Sanford's Dubious Feat: Uniting Opponents

South Carolina governor takes heat from all sides for refusing stimulus money.

WASHINGTON, April 5, 2009 -- A lot of politicians talk about bringing people together. But South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford seems to have actually pulled it off.

He's united the Democrats who control Congress, the Republicans who control his state's legislature and thousands of angry South Carolinians -- against him.

"Gov. Sanford is playing politics instead of doing what's right," a recent Democratic National Committee ad said.

How is the governor pulling off the feat? By doing the unthinkable -- turning down millions in free federal money.

"There's no such thing as free federal money," Sanford told ABC News in an interview in his statehouse office. "There's always a string attached."

Sanford says he never liked the federal stimulus plan.

"I unabashedly thought it was a bad idea and did everything with in my power as the sitting governor to throw a monkey wrench into wheels that were moving it forward," Sanford said. "But we lost that debate."

On Friday Sanford became the last governor to certify that South Carolina will accept most of the stimulus money. But Sanford says he'll reject $700 million for education and law enforcement unless the legislature writes a check for the same amount to pay down the state's debt.

"At this point they have not been blinking which means we wouldn't use the $700 million," he said.

It's made him the Republicans' poster boy for fiscal restraint. Some say that's the point. Sanford is expected to run for president in 2012. Sanford said that is not why he's saying no.

"This is not the kind of thing that builds or garners political favor," he said. "I mean it's an unpopular decision but it's one that I think is right."

Perhaps it's no surprise the fiscal rebellion is centered in Columbia, S.C. The outer walls of the capitol are marked with stars where Union cannon balls struck the statehouse during the Civil War. Now it's taking fire once again, this time from teachers and unemployed workers.

Protesters recently surrounded the state house, chanting, "Take the funds! Take the funds!"

Only one other governor, Alaska Republican Sarah Palin, has said she would reject the education money. Like other southern Republican governors – Mississippi's Haley Barbour, Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and Texas' Rick Perry -- Sanford is also rejecting nearly $100 million in unemployment funds. Too many strings, he said. But unlike those other governors, his state ranks second in the nation in unemployment.

"We are in a recession," Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., told ABC in an interview. "And for him to be talking about deficit reduction is tantamount to just talking about water conservation when there's a fire. We have to put the fire out."

That fire is raging for the state's growing ranks of unemployed workers. Thousands are relying on the Harvest Hope food pantry, which now supplies free groceries to twice as many hungry families as it did last year.

"They are coming to our doors in masses," Maggie Knowles, director of Harvest Hope, told ABC News. "Two years ago a hundred a day was an insanely busy day and know it's 350."

Harvest Hope's warehouse, serving 20 counties, went through 20 million pounds of food last year. This year, it's expected to go through 43 million.

Governor Sanford warns that unless South Carolina socks some money away, things could get worse when the stimulus funds run out.

Asked if he was going to blink, Sanford said, "No, and if past is any prologue that's one of those things that you can rest assured isn't going to change."