Gov. Sarah Palin lives by the maxim that all politics is local, not to mention personal. So when there was a vacancy for director of the state Division of Agriculture, she appointed high-school classmate Franci Havemeister to the $95,000-a-year job. The former real-estate agent, one of at least five high-school classmates hired by the governor,...
WASILLA, Alaska — Gov. Sarah Palin lives by the maxim that all politics is local, not to mention personal.
So when there was a vacancy for director of the state Division of Agriculture, she appointed high-school classmate Franci Havemeister to the $95,000-a-year job. The former real-estate agent, one of at least five high-school classmates hired by the governor, cited her childhood love of cows as a qualification.
When Palin had to cut the 2007 state budget, she avoided legislators and mayors. She huddled with her budget director and husband Todd, an oil-field worker who is not a state employee, and vetoed millions of dollars of legislative projects.
And last May, Wasilla blogger Sherry Whitstine, who chronicles Palin’s career with an astringent eye, answered her phone and an assistant to the governor was on the line, she said.
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“You should be ashamed!” Ivy Frye, the assistant, told her. “Stop blogging. Stop blogging right now.”
A departure from image
Palin, 44, walks the national stage as a small-town foe of “good old boys” politics and a champion for ethics reform.
But an examination of the charismatic governor’s swift rise and record finds that her visceral style and penchant for attacking critics — she sometimes calls opponents “haters” — contrasts with her public image.
She has pursued vendettas, fired those who crossed her and sometimes blurred the line between government and personal grievance, according to public records and interviews with 60 Republican and Democratic legislators and local officials.
Still, the governor has many supporters. She has pushed through higher taxes on oil companies that dominate one-third of Alaska’s economy. She stirs deep emotions. Many Wasilla residents display unflagging affection, cheering “our Sarah” and hissing at critics.
“She is bright and has unfailing political instincts,” said Steve Haycox, a University of Alaska history professor. “She taps very directly into anxieties about the economic future.”
“But,” he added, “her governing style raises a lot of hard questions.”
Palin declined to be interviewed, and she did not respond to written questions. The McCain-Palin campaign responded to some questions, while referring others to the governor’s spokespeople, who did not respond.
Effort to dodge scrutiny
Interviews show Palin runs an administration that puts a premium on loyalty and secrecy. The governor and her top officials sometimes use personal e-mail accounts for state business; dozens of e-mails show that staff members studied whether that could allow them to circumvent public-records subpoenas.
Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska professor, sought e-mails of state scientists who had examined the effect of global warming on polar bears. (Palin said the scientists had found no ill effects, and she has sued the federal government to block listing the bears as endangered.) An administration official told Steiner that it would cost $468,784 to process his request.
When Steiner obtained the e-mails — through a federal records request — he discovered that state scientists in fact had agreed that the bears were in trouble, records show.
“Their secrecy is off the charts,” Steiner said.
State legislators now are investigating accusations that Palin and her husband pressured officials to fire a state trooper who had gone through a messy divorce with her sister, which she denies. But interviews make clear that the Palins draw few distinctions between the personal and the political.
Last summer, state House Speaker John Harris, a Republican, picked up his phone and heard Todd Palin’s voice. The governor’s husband wanted to know why Harris had hired John Bitney, a high-school classmate of the Palins, as his chief of staff. Gov. Palin had fired him as an aide after learning that he had fallen in love with another longtime friend.
“I understood from the call that Todd wasn’t happy with me hiring John and he’d like to see him not there,” Harris said. “The Palin family gets upset at personal issues. And at our level, they want to strike back.”
Help for her friends
Palin took office less than two years ago and took up the reformer’s sword.
As she assembled her Cabinet and made other state appointments, those with insider credentials were on the outs. She surrounded herself with figures drawn from her personal life — former high-school classmates, people she had known since grade school and fellow churchgoers. Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, praised Palin’s appointments. “The people she hires are competent, qualified, top-notch people,” he said.
She tapped a Wasilla assemblyman, Talis Colberg, as her attorney general, supervising 600 people. The move provoked from Alaska’s legal world a bewildered question: “Who?”
“I called him and asked, ‘Do you know how to supervise people?’ ” said a family friend, Kathy Wells. “He said, ‘No, but I think I’ll get some help.’ “
The Wasilla High School yearbook archive now doubles as a veritable directory of state government. Palin appointed Bitney, a former junior-high bandmate, as her legislative director and tapped another classmate, Joe Austerman, to manage the office of economic development for $82,908 per year.
When a board recommended closing a state-owned dairy that had served a handful of farms in the Matanuska Valley, Palin responded to farmers’ protests by ousting board members and installing her real-estate agent, Kristan Cole, as chairman.
To supporters — and with an 80 percent approval rating, the governor has plenty — Palin has lifted Alaska out of a mire of corruption. She gained passage of a bill that tightens rules on lobbyists. And she rewrote the tax code to capture a greater share of oil- and gas-sale proceeds.
Yet scandals have eroded the governor’s reform credentials. In addition to the trooper investigation, lawmakers from both parties in April accused the governor of improperly culling thousands of e-mail addresses from a state database for a mass mailing to rally support for a policy initiative.
Palin promised a more open administration, but has battled to keep information secret. Her inner circle discussed the benefit of using private Web mail addresses. An assistant told the governor it appeared such e-mails sent on a “personal device,” such as a Blackberry, “would be confidential and not subject to subpoena.”
Palin and aides use their private e-mail addresses for state business. On Feb. 7, Frank Bailey, another high-level aide, wrote to Palin at her official state e-mail address to discuss appointments. Another aide fired back: “Frank, this is not the governor’s personal account.”
Bailey sheepishly responded: “Whoops!”
Bailey was placed on paid leave; he has emerged as a key figure in the trooper probe.
Another confidante: Ivy Frye, 27, a receptionist for Sen. Lyda Green before hitching on to Palin’s gubernatorial campaign. Frye now earns $68,664 as a special assistant to the governor. Her frequent interactions with Palin’s children have prompted some lawmakers to refer to her as “the baby-sitter,” a title Frye disavows.
Like Bailey, she is an effusive cheerleader for her boss.
“YOU ARE SO AWESOME!,” Frye typed in an e-mail to Palin in March.
Many lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, described Palin as a leader missing in action. She has spent 312 nights at her Wasilla home, 600 miles from the capital, according to state records.
Some legislators became so frustrated that they took to wearing yellow “Where’s Sarah?” pins.
Many politicians say they most often learn of her initiatives — and vetoes — from press releases, including her decision to veto $237 million in programs from last year’s budget.
Mayors’ letters often go unanswered and their pleas ignored, records and interviews show.
Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat, pressed Palin last summer to sit down, as his city was running short of state funds to operate its traffic lights. At one point, records show, state officials told him the city should turn off a dozen traffic lights.
Palin agreed to meet with him when he threatened to go public, sources said.
Loyalty and “haters”
The administration’s e-mail correspondence reveals a siegelike atmosphere. Top aides keep score, demean enemies and gloat over successes. Even some who helped engineer her rise have felt her wrath.
Dan Fagan, a conservative radio host and longtime friend of Palin, urged listeners to vote for her in 2006. But he found himself branded a “hater,” he said, when he took her to task for raising taxes on oil companies.
He since has been inundated with critical calls. “Do you have any idea how much this state hates me right now?” he said.
As Palin’s star ascends, the McCain campaign has moved to control the words of those who know her well. Her mother-in-law, Faye Palin, has been asked not to speak to reporters, and aides sit in on interviews with old friends.
A Wasilla Chamber of Commerce official stood up Tuesday and asked members to refer all calls from reporters to Palin’s office. In the audience, Councilwoman Diane Woodruff shook her head.
“I was thinking, I don’t remember giving up my First Amendment rights,” said Woodruff, who has been critical of Palin’s record as mayor. “Just because you’re not going gaga over Sarah doesn’t mean you can’t speak your mind.”