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By Will Folks

“It was the last thing I ever expected to hear, and he was the last person I ever expected to hear it from.”

That’s been my quote, and by now I can reflexively regurgitate that response to any of the dozens of national reporters, producers and other circling vultures who have descended upon Columbia, S.C. to pick at the painfully lurid details behind the sudden, surreal fall of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.

I can also reflexively regurgitate that response to dozens of friends and family who have been calling me today asking if I’m “alright.”

Of course I’m alright.

Why wouldn’t I be?

I didn’t cheat on my wife. I didn’t ditch my family on Father’s Day. I didn’t deliberately deceive anybody who works for me. I didn’t come right up to – if not cross – the line when it comes to using taxpayer resources for what was clearly personal (i.e. “risky”) business.

Most importantly, though, I didn’t selfishly betray a reform movement that absolutely, positively must succeed if South Carolina is to ever lift itself up from these same old, status quo bootstraps that have held the state back for decades.

Mark Sanford, on the other hand, is not “alright.”

He’s hating life on all of those fronts, as a matter of fact.

Sure, he’s the first guy to ever – and I mean ever – pull back the festering scab of South Carolina’s corrupt, wasteful, backwards government and let the disinfecting sunlight of common sense come shining in.

Say what you want about his strategic shortcomings – and we’ve said plenty – but as governor, Mark Sanford has used the only power available to him under our state’s antiquated Constitution (the “bully pulpit”) to fight for South Carolina taxpayers with an intelligence, earnestness and consistency that may never be duplicated in our state’s history.

Ever.

That’s why it’s so sad that he’s now “throwing it all away,” as Phil Collins would say.

On a personal level, Mark Sanford is the guy who gave me my big break in politics. He’s someone whose brutal, demanding management style instilled a work ethic in me that’s directly responsible for all the success I’ve had in this venture and all of my other professional endeavors.

Or at least half-responsible …

As it happened, there was another person in the basement of Sanford’s Sullivans’ Island home seven years ago who was every bit as influential in my development, and she just happens to be the woman who Mark Sanford so thoughtlessly betrayed and publicly humiliated in this depressing soap opera now unfolding before us.

Mark Sanford would have never been elected to anything without his wife, Jenny, which above and beyond all the “cheating on Father’s Day” window dressing remains the central irony in all of this.

More than perhaps any wife who’s ever been cheated on, Jenny Sanford didn’t deserve this.

Now don’t get me wrong, the governor owned his actions yesterday.

It wasn’t pretty, advisable, or particularly eloquent – but it was also probably one of the most authentic things you’ll ever see in American politics. Sanford deserves credit for that, not scorn.

And yet not surprisingly, Sanford’s forthright confession is being rebuked by all the Washington D.C. talking heads, who apparently believe that cookie cutter evasion is the “smart” way to handle such a scandal.

Maybe in this sanitized, predictable process it is … but that’s a process story. The real story is pretty simple: What’s next for Mark Sanford?

The governor said yesterday that he wants to spend his remaining months in office winning people’s trust back.

Obviously, I can understand how he feels that need for redemption very strongly on a personal level, but that is precisely the basis for my advice to him – that he should, in fact, resign.

Sorry, Mark, but spending the next eighteen months winning people’s trust back is just not a good enough reason for you to stick around.

Believe me, I hate saying that.

It’s not just because I wouldn’t trust Andre Bauer with the loose change in my pocket – let alone any part of state government – but I hate what that means for the state I’m trying to fix for my kids and, “quite frankly, a lot of other kids and grandkids that are out there.”

Remember that?

Those were the days, weren’t they?

Make no mistake, Bauer is a disaster waiting to happen. In fact, my baby daughter is a few days away from being born, and she’s already more mature than Andre Bauer ever was or ever will be at any point in his life.

On top of that, Bauer has never done anything but pay lip service to the taxpayers of this state.

Forget exposing waste, corruption and inefficiency, Bauer is more likely to dive into all of the above with both feet.

But just as Republicans’ fiscal recklessness at the national level turned America over to the “Obama wave,” the consequences of Sanford’s personally imprudent actions in this case would seem to dictate another unfortunate trajectory for the cause of common sense government – and the very fiscal conservatism that Sanford has devoted his political career to advancing.

So forget legality and sympathy.

Forget the fact that Sanford’s “waste of taxpayer resources” related to this affair is infinitesimally small compared to the billions blown on failed government each year in this state.

Forget the fact that Sanford appears to have been deliberately exposed for political reasons – perhaps chief among them the fact that his oft-discussed presidential ambitions would have cost South Carolina’s political class tens of millions of dollars by effectively causing the 2012 GOP presidential primary to bypass the Palmetto State.

“At the end of the day,” none of that matters.

By his own conduct, the governor has given his enemies just enough rope to hang him – which is why it’s time to cop a plea before the deafening drumbeat for a public, political execution begins.

No man is bigger than a movement, and as much as it pains me to say it the best thing Mark Sanford can do for the reform movement in South Carolina right now is to step down.

I love my friend. I feel for him. I feel for his wife and his four amazing boys.

But ultimately, that’s where I come down on it …

Will Folks is the founding editor of FITSNews.com. He served as Gov. Sanford’s spokesman from 2001-05.