How Sarah Palin Became Governor of Alaska
Ms. Palin turns AK's GOP inside out
By Amanda Coyne
Before things erupted at the August 8 Republican Party picnic in Kincaid Park, in Anchorage; before large and visibly upset Republican Party lawyer Bill Large told Sarah Palin sign-wavers in front of the park chalet to disband; before Large got into a little jostling match with Bev Perdew, a 69-year-old Palin volunteer, and Perdew speared Large with a Palin sign that said “Take A Stand”; and before Large called Palin's supporters “Brown Shirts” and, when that failed to get a rise, “communists” - before all that, Palin, who is running for governor and is in a three-way race for the Republican nomination in the August 22 primary, already looked like she was having a hell of a good time.
And with good reason.
Palin that day already had spoken about rural issues to a group of about 20 smitten women at Traditions Restaurant, in Midtown Anchorage. She also was the apparent winner in the big KTUU Channel 2 debate with the other Republican primary contenders, Governor Frank Murkowski and Fairbanks businessman John Binkley, and she'd held a successful fundraiser at a Mountain View business. Then, at the picnic, her supporters came out in force, swamping the old-boy Republicans with her signs and red T-shirts, reminding them that she was taking a stand against them - and that it was working.
That day, surrounded by her folks, the kind of people that State Senator Ben Stevens - an old-boy AK pol if ever there was one - once memorably derided as “Valley trash,” the people who hold Palin signs high and chant “Sa-rah, Sa-rah” and sculpt funny Palin hats and adorn their cars and bicycles with Palin bumper stickers, and who vote, the 42-year-old Palin was already feeling a win coming on.
Then Large flew off the handle, leaving some Palin supporters shaking with anger that Large, the “machine” lawyer, supposedly shoved an elderly Palin volunteer, and called all of them “communists,” and tried to deprive them of their God-given right to wave their signs and take a stand - which, come to think of it, is what their forefathers had died for, and what their boys right now were fighting for, under a blazing sun, in some God-forsaken desert, thousands of miles from this beautiful country, ready to die so others could peaceably assemble.
After Large stomped off, Palin's 15-year-old daughter, Bristol, who has her mother's eyes but not yet the savvy to let a homerun speak for itself, said, “What a psycho.”
Really, it's not so much that Large or Alaska Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich or Frank Murkowski or John Binkley is crazy, but rather that Palin's surging, come-from-nowhere candidacy is making them crazy. If the polls are right, last week it looked as though Palin was also the favorite to be the state's next governor, and its first woman in that office.
At the picnic, Palin tended to her supporters with their funny hats and not-so-straight teeth, commiserating when they spoke of the injustice Large visited upon them and how it was just more proof of Republican old-guard malfeasance, and of their commitment to stick by her, and how they'd redouble their efforts to fight for her and against those bad men, the corrupt Alaska Republicans, the people who had taken over the party of Lincoln. Then Palin walked back into the chalet, where she ran into Lieutenant Governor Loren Leman. Palin ran against Leman for that office in 2002 and lost, but Leman has not exactly been in the mainstream of the party either, so they had that in common.
“Sarah,” Leman said as he stood beside Palin in the chalet, surveying the crowd, “look at them all. It's the same people. The same old people who were here last year, and the year before and the year before.”
It would be a supreme irony if the Republicans - the old-line machine Republicans - scored a win against themselves this November, but in some ways they'd only have themselves to blame. Palin has so far prevailed against all odds, and against her own party's mainstream, which not only is against her but at times lately has seemed to be trying to dismantle her campaign. Alaska's Republican Party has had its share of meltdowns, but no politician has stepped from its ashes like Palin, a small-town, angel-faced mother of four, an avid hunter and a fisher with a killer smile who wears designer glasses and heels, and hair like modern sculpture, who's taking it to the boys ever so softly. Whatever happens on Tuesday, her popularity has shown that good-old-boy politics, even in Alaska, in the GOP, may be yesterday's news.
Governor Murkowski has made plenty of mistakes in his sole term in Juneau. It actually started before that, with campaign promises that he wasted no time breaking. He ran on a no-tax platform but almost immediately proposed a sales tax and then settled for that great tax work-around, “user fees.” He slashed the longevity bonus, the senior-citizen stipend that had become a virtual entitlement. He appointed his daughter, Lisa Murkowski, to fill his term in the U.S. Senate, a position for which both Binkley and Palin were said to be vying. He cut social services and municipal revenue sharing and, even though it might have been acceptable as fiscal conservatism, he did it tactlessly, making him look more mean than responsible.
And then there were Murkowski's tussles with the press corps in Juneau. And his support for the state attorney general he appointed, his longtime aide Gregg Renkes, who owned stock in a coal company whose patented technology could have been used in a trade deal with Taiwan that Renkes helped shape. And there was the jet, which Murkowski said he needed, and which he was denied, and which he got anyway. But his biggest blunder may have been one that no one could have foreseen, and one that looks as though it will cause him, after a 22-year U.S. Senate career, to be a one-term governor, even as oil prices are soaring and state coffers are full and the makings of Alaska's second boom are hammered out in Juneau.
In early 2003, in a move reminiscent of a Greek tragedy, Murkowski paired Palin and Randy Ruedrich on the state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, an agency that oversees state energy industries.
Ruedrich was then, as now, the head of the state Republican Party, although he also holds a Ph.D. in engineering and has been involved in the oil and gas industry for 30 years. Besides running for lieutenant governor, Palin had been a Wasilla councilwoman for one term and Wasilla's mayor for two, and already was regarded as a rising star in the Republican Party of Alaska. She had the looks - the Frontiersman, her hometown paper, once called her “the most beauteous mayor in the world” - as well as the right conservative politics and religious convictions, and she'd campaigned hard for Frank Murkowski when he ran for governor. So she was loyal, apparently, and she'd be serving in a relatively low-profile position on the commission.
At least, that seems to have been the plan.
But in 2004, Palin ended up busting Ruedrich for conducting party business on state time, and for leaking a confidential memo to a lobbyist for one of the energy companies he was supposed to regulate. It was a big shiner for Murkowski's administration, one that still hasn't healed, and at the same time it cemented Palin's reputation as a squeaky-clean reformer.
Palin's enemies aren't limited to old-guard Alaska Republicans. Nick Carney of the well-known Carney family in Wasilla, who recruited Palin to run for Wasilla City Council and later became one of her fiercest critics when she ran against Wasilla mayor John Stein, said he wouldn't be surprised if Palin somehow set up the situation at the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to draw attention to herself. “She's a politician through and through,” Carney said, an observation that Stein echoed.
Yet it was not clear at the time that Palin's whistle blowing would redound so much to her credit, and in any case it was not easy on her, Palin said recently. In fact, she said, it was “earth-shattering.”
“One of the most offensive things,” Palin said, “was realizing why they thought I was [on the commission]. They thought I'd be a good soldier and try to climb the political ladder.”
When they knew that she was getting upset about what she was seeing on the commission, Palin said, Ruedrich “told me not to do anything drastic. Renkes told me that when I talk to Randy, to have him tone it down.”
“Tone it down,” she repeated, ruefully.
“And I'm being attacked. I'm the same person now as I was then, the same person who Frank appointed. I have the same values and the same platform and I stand for the same things.”
Palin left the cush commission job and aligned herself with former governors Jay Hammond and Wally Hickel and Fairbanks Northstar Borough Mayor Jim Whitaker, all of whom supported a liquefied natural gas line from the North Slope to Valdez, instead of a gasline through Canada, which Murkowski is pushing. And Palin began thinking about running for governor.
The best politicians stay on message, don't get bogged down in policy details, ultimately bring any debate or conversation back to their core values, and manage to at least look like they're having a good time doing it.
Palin was not schooled as a politician. Her father, Chuck Heath, was a Wasilla High School science teacher for more than 40 years. After her four children had grown some, Sally Heath, Sarah's mother, worked in the school as a secretary. Although the Heaths are Christian Republicans of the “wholesome” variety, Sally says, neither of Palin's parents were party stalwarts. In fact, Sally seems a bit surprised by her daughter's political talents. “I don't know where she got it,” Sally said recently.
Chuck was more focused on instilling academic and physical discipline in his brood; a childhood friend of Sarah's recalls seeing the whole family on the road jogging in the morning before school. Chuck took Sarah hunting and fishing and left other kinds of nurturing to Sally, he said. He remembered Sarah as a driven and disciplined child, but not as a budding politico. “Sometimes I haven't a clue, coming from non-political Chuck Heath, why I remain passionate about wanting to change the world through Alaskan politics,” Palin wrote in a column.
Yet now she wears her position as well as she wears her hair. She makes it look as though she's hardly working, as though she's even having fun, as when she's asked what her education plan is and puts a well-manicured hand on her questioner's sleeve, looks him in the eyes and says “Bless your heart. Thanks for asking that great question” - and then says every child deserves a good education, and that her father was a teacher in Wasilla for more than 40 years, and that she respects educators, and supports technical schools and local control and municipal revenue-sharing, and believes in competition, and respects Alaska's constitution, and it would be an honor to serve the questioner and Alaska.
Another interlocutor wants to know about transportation. “That's a great question,” Palin says, “Thanks for asking it” - and then talks about keeping all the options on the table and getting the best minds involved in the debate and doing what's right for Alaskans, and respecting Alaska's constitution, and the importance of small government and local control, and what an honor it would be to serve her questioner and Alaska.
You can ask Palin almost anything and she'll end up on Alaska's constitution and her beliefs that the best government is small and that competition is good, and what an honor it would be to serve you. And it works.
At the KTUU debate, Palin sat back as Murkowski and Binkley duked it out over matters such as net profits versus gross profits and the budget reserve. At one point, when the two men's voices had reached a fevered pitch and it seemed Murkowski might have a heart attack and Binkley might blow a fuse, Palin cut in with perfect timing, saying, sweetly but firmly, “Don't you think Alaskans deserve a better discourse than this?”
The two men looked startled and sheepish. They quieted down. Palin didn't actually say all that much in the debate - which is why she won it.
Murkowski has the first contract to Alaska's first gasline to his credit, plus experience and a stern and fatherly presence - and he can bang his fist about petroleum profit taxes until the table breaks. By all accounts Binkley is a hard worker. He has specific policy proposals, he seems to understand the way state government works and he has solid support from the state GOP's mainstream. Yet neither man seems able to generate half the excitement that Palin has. All the experience and wonkishness in the world apparently can't hold a candle to Palin's mantras.
When Palin says ad infinitum that she'll honor the people and constitution of Alaska and build consensus and cut through partisan bickering, people seem to respond just as though they haven't heard these things from dozens of men before. When she says she'll turn Juneau into a place that works for you, and get the good ol' boys out of the system, it's like Murkowski or Binkley saying drinks are on the house. When she talks about integrity, people seem to listen.
“Alaska is on the cusp of many good things,” Palin said recently, “but it's not going to get there without trust in government. I'll earn that trust.”
At one point during the KTUU debate, Binkley told Palin that she was going to have to get specific and stop wrapping herself in platitudes and Alaska's constitution. She replied with a smile that had a touch of pity. It was almost as though she'd said, “There you go again.”
“It's been hard for Binkley,” said pollster David Dittman. “He hasn't been able to find his place in this campaign. People are very passionate about Sarah, and really, about Frank, too. People like Binkley, but they aren't passionate about him.”
There are other things Palin believes, of course - it's just that she's managed to keep them secondary to her core values. Yet, but for her disagreement with Murkowski on ethics, her core values aren't really all that different from Murkowski's or Binkley's. There's no doubt she's squarely on the right side of the right. She's anti-drug; she's admitted smoking pot in the past, but now, she says, with children and all... She's pro-gun (lifetime NRA member) and pro-God (Wasilla Bible Church). She once called abortion “an atrocity,” but what she really meant by that, she says now, is that it's atrocious that society is set up in such a way that a woman would have to make such a choice.
Asked recently for her thoughts on gay marriage, Palin said, “It's complicated, I don't really know...” Her voice trailed off, but then she snapped back:
“OK, I have to tell you that I stand with Alaskans in defining marriage as between a man and a woman. I respect the voters on that one. I don't want to mislead you, or the voters. The last thing I want is for someone to vote for me and be surprised when I get into office.”
Palin was speaking about gay marriage while she attended a fundraiser for her campaign at the Mountain View offices of Criterion General, a contracting company, with about 15 men and 10 women. Criterion vice president Dave Collette-Paule was there; he's “socially liberal,” he said, but “I don't have a problem with Sarah's views. I just trust that she'll do the right thing.” Asked if maybe he found social conservatism more palatable when it came from a pretty woman rather than an old, not-so-pretty man, Collette-Paule said, “I hate to think that way, but you might be on to something there.”
Palin's appeal doesn't stop there. For Alaskans who want a little rough-and-tumble added to right-wing pulchritude, she's got that covered, too. She's a Wasilla girl, after all. And she and her Slope-worker husband, Todd, have a Dillingham fish camp; “I spend a lot of my summers smelling like fish,” Sarah said. She and Todd also ride in the Iron Dog snowmachine race every year. She's likely the only comely female gubernatorial candidate to have filled more than a few freezers with moose that she's shot, and to prefer caribou meat to beef tenderloins. Surely she knows that, but when it's pointed out, she looks surprised and says, “Golly, I bet you're right,” as though she's just heard the most insightful observation ever.
She's also tough on the job, and able to break some campaign promises herself. One was to cut the Wasilla mayor's salary. When Palin took office, in 1996, it was $64,200. Six years later, with lots of ups and downs, driven, it seems, by election cycles, it was $68,000. There were those who called her “Sarah Barracuda” when she reigned over Wasilla, in part because she let city workers know it was her way or the highway. She fired Wasilla Police Chief Irl Stambaugh and said he was simply uncooperative. All that turmoil, she said, “was hard on me - but the public elected me to get the city moving, and I couldn't keep people on who weren't supportive of that.”
Should you find yourself wishing that the state's next governor had some more-than-passing connection to Alaska Natives, Palin's got that covered, too. She doesn't support a Native preference for subsistence - she's “pro-subsistence for all Alaskans,” she says - but her husband is part Yupik. At the discussion at Traditions Restaurant in Anchorage last week, when talked turned to rural women's issues, more than once Palin brought up her grandmother-in-law, Lena Andree, a one-time Bristol Bay Native Corporation Elder of the Year.
It's important to her that her four children stay attached to their Native roots, Palin said, adding that she's learned much from village elders. “My heart is in rural Alaska,” she said. As she spoke she was sitting at the head of the table clad in a slick black suit, in hose and heels, her hair just so, her lips perfectly lined - and a roomful of women, many of them Native, nodded in agreement.
There's a little back-story to that fracas at the Republican picnic last week.
Palin has come under attack by the Voice of the Times, the quasi-journalistic opinion-page space that the Anchorage Daily News sells to Veco, the oil services company. Voice of the Times columns revealed that as mayor of Wasilla, Palin sent emails from her mayoral account and had some meetings in her office related to her bid for lieutenant governor. Voice of the Times editor Paul Jenkins, squarely in the ranks of the old-guard Republicans, wondered how that was so different from what Palin caught Ruedrich doing.
The attack didn't end there. In an almost foaming style, Jenkins called Palin “a lightweight” and “maybe not the brightest bulb in the box.” And he still wasn't done:
“When her goody-two-shoes act starts to crumble - and going nuts because of a few obvious questions seems a first crack - folks may see her for the rank politician she is,” Jenkins wrote, “and not necessarily a good one at that.” He subsequently likened Palin to Jesse Ventura in a skirt and suggested she suffered from “vapors” and “a touch of paranoia.” For good measure, he also accused her of getting in a “tizzy.”
But what the public saw was a calm, contrite Palin who said clearly that her email use in Wasilla had been wrong, period.
After Jenkins's first column about Palin ran, Dan Fagan, the popular talk-show host on AM station KFQD, said he received 83 phone calls about it. Eighty-two of them supported Palin, he said. “Everyone was saying that Jenkins was just part of the machine. Some said it was sexist. It completely backfired.”
Wev Shea, a former acting U.S. Attorney for Alaska, maverick conservative, politician, colorful Alaska character and Palin supporter, said he found Jenkins's comments “blatantly sexist.” When Jenkins “talks about how tough politics are, it's like he's taking it upon himself to educate the 'little woman,'” Shea said. “It's completely offensive.”
Republican stalwarts just don't know what to do with Palin, Shea said. “She's too independent for them. All they can do is attack her - and make themselves look like bullies in the process.”
After Jenkins had his way with Palin in print, Palin went on AM talk radio shows on KENI and counter-attacked. After reminding listeners of Ruedrich's ethical lapses - which resulted in the largest civil fine for an ethics case in state history - Palin said that composing a few emails when she was mayor of Wasilla was not remotely similar.
Then Bill Large, the lawyer for the Republican Party of Alaska, which Ruedrich heads, got involved. Large counter-counter-attacked on the radio, and continued the war in emails sent to Palin's lawyer, demanding that Palin retract her “false” and “reckless” statements about Ruedrich's and the Republican Party's integrity.
Palin's lawyer, Wayne Anthony Ross, another maverick conservative and colorful Alaska character, responded to Large by quoting Thoreau, Jefferson and Reagan. Then he got down to business: If “you are a gentleman,” Ross wrote to Large, “and I have yet to be convinced you are, it is you who should be making an apology.”
Enter Wev Shea again, now acting as Ross's attorney. Shea accused Large of fanning “a public spectacle by personally attacking our leading Republican gubernatorial candidate.”
“You and Mr. Ruedrich are quite a team,” Shea wrote to Large. “You have placed yourselves above what is best for Alaska and 'our' Republican party. It is very sad.”
Members of the central committee of the Republican Party of Alaska had seen those email exchanges before they went to the picnic, setting the stage for some kind of showdown. Once it transpired, in tragicomic fashion, the bloggers got blogging, the emails went racing and the phones lit up on the AM talk shows. And in all that talk, a consensus seemed to emerge: Once again the Republican Party of Alaska had overstepped its bounds and made a grievous error.
They'd scored another win for Palin.
Palin didn't need to wait for the post-mortems, however. She seemed to know what had happened at the picnic and what it meant even as it happened. When the jostling was done, she stood watching the crowd and eating ice cream. “Gosh,” she said of Large, “he was really upset, wasn't he?”
And then she smiled a smile best described as winning.