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.