Jerry McCutcheon went to Sarah Palin’s office here last week to request information about the firing of former Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, the scandal that for weeks has threatened to overshadow the governor’s role as Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s running mate.
McCutcheon was given a phone number in Virginia to call: the national headquarters of the McCain-Palin campaign.
Why, he wanted to know, did he have to call a campaign office 4,300 miles away to find out what was going on in Alaska government? The longtime civic activist phoned his local state representative, Les Gara, who quickly filed a protest.
These days, many such queries about Monegan -- or anything else involving Palin’s record as governor -- get diverted to McCain staffers. A former Justice Department prosecutor from New York flew in recently to advise the governor’s lawyer and field reporters’ calls about Monegan. Soon after, Palin’s willingness to cooperate in the Legislature’s probe of the affair ended.
A recent call to John Cramer, the head of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs -- who clashed with Palin during her years as mayor of Wasilla -- was returned by a McCain campaign operative who had just arrived from Washington, D.C. “John who?” she asked.
In stubbornly independent Alaska, the sudden intrusion of a political campaign into so many corners of state government -- not to mention Wasilla, where a dozen or more campaign researchers and lawyers have also begun overseeing the release of any information about Palin’s years as mayor -- has touched a raw nerve. McCain staffers have even been assigned to answer calls for Palin’s family members, who have been instructed not to talk.
“Why did the McCain campaign take over the governor’s office?” the Anchorage Daily News demanded in an editorial Saturday. “Is it too much to ask that Alaska’s governor speak for herself, directly to Alaskans, about her actions as Alaska’s governor?”
The partisan spillover of the presidential campaign into the statehouse, political analysts here say, now threatens Palin’s most powerful political capital in Alaska: her commitment to transparency, her willingness to forge bipartisan alliances with Democrats to advance her legislative agenda, and her battle to upend the good ol’ boy network.
“Is this going to dilute her image as a maverick who will clean out the rascals from their perches of power, when she herself cannot tolerate questions into her behavior, investigations into the firing of a public safety commissioner?” said Gerald McBeath, political science professor at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
Palin, he said, is “still popular” in Alaska, “but she is not beloved. And there’s a difference between the two. She’s getting a lot more criticism at the state level as a result of her vice presidential candidacy.”
Democratic leaders, whom the Palin camp accuses of initiating rounds of partisan sniping, say the bipartisanship that helped Palin win passage of ethics measures, a new natural-gas pipeline and an increase in the oil production tax -- in most cases over the objections of her own Republican leadership -- is essentially over.
“She would have gotten none of her bills passed without us, and to see her come in and attack us now the way she’s attacking us, when it’s completely unwarranted, is just tearing people up,” said Democratic state Sen. Bill Wielechowski. “I think it’s going to make it hard for her to come back and govern in this state.”
Even conservatives are expressing resentment over the governor’s about-face on the Monegan investigation and the infiltration of state government by the McCain campaign.
“This Palin VP thing has Alaskans all stirred up. Much like Palin divided the Republican Party, she has managed to divide the state over her national candidacy,” conservative talk-show host Dan Fagan complained in a commentary last week.
“My fellow conservatives, remember how frustrating it was when Bill Clinton committed perjury and liberals looked the other way. As conservatives, we are no better unless we demand full disclosure from our governor,” he said. " . . . No politician is so popular and charismatic that they should be above accountability and telling the truth.”
Most of the battle lines have been drawn in regards to the furor over allegations that Monegan was fired in July because he had refused to terminate Palin’s former brother-in-law, a state trooper whose divorce from the governor’s sister was messy.
Palin insists the firing was motivated by Monegan’s insubordination on budget issues, not her sister’s situation, though the governor and her husband, Todd, admit complaining in the past about the trooper. They said their former brother-in-law had threatened the family, driven his patrol car after drinking alcohol and illegally shot a moose.
Palin had welcomed the Legislature’s inquiry and promised to cooperate.
But she now says the state personnel board, not the Legislature, is the proper venue to probe what happened. The board consists of three GOP appointees.
Palin’s spokespeople have accused the Democratic chair of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, Hollis French, and others of turning the probe into a partisan attack. In a media interview earlier this month, French warned that the committee’s final report might turn into “an October surprise” for the McCain campaign.
On Friday, French, who was Palin’s point man in the Legislature on the oil production tax hike, waited for more than half an hour for subpoenaed witnesses, including Palin’s husband. None showed up.
Several other witnesses had been scheduled to testify voluntarily but, on the advice of Palin’s attorney general, also did not appear.
The resulting standoff has put Alaska on the verge of a constitutional crisis, as the legislative and executive branches each refuse to budge, and no one is sure who is in charge. Legislators say they will consider holding in contempt any witnesses who ignore subpoenas, and they have challenged the right of the attorney general, who is appointed by the governor, to advise state employees on whether to testify.
The standoff has ended any vestiges of bipartisan goodwill for Palin in Juneau, after just 21 months in office. “The level of money [the McCain campaign] sent up here to attack people is unprecedented in a small state like this. If [McCain] were truly a reformer, he’d end this nonsense and apologize to all the people he’s attacked up here,” said Rep. Gara, a Democrat.
The biggest controversy came Tuesday, when the McCain-Palin campaign called a news conference to dispute the claim that Monegan was dismissed for refusing to fire the trooper.
Edward O’Callaghan, who until recently was co-chief of the terrorism and national security unit of the U.S. attorney’s office in New York, and a former Palin spokeswoman now working for the national campaign, accused Monegan of a “rogue mentality” and “outright insubordination.” They said he had flown to Washington, D.C., without Palin’s approval to lobby for more police funding.
Democratic leaders, incensed that outsiders were attacking a respected former state official, produced a travel document Friday showing that in fact Monegan had a signed authorization from the governor’s chief of staff before making what the Palin camp had called an “unauthorized” lobbying trip.
“I don’t know why they’re trying to paint this [legislative investigation] as a Democratic partisan attack,” said state Sen. Wielechowski. “The thing I constantly remind people of is: Democrats didn’t push this. You know who pushed it? It was the Republicans. This is the thing people conveniently forget now. There were no Democrats out there screaming for an investigation.”
The House Judiciary Committee vote to endorse the issuance of the subpoenas included five Republicans and two Democrats.
Taylor Griffin, the McCain-Palin spokesman in Alaska, said the governor believes the state personnel board is a more objective forum for answering any outstanding questions.
“The governor . . . has nothing to hide, and she instructed her staff to cooperate with the inquiry because she thought it was important to get the facts out,” Griffin said.
“But this was all before she was named as the Republican vice presidential running mate. After that, things changed. There was a partisan switch that was flipped among many in the Legislative Council, five of whom have endorsed Obama, several of whom are featured in a picture on Obama’s website,” he said. The 14- member council -- which oversees legislative business between sessions -- unanimously authorized the probe.
Meanwhile, the blogs in Alaska have been full of rants about the McCain campaign. “A pack of high-powered East Coast lawyers are the new artisans of the Palin ‘image.’ If anyone has a question about Palin’s 20 months as governor, ask the McCain campaign, because apparently no one else can give you the answers. This is not going over well in Alaska,” one blogger wrote last week.
“Who the hell do they think they are?” wrote another.
Yet many on both sides of the political fence who initially were critical of Palin have rallied behind her.
“Everything that’s flitting through my mind right now is better left where it is,” Rep. Jay Ramras, a Fairbanks Republican who has been a strident critic of Palin, told the Anchorage Daily News last week. The governor, he said, has become “the American idol of politics.”