How Alabama’s ‘Love Guv’ Failed Scandal Management And Sealed His Fate

Christine Frapech
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On the surface, freshly convicted former Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) and have much in common. Both were Republican, male governors of southern states whose careers were derailed and whose marriages were ruined by long-term, high-profile affairs that made use of public resources. Both could also use a crash course in sending flirty messages to their respective paramours.

But Bentley’s misadventures came to an inglorious end on Monday when he was convicted of two campaign finance misdemeanors and barred from serving in public office in the future as part of his plea deal. Sanford, on the other hand, finished out his term—and is currently serving in Congress.

Experts on political sex scandals told TPM the fallout was so much worse for Bentley because, above all, the 74-year-old ex-governor refused to take ownership of or apologize for his behavior—a rookie mistake in scandal management.

“One of the arguments that can be made is this is a personal matter: this is between me, my wife and my pastor,” said Alison Dagnes, political science professor at Shippensburg University and author of “Sex Scandals in American Politics.” “Everyone makes mistakes, let us work it out and I promise I’ll come back stronger than ever. The American public, for the most part, buys that.”

“When it’s corruption, abuse of power, when it’s a guy who seems to be rich and powerful behaving badly and getting away with it because of his wealth and power, that’s when the public gets really mad,” Dagnes continued.

Immediately after Sanford returned from a secret 2009 trip to Argentina without telling his staff or his wife, he gave a tearful press conference in which he confessed his passionate love for a “dear, dear” friend from Buenos Aires. He offered apologies to his family, staff, friends, people of faith and, to cap it off, “anybody who lives in South Carolina.” He also immediately offered his resignation as chair of the Republican Governor’s Association.

Bentley took quite a different tack. From the moment in April 2016 when he was first publicly accused of carrying out an affair with his former top adviser Rebekah Caldwell Mason, the Alabama governor denied any wrongdoing. Additional negative stories piled up as the months passed. Audio recordings surfaced of Bentley and Mason’s exchanging sweet nothings, the pair was accused of using state resources in the course of their affair, and Bentley was accused of coercing Alabama law enforcement officers into helping the pair conceal the tryst. Through all of that, Bentley insisted he owed no apologies.

On Friday, just days before Bentley pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges of violating campaign finance law, he denied misusing state resources. Even his Monday resignation speech was hardly contrite: “I am leaving this office that I have held, that I have respected, that I have loved for seven years to focus on other and possibly more effective areas of service,” he said.

While a state ethics commission found Sanford used state resources to fund plane trips to visit his girlfriend, María Belén Chapur, that misuse of taxpayer funds was less central to the public’s view of the scandal, experts said. He was able to plead no contest to charges from the state ethics commission, pay $74,000 in fines, and quietly finish out the last year and a half of his term.

Bentley was “facing criminal charges for the personal diversion of campaign funds, and his intimidating tactics towards his staff involving law enforcement officers were much more egregious,” Paul Apostilidis, a political science professor at Whitman College and co-author of “Public Affairs: Politics in the Age of Sex Scandals,” told TPM.

“The redemption narrative is harder to invoke in this case because it’s less about personal failings,” Apostilidis said.

Apostilidis said Bentley opted instead to dig his heels in and adapt a “particular narrative of masculine self-assertion” that said, “If you want me out of office, you’re going to have to force me out. Apostilidis posited that decision likely came from “his generation, the dominant culture of masculinity within the Deep South” and an expression of “unlimited masculine privilege when it comes to sexual matters involving women” that the professor likened to President Donald Trump’s.

While it remains unclear what “effective area of service” Bentley plans to pursue next, all alternative routes to political office are closed to him. Sanford was able to return to the political arena because he followed what experts say is another cardinal rule of overcoming scandal: getting out of the way.

After his departure from the Governor’s Mansion in 2011, Sanford decamped to his family farm in Beaufort County and laid low for almost two years before running in a special election to retake his former congressional seat in Charleston. He squeaked through a crowded GOP primary because of his name recognition, beat Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in a runoff and was re-elected to Congress.

As David Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor and consultant to South Carolina Republican politicians, told TPM, it’s “certainly not the case” that Palmetto State voters were clamoring for Sanford to return to office.

“He’s been able to duck the bullet,” Woodard said.

Bentley will have no second act in the political sphere. But given his advanced age and insistence on staying in public office while Alabama lawmakers and voters unified against him, Dagnes said he was likely never interested in “the next big step” anyway.

“Bentley was immersed in the story for so long that I don’t think its going to get old,” she added. “It lasted so long and blew up in such a huge way, I don’t know if people are willing to forgive the depths of that deception.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Allegra Kirkland is a New York-based reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked on The Nation’s web team and as the associate managing editor for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @allegrakirkland.
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