Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is as complex as the place she calls home. Plucked from near-political obscurity to become Sen. John McCain’s running mate, Palin either has pitch-perfect political instincts or has benefited from a spectacular run of luck that has landed her in the ultimate right place at the right time.
It is easy to see why McCain was drawn to her; their political resumes have much in common. The 44-year-old Republican has sold herself as a political maverick willing to buck her party over principle, an ethics reformer who quit a lucrative job rather than play ball with the old boys’ network and a pragmatist who will reach across the aisle to get her agenda enacted. Like McCain, she has at times been a black sheep in her own party. Also like McCain, she has been accused of overstepping ethical bounds on occasion.
And perhaps because she is a woman -- a former beauty queen at that -- in an exceedingly macho state, not everyone has taken her seriously. Her schoolmarm look, she has said, was developed as a defense against just that attitude. Still, some who know her well believe her to be a policy lightweight. Others accuse her of focusing only on oil and gas and ignoring other important issues -- such as healthcare and education -- that she is not particularly passionate about. (Similar charges have been leveled at McCain as well.) Though there has been a mix of reaction to her selection by McCain, she is an exceedingly popular figure in her state. Opponents cross her at their peril.
“The landscape up here is littered with people who have underestimated her,” said Eric Croft, a Democratic former state representative who enlisted her help when he investigated a Republican oil commissioner for ethical breaches. “Maybe she is not ready for prime time, or maybe she is going to litter the national landscape with people who have underestimated her.”
She came of age politically when the decades-long iron grip of Republicans in Alaska was just beginning to loosen, partly through scandal and partly through changing demographics. For three decades or more, Alaska was an overwhelmingly Republican state. It was dominated by a trio of politicians who were in lock-step with the oil and gas industry but managed to remain overwhelmingly popular because they brought home billions of federal dollars.
But the era of those men -- Sen. Ted Stevens, former Gov. Frank Murkowski and Rep. Don Young (author of the infamous “bridge to nowhere” earmark) -- was already drawing to a close when Palin in 2005 mounted her successful challenge to replace Murkowski as governor. An FBI probe, which culminated in a raid of legislators’ offices in August 2006, resulted in criminal charges against a handful of legislators. Stevens is under indictment for failing to report gifts, and Young is defending himself against bribery charges.
Independents, now the largest bloc of Alaska voters, were tired of business as usual, and Palin was able to capitalize on their mood. Already, she had quit a $125,000-a-year job as chairwoman of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission out of disgust for the back scratching she observed between the industry and her fellow commissioners.
“She was the right voice at the right time,” said rental car executive Andrew Halcro, who ran as an independent against Palin and Democratic former Gov. Tony Knowles. “The previous governor had, like, a 20% approval rating. They were tired of this just relentless, brute, ignoring-the-public mentality. Then the FBI raids. All she had to do was show up . . . and she got elected.”
What Alaskans got, as she rose from mayor of the small town of Wasilla to the governor’s mansion, was a chief executive focused on two major issues: making oil and gas companies pay higher taxes and getting a controversial natural-gas pipeline built.
Many who have worked with her -- and against her -- say that in the case of the oil tax, she piggybacked on Democratic efforts that were well underway.
“There’s always been a little bit of an air of an opportunist about the governor,” said state Sen. Hollis French, a Democrat, who has been a strong advocate for the public getting a larger slice of Alaskan oil and gas revenues.
This year, the state expects to take in about $10 billion in petroleum revenues, a record.
French said that Palin initially embraced a bill that was fairly tepid and would have raised less money than a similar bill supported by her Republican predecessor. She worked with Democrats -- who constitute about a third of the Legislature -- and a stronger bill was crafted. Half the Republicans supported it.
“It would be incorrect to say the bill came from the governor,” French said.
“There’s a real question whether she’s a Republican or a Democrat,” said GOP state Rep. Mike Hawker.
“She has succeeded in her own limited policy agenda as a Republican governor by having the Democrat caucus in lock-step with her.”
(It is doubtful that Democrats would try to claim Palin; she is against abortion even in cases of rape and incest, sued the federal government to take polar bears off the endangered species list, has said creationism should be taught in schools and advocated a constitutional ban on providing healthcare benefits to same-sex partners.)
Both French and Hawker said Palin has not paid attention to other critically important issues.
“Her administration had the appearance of paying absolutely no attention to any of the rest of the unglamorous side of government,” said Hawker, “whether it be dealing with human services, public services, highways, all the routine aspects.”
French faulted Palin for not helping the Legislature pass a bill to raise the benefits threshhold for children and pregnant women from 175% of the poverty level to 200%. (Most states set them at 200% to 250%.) “She said she wanted to help us raise it,” French said, “but couldn’t be bothered to do anything in the closing days of the Legislature, when she could have helped it through.”
French said he thinks that Palin has a “sort of Reaganesque, kind of Teflon quality,” due to her charm and “force of personality.”
Indeed, Halcro said, those qualities meant that debating Palin was an exercise in frustration. The day after a debate in Fairbanks, they found themselves in conversation at a breakfast in Anchorage.
“She said, ‘You know, I go to these debates, and I’m just amazed at your grasp of issues and facts. You show up with no notecards; you just kind of spurt it out. But I look out over the audience, and I wonder: Is that really important?’ ” Halcro said. “And you know, I’m a policy guy, and I’m thinking, ‘Yeah.’ But people didn’t care. She has a way of walking in a room and filling the room with her presence, so people suddenly forget about their concerns about healthcare or education or anything else.”
Alaska’s Republican congressional delegation has been at loggerheads with Palin since she took office. Still, she earned praise from two politicians with whom she has tangled.
“It’s a great day for the nation and Alaskans,” Sen. Stevens said in a statement. “Gov. Palin . . . will serve our country with distinction -- the first Alaskan and first woman on the Republican ticket. I share in the pride of all Alaskans.”
Rep. Young was less effusive but still positive. “I will actively support the McCain-Palin ticket to be elected our next president and vice president,” he said.
Palin has found herself accused of crossing ethical boundaries in office. In 2002, when she was mayor of her hometown, Wasilla, she was accused of arranging campaign travel from her office and of using her secretary to pen thank-you notes to campaign contributors. She is also embroiled in a controversy now over alleged improper interference with the job of an Alaska state trooper named Mike Wooten, who is divorced from her sister.
The state Legislature is investigating her July firing of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, who claims he was sacked by Palin because he had refused to fire Wooten. On Friday, Monegan told the Anchorage Daily News that Palin had spoken with him on two occasions about firing Wooten. Monegan has also said that Palin’s husband, Todd, spoke with him about the matter.
Both the Anchorage Daily News and the state’s other leading paper, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, raised questions about whether Palin is prepared to lead the nation.
The Anchorage paper was enthusiastic. “You go, girl!” its editorial said. It credited her with bucking the GOP establishment and exhibiting a personal toughness that will be an asset to the GOP ticket.
But then it fretted:
“She’s a total beginner on national and international issues. Gov. Palin will have to spend the next two months convincing Americans that she’s ready to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.”
Murphy reported from Anchorage, Abcarian from Minneapolis.