Wasilla gadfly swirls in a storm
The woman behind the infamous e-mail that aired criticisms of Sarah Palin to millions across the cyber-globe sat at a computer screen scrolling through unread messages, as dozens more popped into her inbox.
“Let’s see, what is the next one?” Anne Kilkenny said with a smile, killing time before her family attended a Saturday evening church service. She clicked and skimmed the words: “Hateful liar.”
She opened the next one: “I think you are nothing more than disgruntled and jealous in some way!! Be truthful now. Are you pro-abortion? For gay marriages? Embryonic stem cell research? Euthanasia?”
“Blah, blah, blah, blah,” Kilkenny said, chuckling and shaking her head, moving on to the next e-mail: “Get your own life Anne and leave hers alone.”
“Shame on you Anne Kilkenny, that is if you really do exist!” one person wrote. “You are probably fake.”
Kilkenny, 57, lives with her husband and son in a one-level home surrounded by raspberry bushes, crab apple trees, birch and fireweed. She speaks in a high-pitched voice, cheerful as a grade school teacher, pausing for deep breaths between thoughts. She parts her steel gray hair down the middle, wears ankle-length skirts, irons meticulously and grows potatoes and asparagus in her backyard.
After Sen. John McCain named Palin, the governor of Alaska and former mayor of Wasilla, as his Republican vice presidential running mate on Aug. 29, friends of Kilkenny’s in other states began asking, “What do you know about her?” Two days later, Kilkenny decided to set down her observations about Palin in a 24,000-word sober critique, e-mailed to 40 of her friends in the Lower 48.
Kilkenny wrote that she knew the governor’s family and had witnessed Palin’s political career take off. She wrote that Palin was ruthless in firing staff and did not tolerate those who opposed her. She talked of Palin’s stance as a fiscal conservative during her six years as mayor of Wasilla and her spending decisions.
“Dear friends,” Kilkenny wrote. “So many people have asked me about what I know about Sarah Palin in the last 2 days that I decided to write something up. Basically, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton have only 2 things in common: their gender and their good looks.”
Kilkenny told her friends to feel free to pass her e-mail along, but asked: “Please do not post it on any websites as there are too many kooks out there.”
She never could have predicted what followed after she hit “send:” More than 13,700 e-mails flooded her inbox.
Her friends passed the letter to strangers who posted it on Facebook pages, blogs and websites, resulting in more than 538,000 Google hits under Kilkenny’s name.
Her essay brought a flurry of questions from across the world. Who is Anne Kilkenny? Is she credible? Why did she write about Palin?
Kilkenny e-mails from a Hotmail account using a slow dial-up Internet connection and didn’t know what a blog was until recently. In local government circles, Kilkenny is what some might call a gadfly, keeping stacks of newspaper clippings on her kitchen table and file folders full of city ordinances, city codes and government memos.
For the last decade the homemaker has been a fixture at City Council meetings, showing up well-versed in governmental procedures, sometimes wearing a flower tucked in her hair.
It was Kilkenny’s firsthand experience with Palin -- who was elected to the council in 1992 and became Wasilla’s mayor in 1996 -- that inspired her to craft the e-mail that made her famous.
“I wanted people to be informed,” Kilkenny said. “I wasn’t trying to make a judgment call.”
A 70-foot-long and 30-foot-wide smooth slab of concrete fans out from the garage of Kilkenny’s home to the street. She glances through the window of her tidy kitchen plastered in dandelion-yellow and pumpkin-orange wallpaper. Most of what she knows about local politics started with her fight to pave that driveway.
Until then, Kilkenny rarely paid attention to city issues, though she did vote to put Palin on the City Council. Four years later, the city of Wasilla announced it was going to pave Kilkenny’s street.
She had a fondness for municipal development because her father had been a civil engineer. The family used to drive around their neighborhood in Contra Costa County, Calif., to check out new building projects.
Kilkenny sketched a drawing of how she wanted her driveway apron to look and showed it to planning officials. It was rejected because the footprint was too wide.
“They said, ‘You can only have 12 feet,’ ” Kilkenny said.
At a council meeting, an attorney told her the only way to appeal the ordinance was to rewrite it.
So she did.
Kilkenny showed up at each City Council meeting with her typed driveway ordinance, trying to get it approved. The sessions were held inside a refurbished high school gymnasium. Six council members sat around a horseshoe-shaped table; in the center was Palin, often chewing a wad of gum.
Nick Carney, who served on the council then, remembers there were times when no one showed up to watch, “not even the guy from the newspaper.” Sometimes Kilkenny was the only one. Her driveway ordinance kept getting rejected; she kept going back. Over time, she became interested in city politics beyond driveways.
It was a period of increased taxes in the city, and commercial and residential development. The city spent millions to build a park, a sports complex and roads. Kilkenny spoke out on expenditures, questioning the use of public funds. She knew which council members had become allies, and which had become enemies.
Also at this time, evangelical churches in the region were becoming more of a force, in particular the Wasilla Assembly of God, where Palin worshiped until a few years ago. The religious community was preaching “clean up the community,” Kilkenny said. “People were purposely taking books out of the library to take them out of circulation, not returning them.” One targeted book, “Pastor I Am Gay,” was written by the Rev. Howard Bess, who preaches in Palmer, near Wasilla.
Kilkenny was at the council meetings when book banning was discussed, and when the police chief and librarian were fired. She was there when, after protests, the librarian was allowed to keep her job.
Some didn’t take Kilkenny seriously. Judy Patrick, who served as deputy mayor for four years, is upset that the Internet and media have turned Kilkenny into a Palin expert. “Anne Kilkenny, the nut case?” Patrick said. “I mean she came to every single one of our council meetings but was she ever elected? No.”
To others, Kilkenny “is like the watchdog of the council,” Carney said. “She came to the meetings and made sure we were dotting our I’s and crossing our Ts.”
“Anne looked at things logically,” said Darlene Langill, a former City Council member. “She did not rant and rave at meetings.”
Fourteen months after Kilkenny started pitching her driveway ordinance, the City Council passed it. Her driveway was paved in the summer of 1997. Her involvement in politics continued.
Kilkenny has a pen pal from Ghana who writes to her about political unrest and fears about civil wars over elections in his country. America is a place of free speech, Kilkenny said, and that is a right she has learned not everyone in the world enjoys.
All she did when she sent out that letter to friends, she said, was exercise that right.
The e-mails keep coming. So far, Kilkenny has read about 9,000 of them.
She separates them into e-mail folders above other icons marked “bills,” “church” or “mom.” The folder labeled “AA” holds positive responses, and “AB” holds the “ugly ones.”
Lately, the vicious nature of some of the e-mails has Kilkenny feeling nervous.
“Could it be that you wanted to be the most popular girl in class and it didn’t happen?” one person wrote.
“I make a point of leaving the house every day,” she says. “I tell my husband I need to, because if I don’t I’ll get too afraid.”
In the beginning, Kilkenny admitted, she got a rush from the positive responses. They started out about 98% nice, she said, praising her with messages such as: “Thank you for not staying silent.”
Then the criticism began pouring in.
There are parts of her essay that Kilkenny wishes she could retract. She would not have been so quick to tie the firing of the librarian to the book-banning controversy, and she would not have used the word “hate” when she wrote how Palin felt about her.
“Why did this go viral?” Kilkenny said. “People want to know. They’re trying to be informed, conscientious voters. I didn’t realize how much people care.”
In the living room, Kilkenny signed off her Hotmail account as her son, Lief, 17, waited for the family to drive to church.
Although people may be mad at his mom for sharing her experiences, Lief said he was proud. “Sarah Palin is relatively unknown, and until people understand the candidates . . . it’s a good thing,” he said.
People ask Kilkenny, if she had it to do all over again, would she write the e-mail?
She said she would. “I continue to believe that it’s important for people to participate as informed voters,” she said, “and there is a moral obligation to share what we know about the people that are running for office.”