C&E: Talk about the decision to leave the governor’s office after the chaos of the past few months.
Sawyer: It was a really tough decision. I’ve spent most of my professional career there. I’m 32 years old, so six and a half years in the governor’s office represents a good portion of your adult life. From that standpoint, it was something I really struggled with. Take everything that happened with the governor out of the equation for a minute. This is the time in any gubernatorial administration where people are going to start trying to figure out the next chapter in their lives. I was approached with an opportunity for an initial consulting contract, and it was one that was structured in such a way as to provide me some flexibility to form my own company, go out and generate some additional business and recruit some additional clients. I decided the time was right to jump on that.

C&E: Over that whole series of statements that came out of your office during that period when Gov. Sanford was M.I.A., anything you regret?
Sawyer: Looking back, hindsight is always 20-20. But in retrospect, given what we had to work with, I think we did the best job that we could. We let people know that the governor was out of state. At the time we thought he was on the Appalachian Trail. There was some gap there timing-wise because what we were hoping for when we released that initial statement was that we would get an update from him as to his precise location on the trail before just saying generally that’s where he was. When that didn’t happen, we decided to just say that he was on the trail, which is what he told us before he departed.

C&E: Was there any point in time when you started to doubt the accuracy of what you were telling the press?
Sawyer: We had absolutely no clue until that Wednesday morning when he came back. I got a call early that morning telling me that the governor had not been on the Appalachian Trail and that in fact he was on a plane back from Argentina. At the time I didn’t know the nature of why he had been there, but that became clear through the course of the day.  

C&E: What was it like inside the governor’s office as this progressed and what about your own personal emotions?
Sawyer: It’s one of those things where you become so busy and you’re so focused on the task at hand that you don’t really have time to let it sink in. You just do your job and by the time the adrenaline wears off, the rawness of the emotions is already gone. It would be fair to say that everybody was both shocked and disappointed. I don’t want to delve too deep into personal conversations, but to the governor’s credit he stood up and took responsibility and he told the absolute truth about his staff. He said that he misled his staff and that it was his fault and not ours. I still give him a good deal of credit for that. In the political process a lot of times you find people who are looking to throw anybody they can under the bus and the governor didn’t do that. He stood up and told the whole truth. Some people would argue that he went into too great a degree of detail at times. But it was important for him to just get it all out there and that’s what he did.

C&E: Once you realized the governor had lied to you, were you not tempted to just resign right then?
Sawyer: No. I recognized that I had a job to do and I did it. You take it one call and one e-mail at a time and you just plow through.
C&E: What’s the lesson for folks, broadly speaking, from the Mark Sanford saga?
Sawyer: Every situation is different, but ideally you want to be able to just tell your story one time and be done with it. That’s something that obviously didn’t happen in this case, and I don’t even know if it would have been possible to do in this case. But it’s certainly the ideal way to go about handling something like this and it didn’t happen here.
C&E: What will you take from this whole experience as you form your own firm?
Sawyer: It was an incredibly trying time, just to state the obvious. But as painful as it has been at times, it’s an experience you can’t buy. And that’s a skill set you can’t learn from a book. So I think it has given me a great deal of credibility on the crisis management side going forward. Emphasizing the experience on the crisis management side will be a big part of the firm. But I’m also looking at the more traditional side of media strategy, message development, media training and writing for mass communication.

C&E: When you look at the GOP nationally, do you see a party that has a clear vision or a party that still needs a better direction?
Sawyer: I think it’s a little bit of both. There are a lot of people out there who get it. But with any loss, and the 2008 election was a big one for us, there are going to be two schools of thought out there. One school of thought is that we need to grow the tent and pull in more people regardless of whether or not they agree with the core principles. The other school of thought, and this is the one I subscribe to, is that we need to get back to the core principles and we need to deliver on them.

C&E: How does the party win in 2010?
Sawyer: I actually think that the Obama presidency thus far presents an opportunity to create a very clear contrast between what the Democratic Party offers and what the Republican Party can offer. The Obama administration has gotten our country further into running and managing the private sector than at any other point in our history, and they’re trying to do the same thing with healthcare right now. So I think there’s a real opportunity for Republicans to say, “We represent the chance to let you decide what happens in your life.”  

Joel Sawyer worked for South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford for the past six years. He left the governor’s office in August to launch New Level Strategies, a South Carolina-based political consulting firm. www.newlevelstrategies.com