telling his office he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail, only to reveal in a teary press conference that he had actually been having an affair in Argentina. Sanford and his wife divorced, and he is now engaged to that same Argentinian woman, Maria Belen Chapur.

After he left the governor’s office following his second term, Sanford's political career appeared to be finished.  But when Gov. Nikki Haley tapped Rep. Tim Scott to fill an open seat in the U.S. Senate, Sanford was presented with an opportunity to reclaim the district he once represented.

Sanford won the special election primary and runoff with relative ease, but soon news leaked that his ex-wife had accused him of trespassing at her home earlier this year. Many Republicans began to distance themselves from Sanford, and the National Republican Congressional Committee pulled funding from the race.

Sensing an opportunity, Democrats poured money into the race, hoping that Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, could pull the upset. Though polls showed the race was close, Sanford won by nine points on May 7.

But on Wednesday, as he began his first official day back on the Hill, Sanford said there were no hard feelings for House Republicans who spurned his campaign and said he'd been welcomed by the state's congressional delegation and by many current members, some of whom he had served with in his first stint.

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"If there's anybody who believes in putting the past behind them, it's me," a smiling Sanford told reporters outside his new congressional office before a noon lunch for supporters. In the afternoon, more than 50 supporters walked with him across Independence Avenue to the Capitol steps for a photo and filed into the gallery to watch his swearing-in at 5:30 p.m. on the House floor.

Chapur, his fiancée, was with him throughout Wednesday’s events. His two oldest sons were also present for his swearing-in, along with his mother, sister and brother-in-law and nephews.

Sanford said he and Chapur haven’t yet set a date for their wedding “that you know,” he joked with reporters.

The famously frugal governor, who slept in his office for his first six years in Congress, says he hasn’t decided whether he’ll bunk in his Cannon House office this time as he did before, but did laugh that he brought a futon with him.

Before his swearing-in, Sanford said he had to go through the same formalities any new member has to do, like getting his new member pin and congressional license plates.

“To a degree it’s deja vu; to a degree it’s a brand new experience,” said Sanford, noting the heightened security around the Capitol since the 1990s.

After being a chief executive for eight years, Sanford said he didn’t care whether he might experience some of the same frustrations with the slow legislative process many other former governors have. For Sanford, he’s just happy to be here, given the bumpy road that brought him back to D.C.

“Everybody travels their own path. Given the path I’ve traveled, it’s a chance to serve in the Congress of the most powerful country on Earth, to deal with financial issues that were really the reason I ran for office in the first place,” said Sanford. “It’s a chance to come back and work on the issues I’ve long cared about, long talked about, long been an advocate on.”

Democrats, however, weren't so ready to forgive and forget. Even though they may have lost the heavily Republican Charleston-based district that voted for Mitt Romney by 18 points last fall, they quickly worked to continue to hang Sanford’s scandals on him.

“Today when Mark Sanford raised his right hand, he became the newest face of a Republican Congress already struggling with women voters,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Emily Bittner. “Good luck with that.”