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The Reform Candidate?

ANCHORAGE — Plenty of voters are trying to figure out what to make of the national newcomer Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Sen. John McCain’s pick for vice president. Even seasoned politicos were puzzled by the choice, as they listened to the little-known Alaskan stumping with veteran McCain in Ohio and Missouri these last few days.

Watching Palin, a self-described “hockey mom,” speak in the Midwest does not capture her true persona — personal or political. To fully understand her, she needs to be placed in her element — where her politics makes sense. This means: in her home state of Alaska.

I covered Alaska for TPMmuckraker, and I continue to follow the state’s scandal-ridden political system. The Washington Independent was convinced that coverage from Alaska would help explain Palin’s story, so I am here to explore who she is and what sort of vice president she would make.Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/palincrop-300x200.jpgI landed Sunday afternoon in Anchorage, a city that has an international airport named for its senior U.S. senator, Ted Stevens. He was just indicted on charges that he failed to disclose gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from a local oil services company — including a new first story for his home.

Callers on the conservative talk radio show I listened to on the drive to my hotel were thrilled at McCain’s choice. Palin is a conservative Alaskan’s conservative — pro-gun and pro-drilling. She’s viewed as an anti-corruption candidate in a state that’s seen nine public corruption indictments in the last two years — all for ties to Veco Corp., the same oil services company as Stevens. Several Alaskans touted her ability to turn her back on the old guard, which clearly still has its fans. I saw a spattering of “Stevens 08″ signs on Anchorage front lawns on the same drive.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

So far, Palin has been introduced to the nation by the McCain campaign as the conservative talk show listeners described her — as a political maverick and reformer. This pro-life mother of five-turned-politician has made a name for herself in Alaska by facing off with the state GOP over ethics concerns — particularly those related to oil companies.

In this way, Palin makes an ideal match for a man whose own political story involves breaking with the GOP on important issues when required, while skirting the scandals that plagued his fellow Republicans in Congress.

A look at Palin’s rise to power in Alaska, however, raises questions about what “reformer” means here and whether it carries the same heft in her home state as it does with a national politician. While Palin combated the cash-for-favors reputation of the Republican Party in Alaska, she has also found herself in the middle of two scandals that question her use of power.

The latest scandal has been percolating on national blogs for weeks and made the front-page of The Washington Post on Sunday. Palin stands accused of having fired Alaska’s public-safety commissioner because he would not dismiss her sister’s ex-husband, a state trooper, who the Palins have been feuding with since before she became governor. Though a full report from an independent investigator is due this fall, emails from Palin and a tape recording reveal that the governor at least pressured the commissioner to fire her ex-brother-in-law, after she previously denied having done so.

Palin has conceded that she was justified in pushing for the dismissal of her former brother-in-law, though she maintains it had nothing to do with her decision to replace the safety commissioner. She has spoken about her willingness to cooperate in the investigation repeatedly on national TV.

This fresh scandal is an important part of what I plan to investigate during my time in Alaska. As I have more information, I’ll report it on The Streak.

Palin, a lifelong member of the National Rifle Assn., started her career as a member of her local city council in Wasilla, Alaska, a town about 45 miles outside of Anchorage, in 1992. She was elected Wasilla’s mayor in 1996, when the city’s population was about 4,600, according to a 1997 press report (via nexis).

In this role, Palin acted in a way that eerily foreshadows her recent actions while governor. Early in her tenure as mayor, the city council threatened to recall her over accusations that she fired the city’s police chief, Irl Stambaugh, and the library director, Mary Ellen Emmons, without warning. She accused them in a letter saying: “I do not feel I have your full support in my efforts to govern the city of Wasilla. Therefore I intend to terminate your employment …” (The Anchorage Daily News, via nexis)

Ultimately, Palin let the library director have her job back; though Stambaugh’s position was not returned. The police chief took the matter to court, where a judge sided with Palin, saying city law allows the mayor to fire the police chief without cause.

When questioned by the Anchorage Daily News at the time, Palin refused to give details on how Stambaugh had not supported her, saying only: ”You know in your heart when someone is supportive of you.”

Perhaps years later Palin will have new perspective on the decision to fire these workers. I’m curious to find out what was her original motivation, as well. I’ll follow up with her at a press conference planned for Monday morning in Anchorage. I’ll also be visiting the city of Wasilla where I’ll be able to pull the original court documents.

The matter did not follow her as she rose to higher positions in Alaska. In fact, the first firing was nearly forgotten, even when the second firing scandal broke. Perhaps in a state desperate for a reformer, Palin’s anti-money-for-votes persona resonates more strongly. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll find out if does on the national stage as well.

*Laura McGann is covering the Gov. Sarah Palin veep pick from Alaska. Follow her on Twitter here. *

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