Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, on the way to the Republican Party's vice-presidential nomination, has burnished a reputation as a crusader against corruption, but she's also been accused of political doublespeak and a vindictive streak.
WASILLA, Ala. — Back in February 1997, Sarah Palin, the 32-year-old mayor of this south-central Alaska town, fired the police chief in a move that foreshadowed the type of tough actions that would propel the political career of the woman who will be nominated this week as the Republican vice-presidential candidate.
The drama splashed out across the front pages of the local newspaper, with the fallen police chief filing a lawsuit accusing Palin of canning him after he exercised his free-speech rights. Palin, a staunch supporter of the National Rifle Association, was unhappy that her police chief had spoken against a state bill to ease restrictions on Alaskans who carried concealed weapons, he said. And Palin, who had gained the backing of Wasilla bar owners in her mayoral campaign, also disliked the chief’s proposal to roll back tavern closing hours from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m.
“She wanted to show that she was the boss, and could get rid of people,” said Irl Stambaugh, the former Wasilla police chief. “She kept calling it the good-old-boy network.” Within her first year, she had dismissed three other department heads, roiling city politics and spurring talk of recalling the first-year mayor. Palin survived the backlash, serving six years as mayor and then winning election to Alaska’s statehouse in 2006.
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Along the way, Palin, now 44, emerged as one of the most popular politicians in Alaska history, burnishing an image among voters as a crusader out to reform a corrupt political establishment.
“She never tried to vault herself over anybody. She was just comfortable with who she was, and is a natural leader,” said Hank Nelson, 75, who recalled how Palin offered a hug and a hot cup of coffee when he waved a campaign sign along a chilly, windy highway during her successful run for governor.
But Palin also has critics here. They say she not only lacks a deep grasp of policy but engaged in political doublespeak when she first supported, then opposed, the fabled federal earmark project known as “the bridge to nowhere.” They say she has a vindictive streak, punishing those who do not share her agenda.
“Once you cross her, you’re off the list forever, and that’s not the way you get by in politics,” said state Sen. Hollis French, a Democrat.
Deep roots in Wasilla
McCain’s selection has propelled Palin onto the national stage, casting a limelight on Wasilla, this town of fewer than 9,000 that sits about 40 miles north of Anchorage. It is here that she has spent most of her political career. And it is here that Palin, her husband, Todd Palin, and their five children have their cedar-sided, lakefront home that offers backyard fishing for rainbow trout and easy access to a float plane that can wing them to other parts of this giant state.
Wasilla is full of sprawling subdivisions that are carved out of birch and alder forests and lie within easy reach of a super-size Wal-Mart and acres of lots selling SUVs and other vehicles.
Palin comes from a family that has put down deep roots in Wasilla, arriving decades ago when the town was still a sleepy railroad stop. Her father, Chuck Heath, is from Idaho, while her mother, Sally, grew up in Richland, Wash.
Chuck and Sally had four children, and Chuck, a schoolteacher and coach for Wasilla’s high-school cross-country team, could be a stern taskmaster. “I pushed them hard,” Chuck Heath said, “but Sarah always asked me for more.”
Heath also has a great sense of adventure, celebrating his 42nd anniversary trekking in Zimbabwe. He also has volunteered for the Nature Conservancy in the South Pacific.
Heath’s passion for the outdoors is merged with a passion for hunting that he passed on to all his children. A trailer in his driveway has a bumper sticker reading “PETA — People For Eating Tasty Animals.” Palin cites her father as a huge influence in her life.
“Sometimes, I haven’t a clue, coming from nonpolitical Chuck Heath, why I remain passionate about wanting to change the world through Alaskan politics,” Palin once wrote in a letter to the Anchorage Daily News. “But I know without a doubt that my dad’s love for this state, his independence, his strong work ethic and right priorities are my foundation.”
Palin married into another longtime Alaska family. Her husband, Todd, was a high-school classmate whose father, Jim Palin, was born and reared in Seattle, then moved north in 1960 to launch a career in the utility business, Jim Palin said in a recent interview.
Sarah and Todd Palin were wed in 1988, one year after Sarah Palin graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Idaho. Todd works in two of the bedrock industries of the state — the North Slope oil fields and at a beach fishing site in Bristol Bay. In the summers, the whole family heads to the beach site along the Nushagak River to help pick sockeye salmon out of the nets.
In 2007 the family fishing company grossed more than $46,000, and Todd Palin earned an additional $46,790 as oil-field worker that year for BP Alaska, according to Palin’s most recent financial-disclosure statement.
Platform of change
Sarah Palin entered politics on the Wasilla City Council in 1992, then was elected mayor in 1996 at a time when the city was struggling to consolidate the growth of the past few decades. She sought a $5.5 million bonding project to improve on the piecemeal development of roads.
She had won the election on a platform of change, and by June 1997 four of the six city department heads were gone, according to The Frontiersman, the local newspaper. Among the most prominent departures was Stambaugh, the police chief, whose lawsuit over his firing was eventually tossed out of court on technical grounds.
Stambaugh said he did not regret speaking out against legislation that would make it possible to carry concealed weapons into domestic-violence shelters and other public buildings.
“It was an enormous common-sense issue,” Stambaugh said. “I thought it [the bill] was just nuts.”
By fall 1997, Palin was once again upset with law enforcement, this time accusing some police officers of making improper background checks on her and other local politicians.
Eight years later, Palin would have a much more personal fight with law enforcement as she and her husband launched an investigation of state trooper Michael Wooten, who was involved in a bitter domestic dispute with Palin’s sister. They would later divorce.
Their efforts to get Wooten fired, which allegedly continued after Palin took office in January 2007, have become the focus of an investigation by the Alaska Legislature into whether she abused her official powers. Findings are set to be released in October.
The story starts with Palin’s own investigation of Wooten, in which she submitted a lengthy report to Alaska officials about alleged misdeeds of her brother-in-law that ranged from shooting a moose without a permit to drunken driving to using a Taser on his 11-year-old stepson. Also, Palin alleged that Wooten had made an explicit death threat against her father should he help arrange for an attorney to help his daughter get a divorce.
Wooten eventually was disciplined on several counts and suspended for five days. But after Palin took office, her staff continued to pressure the Alaska Department of Public Safety to fire Wooten, according to documentation released by the governor’s office.
Then, earlier this year, Walter Monegan, the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, lost his job. The state investigation will examine whether Palin might have abused her power by forcing out her commissioner due to his reluctance to fire the trooper.
“He [Wooten] was no knight in shining in armor,” said French, the state senator, “but this could give her an ethical black eye.”
So far, Palin has gained extraordinary public-approval ratings as she positioned herself as the outsider bent on reform, amid a spreading federal corruption investigation of some legislators. She signed a bill — pieced together by a legislative coalition of Democrats and maverick Republicans — to capture more oil-industry taxes as crude prices climbed. She also gained approval of a new ethics bill.
Crafting an image
Her critics say that Palin often appears to be better at crafting her image than digging down into the policy details that make government work.
They note that Palin failed to appear at four major debates conducted during the 2006 general-election campaign that pitted her against former Gov. Tony Knowles and Andrew Halcro, an independent. Knowles said that when Palin did show up for debates, she typically kept a stack of cards cached behind her lectern’s nameplate. Knowles said they were color-coded for different topics, full of notes, and that Palin constantly referred to them as she answered questions.
“When the questions came up, she would roll her fingers down to the right area … ,” Knowles said. “It was quite bizarre.”
Knowles also recalls one memorable debate in Ketchikan, when the national press had pounced on a giant federal earmark to fund a $233 million bridge connecting this southeast Alaska town to an island airport. It had been dubbed “the bridge to nowhere,” and attacked by Sen. John McCain and others as a shameful example of misguided pork-barrel spending.
During that debate, Knowles, local reporters and politicians recall, Palin was quick to back the bridge. “We’re going to make a good team as we progress that bridge project,” she was quoted in the Ketchikan Daily News in September 2006.
In September 2007, Congress finally appropriated money for major Alaska projects, with no dollar amount specified for the bridge but containing enough funds to cover its construction.
Palin accepted the federal money but then directed it to other projects, and she announced her decision to scuttle the bridge project in a pre-dawn press statement released to meet East Coast media deadlines, according to Ketchikan Mayor Bob Weinstein.
Many in Ketchikan feel betrayed, the mayor said.
When Palin introduced herself to the nation last Friday in Dayton, Ohio, as McCain’s vice-presidential pick, she recalled the bridge project.
“I championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress,” Palin said as a crowd of thousands cheered. “In fact, I told Congress — I told Congress, ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ on that bridge to nowhere.”
Hal Bernton: 503-292-1016 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Amanda Coyne, a freelance reporter in Alaska, contributed to this report.