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SC Gov. Sanford goodbye starts in Rock Hill

Gov. Mark Sanford kicks off his statewide farewell tour this morning at Anna J's restaurant in Rock Hill. But first, he'll spend some time with a loyal supporter.

Sanford was scheduled to stay overnight Monday at the home of Rod Benfield, a Republican activist and volunteer since the governor's first statewide campaign in 2002.

As he prepared to host Sanford one last time, Benfield said he wasn't planning anything special to mark the occasion. His guest wouldn't want it that way.

"Mark is just Mark," Benfield said. "He's a low-maintenance, low-key guy. A bottle of water is about it for him. That's just what he's always done."

On a tour around the state this week, the governor will travel from Anderson to Hilton Head Island, and from Murrells Inlet to McCormick County near the Georgia line.

While admirers such as Benfield mark the end of what they view as a successful tenure, Democrats portray the tour in a different light. They say Sanford leaves behind a state plagued more than ever by education and employment problems.

"As our schools have continued to struggle, Gov. Sanford has been more intent upon denigrating public education than advocating for more funding and meaningful reforms," said Richards McCrae, chairman of the York County Democratic Party.

"He was more interested in proving an ideological point and pandering to the libertarian wing of the Republican Party while our state continued to fall further behind."

Today's farewell comes almost10 years after candidate Sanford introduced himself to York County voters for the first time.

On March 26, 2001, Sanford flew into the Rock Hill/York County Airport on a barnstorming tour across the state and told supporters that his goal was to lead a discussion on how to make South Carolina an "economic superpower" in this part of the world.

Joining Sanford were his wife, Jenny, his mother, Peggy Payton, and four sons, including then-2-year-old Blake, who spent most of the stop asleep in his mother's arms, The Herald reported the next day.

"I bring a business person's perspective, which I think is important to a person up here," Sanford told listeners. "The guys I talk to appreciate the common sense perspective."

There would be dozens more visits over the next eight years, from churches and Rotary Club luncheons to business tours and appreciation dinners.

In 2003, Sanford visited the construction site for the new First Baptist Church building off Dave Lyle Boulevard. In 2007, he held an impromptu town hall meeting in the parking lot of Wilson's Nursery.

On overnight visits, Sanford often stayed in the homes of York County supporters, Benfield said, preferring not to stay in hotels.

In summer 2009, after admitting to a year-long affair with a woman living in Argentina, Sanford brought his Rotary Club apology tour to downtown Clover.

"I just want to begin with the obvious, which is to say I'm sorry for letting many of you down," the governor told 50 listeners.

Glenn McCall, chairman of the York County GOP, emerged as one of Sanford's angriest critics after the affair went public, at one point calling on local Republicans to "rise up" and demand action from lawmakers.

The two have since mended their relationship, and McCall and his wife, Linda, spent the night at the Governor's Mansion last month after a Christmas party hosted by Sanford.

"Don't judge him on one failure," McCall said Monday.

Sanford will one day be remembered as a great governor, McCall predicted.

"He was a tea-party person before it became fashionable," McCall said. "As Republicans compare his tenure in office with those of others, he will be in that conversation at the top of the list."

That might be true among grass-roots Republicans, said Rick Whisonant, a political science professor at York Technical College. But people familiar with the plights of York Tech and Winthrop University will see things differently, Whisonant said.

"York County's two higher education institutions have been financially ravaged in the last eight years because of the lack of support," Whisonant said. "Everybody now says, 'Well, it's because of the economic crisis.'

"That's a lame excuse. When you had the money from 2000 to 2008, you didn't support it."

In the early part of the decade, Winthrop received $25 million annually from the state. Next year, it expects to receive $12.9 million in state funds.

Students are now the main source of income, with tuition and fees accounting for 51.9 percent of the budget, according to school officials.

A large majority of South Carolinians - roughly 7 out of 10 - give the governor a grade of "C" or better for his overall performance as governor, according to a Winthrop Poll conducted in October.

Those grades stand in sharp contrast with earlier polls that showed residents to be unhappy with the governor.

Benfield said Sanford's legacy will take shape over time, in much the same way as former Gov. Carroll Campbell, now an iconic figure among S.C. Republicans.

"He was a popular governor, but he became more popular when he was out of office and people were able to look back and reflect," Benfield said. "(Now) everybody that runs for governor talks about Carroll Campbell.

"You just don't know sometimes until they're gone."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Want to go?

Gov. Mark Sanford will have a breakfast today at 9 a.m. at Anna J's restaurant, 1025 Camden Ave., behind McDonald's on Cherry Road.

The event is open to the public.