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Palin’s Wasilla: A small town with attitude

The vice presidential nominee’s hometown in Alaska takes pride in its independent ways.

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The Mat-Su region has been steadily gaining some of the political clout long held by Anchorage, the state’s business center and home to 4 in 10 Alaskans. Wasilla is also the home town of state Senate President Lyda Green (R). And House Democratic leader Beth Kerttula is the descendent of farmers who settled in nearby Palmer as part of a New Deal agricultural colony.

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If Palin moves to the White House, the next governor could also be from the valley. Alaska Attorney General Talis Colberg, who is from Palmer, would rise to the top spot if Palin is elected vice president and if Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell wins his bid to become Alaska’s new US House member.

Antigovernment attitude

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough – about the size of West Virginia, with some 80,500 residents sprinkled from the outskirts of Anchorage to the shadow of Mount McKinley – grew a whopping 35.7 percent from 2000 to 2006, according to census figures.

Wasilla is still a small town of about 7,000 people, but rapid change is altering the character of a place that got its start by the Alaska Railroad tracks as a supplier for gold- and coal-mining operations in the surrounding Talkeenta Mountains.

Its biggest attraction is economic, says state Representative Kerttula. Home prices are cheaper than in Anchorage, and access to the big city is easy. About 30 percent of Wasilla residents commute to work in Anchorage, according to state figures.

The anything-goes attitude is also part of its draw. Many residents boast that they have escaped the stifling regulations and frou-frou trappings of the big city they dismissively call “Los Anchorage.”

Such antigovernment attitudes helped launch Palin’s political career as a “hard-core conservative” who resisted controls on business.

“Zoning, you used to be not even able to say the word,” says Michelle Church, former director of a local land-use planning group and now a borough assembly member from Palmer. During Palin’s time as mayor, the very idea caused opponents to pack public meetings, she says. “Every time someone would go up and speak in favor [of zoning], these guys would yell, ‘Lock and load!’ ”

But a local revolt broke out about five years ago over proposed coal bed methane drilling in residential and recreational areas of the borough, signaling a shift in public attitudes.