Sarah Palin’s Alaska

Sarah Palin has been the darling of many conservatives since John McCain selected her as his vice-presidential running-mate in August 2008. She quickly energized the base and became a presidential contender due to her performance that fall. Throughout the last few years, many on the Right hoped she would enter the presidential race and believed her populism, appeal to evangelical Christians and Sam’s Club Republicans would energize the GOP base, unite the party, and help Republicans win back the White House in 2012.

But what do conservatives ever really know about Sarah Palin? After all, she only spent two and a half years as governor of Alaska, a state far removed from most Americans. That’s the meat-and-potatoes of Joe McGinniss’s explosive new book, The Rogue: Searching For the Real Sarah Palin.

The biography has been widely condemned since its publication. Most Americans were disturbed by the author’s decision to rent a house next to the ex-governor while researching his subject. Others criticized the sensationalist aspects of the book which highlighted Palin’s personal life, her sexual encounters with black men, her past drug use, her Christian beliefs, her fitness as a parent, the unusual circumstances of baby Trig’s birth, etc. These aspects of the book cite a plethora of unnamed sources and read like sensational fiction. They are not my concern here.

I want to focus on Palin’s public record. Her actions as Mayor of Wasilla, on the Alaska Oil & Gas Commission and as governor of Alaska should raise concerns for conservatives who still believe she has a political future on the national stage.

Sarah Palin became involved in local politics in her twenties, shortly after graduating from the University of Idaho and marrying Todd. Her faith-she was active in the Assembly of God church-inspired and motivated this transition into public life. Her first political foray helped elect evangelicals to the Wasilla School Board. These Christians were sympathetic to creationism and thought this flawed biblical “science” should be taught alongside evolution in public schools.

Other social issues concerned Palin as well, especially abortion. The Valley Hospital-that is the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center in the neighboring town of Palmer, was the only health care facility in the state that performed second-trimester abortions. Palin-who thinks abortion is a moral affront and considers it murder-joined an effort to help elect pro-life members to the hospital association board.

Palin was an active recruiter in this 1992 campaign-McGinniss calls her the most enthusiastic recruiter-that elected 5 pro-life members to the hospital board. This effort gave the hospital board a pro-life majority. Shortly thereafter, the board announced a new policy which banned any abortions from being performed at the facility. Palin had found an issue she cared deeply about and realized that she had a natural base of local Christian evangelical support.

In 1992 Palin was recruited to run for Wasilla City Council. Political insiders thought the council needed an advocate for the young families in the area. The 28 year old Palin seemed like a solid selection: she had three children, belonged to the elementary school PTA, had played basketball at Wasilla high, held a lifetime membership with the NRA and was a self-described “hockey mom.”

Before she ran, Palin wanted to talk things over with Mary Glazier, her spiritual mentor and prayer group leader. Glazer said that this was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. “We began to pray for Sarah. We felt she was the one God had selected.” Glazer later said of Palin’s first run for public office.

Wasilla voters elected Palin to the city-council position later that year. Two years later, Palin cruised to re-election. The young councilwoman did not impress her peers: she often doodled in meetings and seemed uninterested in public policy. She looked like a neophyte. Later, when asked about her plans for Wasilla, she indicated the building more bike paths would make the town a better place to live.

A lack of political vision did not derail Palin’s ambition however. She wanted to be a political player in Wasilla. Two years later, she sensed an opportunity to move up in the world and challenged the incumbent mayor, John Stein. Stein, a Republican, had held office for nine years. During that time, he formed a municipal police force financed by a local sales tax, a move that was widely criticized by local voters.

Palin tapped into libertarian resentment against the sales tax. She also made a plan to close Wasilla bars at 2am an issue. Heretofore the Wasilla bars closed at 5am, three hours after bars in Anchorage (43 miles away) shut down. The town was flooded with inebriated drivers making the round-trip trek from Anchorage to Wasilla in the early morning hours.

Mayor Stein considered closing the bars at 2am to be a “no brainer.” He thought it was a politically viable strategy too; after all what evangelical would favor liberalized booze legislation? Moreover, how could a fervent Christian like Sarah Palin oppose this move?

Palin seized this opportunity to form a coalition of interesting bedfellows-bar owners and Baptists. Both the Christians and the libertarians financed Palin’s candidacy. Palin ran against the 2am provision, saying that the city mandate was big government intruding into one’s personal freedom.

On top of that, Palin ran a nasty personal campaign against Stein. Several of her attacks went after the mayor’s marriage. She also suggested he was anti-development and anti-gun, a charge McGinniss argues is worse than “pederasty” in gun-toting Alaska.

Palin won  with 60% of the vote. She then began her reign of terror on the town.

McGinniss says Palin’s time as mayor was marred by cronyism and the politics of retribution. She put her friends on the public payroll and targeted her enemies.  A September 2008 Time article has the details:

Governing was no less contentious than campaigning, at least to begin with. Palin ended up dismissing almost all the city department heads who had been loyal to Stein, including a few who had been instrumental in getting her into politics to begin with. Some saw it as a betrayal. Stambaugh, the police chief and a member of Palin’s step-aerobics class, filed a lawsuit for wrongful termination, alleging that Palin terminated him in part at the behest of the National Rifle Association, because he had opposed a concealed-gun law that the NRA supported. He eventually lost the suit. The animosity spawned some talk of a recall attempt, but eventually Palin’s opponents in the city council opted for a more conciliatory route.

The New York Times reporting supports this position: “Throughout her political career, she has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and sometimes blurred the line between government and personal grievance, according to a review of public records and interviews with 60 Republican and Democratic legislators and local officials.”

Her religious convictions continued to shape her policy decisions. She named a pastor to the town planning board and took her ire out on the local library. As the Timesreports: “for years, social conservatives had pressed the library director to remove books they considered immoral.” In particular, Palin was incensed at a children’s book called “Daddy’s Rommate,” a text which taught children about homosexuality. In time, Palin had both the book and the librarian removed.

Many of these decisions were popular with Wasilla residents. And Palin proved to be an effective mayor:  She made sure the roads were paved and presided over the construction of a town public ice rink, thus cementing her status as a “hockey mom.” She cruised to re-election in 1999, winning 70% of the vote.

Palin completed her second term in 2002. This, as McGinniss points out, is the only time she hasn’t quit a job. Term-limited that spring, Palin made an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor, eventually finishing second in her first bid for statewide office. Throughout the election cycle, she campaigned tirelessly for the GOP ticket headed by Frank Murkowsi, the incumbent U.S. Senator. Murkowski prevailed and became the next governor. He put Palin, still a political novice, on a short list to succeed him in Washington.

Ultimately Murkowski chose his daughter Lisa as his U.S. Senate replacement. He hoped to assuage Palin (not that it did him any good), by putting her on the Alaska Oil and Gas Commission, a three member body in charge of overseeing the state’s lucrative energy industry.

Palin was utterly unqualified for the position. She had no experience in the industry. Her college degree was in journalism. Her work experience prior to public service consisted of a stint as a television reporter. Palin was appointed to the open seat on the commission: the other two, by law, went to a 1)petroleum engineer and to a 2)petroleum geologist.

Palin had no aptitude for the job. She was clearly out of her element in this highly technical position. But it was on this commission that Palin made a name for herself. She was chair and the ethics supervisor of the body. In this position she filed an ethics complaint against fellow commission member Randy Ruedrich, who was also the Alaska State GOP Chair.

Ruedrich should never have held both positions simultaneously. It was a clear conflict of interest. Palin alleged that he conducted GOP business from his Oil and Gas commission office and tried to get campaign donations from the same oil companies he was regulating.

The investigation dragged on for months. Palin was gag-ordered. This became a big problem over time as the public began speculating that Palin and the GOP Attorney General Gregg Renkes (who had spent a dozen years working on Murkowski’s Washington staff and had managed the gubernatorial campaign) were involved in a cover-up.

Palin didn’t want to be on the wrong side of public opinion. She resigned her position in January 2004, saying that she would not stay mum on the issue any longer. After Ruerdich resigned that April (and paid a $12,000 fine; Renkes later resigned his post as well) Palin went on the record with the Anchorage Daily News.

The media ate Palin’s story up. They made her a star. As McGinniss writes: “public acclaim was deafening.” The state’s leading paper began calling her Joan of Arc of Alaska, and speculated on her political future.

Shortly thereafter, Palin announced she would run for governor. She ran on an ethics reform platform, promising to drain the swamp of corruption inJuneau. Her timing was perfect. Political scandal had rocked the state. Congressman Don Young (the state’s lone House member) was under investigation and was seen as one of Capitol Hill’s most corrupt representatives. Democrats had made a mockery of Sen. Ted Stevens’ bridge to nowhere, a $223 million earmark that Rep. Young and Sen. Stevens had proposed in 2005. Stevens would later be targeted for ethics violations as well.

Governor Murkowski’s popularity had plummeted as well. Palin easily defeated him in the GOP primary in the summer of 2006. She cruised to election that fall and assumed office in December of that year.

Everyone marveled at her political talent. “She is bright and has unfailing political instincts.” Steve Yaycox, a University of Alaska history professor, told the Times. Others noted that she’d mastered the theater of politics, and came across as a genuine middle-class American. The Anchorage Daily News described her this way: “there’s something refreshing about Palin,” and compared her to a high school English teacher.

Palin entered office with broad support. She enjoyed an extended honeymoon, in part, because her approval ratings stayed between 70-90% throughout her first six months on the job. Still, skeptical observers saw warning signs of this “conservative” governor.

The cronyism that had marked her time as Mayor of Wasilla continued. McGinniss writes: “Sarah was peopling her administration largely with high school friends and/or born-again Christians whose qualifications in no way matched their job descriptions.”

She also was running up a hefty housing allowance. Palin didn’t want to live in the governor’s mansion year-round. She hated Juneau and chose to live at her home in Wasilla when the legislature wasn’t in session. Nevertheless, she insisted on charging the state each night she slept under her own roof.

That confounded many local conservatives, who began speaking out against some of Palin’s contradictory actions. Her rhetoric and behavior were two different things. Anchorage radio talk show host Dan Fagan wrote a column in the summer of 2007 comparing Palin to Tony Soprano. Fagan said the governor was: “a small town hockey mom with the clout of a mob boss…Barracuda Palin can have you swimming with the fishes, never to be heard from again.”

Palin had continued lashing out at her political opponents as well. The troopergate scandal, which dominated Palin headlines during the 2008 presidential campaign, was a result of the governor’s vendetta against her ex-brother in law, Mike Wooten. Palin sent emails to Alaska’s Public Safety Commissioner, Walt Monegan, demanding that he fire Wooten. When Monegan demurred, Palin dismissed him.

The scandal tarnished her image as a reformer and was the first evidence of a mean-streak from the popular governor.

This attribute, McGinnis maintains, is a by-product of her “dualistic Christianity.” The author came to this conclusion after interviewing Rev. Howard Bess, an 82 Alaska preacher who’s not fond of Palin (99% of those quoted in the book aren’t a fan of the governor’s). Dualistic Christianity is basically Manichaeism, the idea that everything is black and white, good and evil. “If you disagree with her, you’re not just a bad guy, you’re evil and you must be defeated.” Bess says.

Bess is also confidant that Palin’s faith is central to her politics. McGinniss says that Palin’s a Christian Dominionist, intent on revoking the separation of church and state. This is a frequent criticism of the Christian Right. Chris Hedges, the uber-liberal writer, wrote a book about this called American Fascists. (See Hedges talk about it here)

Conservatives think this is a bunch of hooey. See here. And Here. Sure, conservatives argue, Palin is driven by faith. But she believes in the Constitution, which expressly rejects the dominionist world-view, embraces the separation of powers and limits the authority of the central government.

Nevertheless, Palin governed as an unabashed social conservative. She had no problem spending $1.2 million in support of an initiative that would revoke same-sex benefits for Alaskans. She was a strong supporter of an pro-life bill that required parents to know if/when their child was considering an abortion, and granted parents the right to veto the abortion. When the Alaska Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional, Palin called the judiciary’s decision “outrageous.”

But Palin’s conservatism didn’t always translate into fiscal issues. She supported a tax increase on oil company profits (called ACES). When conservatives criticized the plan, Palin went on the attack. The Times reported that the governor called Dan Fagan, the radio host I mentioned earlier,  a “hater” when he opposed the measure.

The bill ultimately passed.

Conservatives were scorned again in January 2008, when Palin announced that TransCanada would build the state a natural gas pipeline. McGinniss has written extensively about this decision. He says the plan was a “pipe dream” that would never work because the company had no natural gas to flow through the proposed pipeline and had no access to any gas, in any event. The whole thing stunk to high heaven and would cost Alaskan taxpayers $500 million.

Slowly but surely, Palin was losing political support at home. But all that was swept under the rug in August 2008, when Sen. John McCain selected Palin to be his vice-presidential running mate. Palin resuscitated a moribund campaign and helped McCain gain a lead in the polls (his first and only lead that cycle) in September.

But Palin faltered badly on the national stage. Her Katie Couric interview will live in infamy and played a played a role in caricaturing her in the national consciousness. She came across as uninformed, vapid and unready for national office. During the campaign’s final days, disgruntled staffers began calling her a diva concerned more about her celebrity than about the GOP’s winning prospects.

Palin returned to Juneau with the state in a time of crisis. A bad economy sent oil prices plunging. The state faced a $1.5 billion budget shortfall. Democrats brought ethics charge against the governor.Citizens wondered whether her ideological convictions would prevent the state from an economic recovery. Many feared what austerity measures might bring.

Sure enough, Palin rejected President Obama’s stimulus funds in early 2009. The $300 million offer would have gone a long way in helping the state tackle its budget deficit. Criticism about the TransCanada pipeline also gained traction. Disgruntled Alaskans began questioned if their governor was really looking out for them.

A perfect storm hit Palin. The media, once so friendly back home, was after her. The economy was in shambles. The state was a mess. Her political support had eroded (that April the legislature rejected her attorney general appointment, the first time in state history a governor’s pick to head a state agency was turned down). So Palin did what she’d always done: She looked for a way out. Palin resigned her office in July 2009

Returning to private life has been lucrative for Sarah Palin. She became a multi-millionaire with her book sales, her reality television series, her Fox News Channel commentating gig and her role as a political celebrity. She became a champion of the Tea Party and continued fighting for conservative candidates.

Palin teased the media about a presidential run throughout 2011. She went on another bus tour, decried crony capitalism and continued bashing the Obama administration. But a September interview with Fox News’ anchor Greta Van Susteren indicated she wouldn’t run.

Palin said she was concerned that campaign managers would muzzle her message, and suggested that this happened during the final days of the 2008 campaign. She implied that her voice would be greater if she stayed outside the presidential race-a notion that boggles the mind.

The former governor had bowed to political reality. Palin has no shot of winning the GOP nomination. Even she can read the polls. Her star has dimmed. Even Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard-who did so much to prop up her candidacy in the first place-think she’s yesterday’s news.

Palin can still be a voice for social issues. But conservatives should take what she says with a grain of salt. This, after all, is a woman who has banned books, governed as a political crony, used religion as a wedge issue and reigned over Alaska in a way reminiscent of Robespierre.

She is not a Christian dominionist, at least not in the way McGinniss describes. Nevertheless, she is an unabashed evangelical Christian who has used her political power to thwart the liberty of homosexuals and abortion seekers. Her actions show the cognitive dissonance among social conservatives: They want to limit government authority except when it benefits their ideological convictions. Remember the Terri Schiavo affair. Social conservatives have no problem using state coercion to further their cultural ends.

Sarah Palin does not want limited government. She wants government that suits her ideological and religious convictions. That, above anything else, should make conservatives wary of her.

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One comment

  1. I am constantly browsing online for articles that can aid me. Thanks!

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