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Palin Center Stage

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/palinwave2crop-300x200.jpgAlaska Gov. Sarah Palin (Photo by Lauren Victoria Burke, wdcpix.com)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Wednesday night at Humpy’s, a celebrated Anchorage bar, locals perked up when the half-dozen TVs flipped from music videos and sports to their governor, Sarah Palin taking the stage at the Republican National Convention to deliver her acceptance speech for the GOP vice-presidential nomination.

The crowd — on TV and in the bar — was on her side. Then, 10 minutes in, Palin swung hard with her right. “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer,” Palin said, “except that you have actual responsibilities.”

Bar-goers seemed to gasp in unison.

This Palin lunging at Sen. Barack Obama on national TV was not the irresistibly likable, maverick governor they had come to know.

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

Palin rose to power quickly in Alaska, from small-town mayor to governor in the span of 10 years. Long-time watchers of Alaska politics say Palin’s success comes from a deep understanding of the state’s culture and a political system with weak political parties.

An immensely popular governor, Palin now has an 81.6 percent approval rating, according to a poll taken Aug. 30 – Sept. 2, by the Anchorage Press and three other local media outlets.

Throughout her career in Alaska, Palin embraced the Western spirit of individualism — where every candidate is out for herself — and it has paid off. She bucked heads with her own party at times, and aligned herself with the old guard when necessary. Her politics is her own, designed to move her up the ladder. Now, for the first time in her political career, she has a different goal — getting someone else, Sen. John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee, elected to office.

After a week here in Alaska, talking with many long-time observers of Alaska politics, touring her hometown of Wasilla and digging into her record as mayor and governor, it’s clear that Palin is a talented politician who has won ever higher office without a strong political infrastructure behind her. She has managed to succeed as a Republican while the state GOP was embroiled in scandal. Palin, a staunch conservative, is admired for her reform efforts by even her most ardent ideological opponents and she’s loved by those who agree with her views.

“[Palin] is a child of a specific time and place,” said Michael Carney, a political columnist for The Anchorage Daily News. “She is a suburban, 21st-century Alaskan who doesn’t share the shared memory like the governors who proceeded her.”

Carney pointed out Palin has many “firsts” in her job. She is the first woman to hold Alaska’s highest office, the first suburbanite, and the first to be born after Alaska was already a state.

Her fresh-face appeal has allowed her to use a theme of change. At the same time, she is widely regarded as a true Alaskan, with conservative values and a love for her state. That love would later translate into millions in federal earmarks for infrastructure projects and other state improvements.

Palin emerged on the statewide scene in 2002, after serving as mayor to her hometown for five years. When she lost the lieutenant governor race that year, she was given a seat on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. She soon accused the commission’s chair, Randy Ruedrich, who was and still is the chair of the state GOP, of soliciting campaign contributions from oil companies while on the job.

Ruedrich resigned, as did Palin, who said the commission was not sufficiently on the straight and narrow.

In 2005, Palin filed a complaint with Democratic Rep. Eric Croft against the Alaska Atty. Gen. Gregg Renkes, who had been involved in a trade deal with a company in which he owned $120,000 in stock. Renkes resigned from his powerful post after months of criticism.

Though risky at the time, the two moves positioned her for a run for governor in 2006 — when the public tolerance for cozy relationships between politicians and oil companies was waning.

“Sarah Palin is the head of the Sarah Palin party,” said Shannyn Moore, a progressive radio personality in Alaska and a critic of Palin, talking about Palin’s ability to act in her own best interest over that of her party. “In Alaska that hasn’t always been such a bad thing.”

Moore said that Palin has a knack for political maneuvering, and a certain degree of luck for being well positioned at the right moment. But some politicians have a way of creating their own luck.

Palin developed a reputation as a reformer at the right time in Alaska politics. She entered the governor race in 2006 and won the GOP primary, defeating Alaska’s sitting governor. Gov. Frank Murkowski had become tangled in a series of ethics scandals. His chief of staff, Jim Clark, has since pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Palin went on to easily beat Democratic challenger Tony Knowles in the general election.

At the time of the contest, critics questioned whether the small-town mayor was qualified to run the state. It was only 10 years before, in 1996, that she beat out Wasilla’s sitting mayor by 200 votes in what was described by The Anchorage Daily News as a “major upset” — 616 to 413. Still, the state electorate thought she was ready.

“There’s sort of a spirit of, ‘you don’t know what you can’t do,’” said Cliff Groh an Anchorage writer and lawyer, commenting on Alaska’s culture of individualism.

Groh himself was in his 20s, in 1982, when he helped shepherd the state’s Permanent Fund Dividend program through the state legislature. The program divides earnings from the Permanent Fund — an investment from oil company royalties — to every resident in Alaska. Last year, each resident received a payment of $1,654, the highest on record. The exact amount for this year will not be calculated until mid-September, according to the fund’s website. Locals say they are expecting a check of roughly $2,000.

Groh, who is writing a book about Alaska politics, said that nowhere else in the country would someone so young be responsible for such a project.

When Palin took office as governor at age 42, she was wildly popular — and her anti-corruption stance was not the only factor.

In 2007, Palin raised taxes on oil companies, angering fellow conservatives. But the decision boosted state revenues, putting her in good standing with the public. She also pushed through a plan to build a gas pipeline with $500 million in state subsidies, a boon to local unions.

Palin also knew how to work the earmark system. In 2000, while mayor of Wasilla, she approved the hiring of Steven W. Silver, a federal lobbyist who had served on Sen. Ted Stevens’ staff. Over the course of three years, Silver secured $26 million for projects in the small town 45 miles northeast of Anchorage. Palin has already requested $197.8 million in earmarks for next year, according Stevens’ website.

On the national stage Palin is now denouncing the earmark practice and distancing herself from Stevens. In her Wednesday night address she reminded the audience she redirected funds for the controversial “Bridge to Nowhere,” saying, “”If our state wanted a bridge, we’d build it ourselves.” Many outlets have pointed out that Palin originally supported the bridge project, though later changed her stand.

Her broader change on earmarking for infrastructure projects is surprising, considering her record.

In 1999, when Palin was mayor of Wasilla, she scribbled a note in the margin of a public document reminding the city council the money listed only included state funds for the city for that year – not the $1 million secured from the federal government for an airport paving project. “We did well!!!” she wrote.

Many observers inside Alaska say the state’s relationship with the federal government is contradictory. In this, it is like many Western states — dependent on federal largess for infrastructure while disdainful of federal interference.

A famous bumper sticker in Alaska used to say, “We don’t give a damn how they do it outside,” referring to the rest of the country, or “the lower 48.” However, Alaska relies heavily on federal money for road construction, water systems and other major projects.

“These are a people who demand the lowest possible taxes with the highest possible benefits,” Groh explained. Groh also noted that residents do not pay income or property taxes to the state of Alaska, a piece of the state’s libertarian streak.

Palin embraces this Alaska tax policy, by and large. Even as mayor she ran on a platform of cutting taxes. She went on to cut local property taxes and local fees on hunting licenses. In an exception to the rule, she pushed through a half percent sales tax to pay for the construction of a $14.7 million sports complex that includes an ice rink with seating for 5,000.

The high-ticket item was the crowning jewel of her time as mayor. Though, she is also known for making waves in cutting funding for other projects and shaking up staffing.

In 1996, when she first took office, she asked her top managers to resign as a test of loyalty. She went on to fire her chief of police, who later sued her and lost. She dismissed the head of libraries, Mary Ellen Emmons, after controversial discussions over book banning. Specific titles were never named and the librarian was ultimately given her job back. Palin also eliminated the head of the local museum’s position, combining the job with the head of libraries.

Palin came across as a budget stickler, looking to save money here and there. She wanted to cut $32,000 from the $200,000 city museum budget by shrinking staff hours, according to the paper archives of the Mat-Su Frontiersman. The small museum is located on Main Street, around the corner from City Hall. A handful of original buildings, including a log cabin, stand behind the main structure.

Outraged by the threat of cuts, the museum staff Opal Toomey, Esther West and Ann Meyers, all in their 60s, quit in protest. According to a separate Frontiersman article that same month, Palin hired a deputy administrator and extended the hours of two parks and recreation employees, at a cost of $52,000.

The city of Wasilla still has a reputation for cutbacks on low-ticket items. This week the mayor’s office announced it would not spend money to return phone calls to reporters with long-distance area codes.

Palin touted her frugality on the national stage on Wednesday, noting that she put the governor’s luxury jet on eBay. The anecdote played well with the crowd.

Over the next two months Palin will have to continue to play to this new national crowd. She will have change her position on earmarks – even denounce them to be a believable McCain running mate. She will also have to dodge an investigation into whether she used her position as governor to pressure a state employee into firing a state trooper over a family feud.

Initially, Palin had been cooperating. Since joining the McCain ticket, she has hired a lawyer who is trying to stonewall the inquiry.

In striving to be a national politician, denouncing pork and turning her nose up at local investigations, Palin could have a difficult time returning to her days as an Alaska maverick.

“If she comes back to Alaska as governor,” Carey said. “all that stuff that plays nationally is going to make enemies in Alaska.”

*Update: The original version of this story said that residents do not pay income or property taxes in Alaska. Residents do not pay income or property taxes to the state, though some local areas implement property and sales taxes. *

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