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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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Opposition to the plan, pushed by Colorado-based Evergreen Resources Inc., united right-wing property-rights advocates and left-wing environmentalists. Both factions worried about noisy machinery, truck traffic, and water pollution. Palin, who by that time was a rising Republican star with a plum job on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, turned whistle-blower on fellow commissioner Randy Ruedrich, also the state GOP chairman. She charged, in part, that he’d used his post to advocate for Evergreen Resources’ coal bed methane drilling.

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Mr. Ruedrich was forced to resign in late 2003 from the conservation commission – which was supposed to regulate coal bed methane development in Mat-Su Borough – and later paid a $12,000 fine for misusing his office. Evergreen Resources was sold in 2004 to Pioneer Natural Resources, which dropped the coal bed plans.

Mixed views of Palin

Turning in Ruedrich endeared Palin to the public statewide, says Steve Haycox, a cultural historian at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. “She is dedicated to the highest and best possible of democratic principles, and what she saw offended her,” says Mr. Haycox.

It established Palin’s reputation as a corruption foe, in contrast to her earlier hands-off-business philosophy. She’s now got an image of a Big Oil-battling populist, often working on the issue in concert with Democrats.

But Ms. Church, the borough assembly member, says Palin made a cynical political calculation to take on Ruedrich during the coalbed-methane furor. “She’s very smart and very politically shrewd. I think she just looked at the opposition and the audience and figured there was no way they could come out clean on this, and she bailed,” Church says.

Between the coalbed-methane revolt and the arrival of new residents who expect development to be orderly, the valley has evolved, Church says. Her group, Friends of Mat-Su, used to be “perceived as this total ... anti-development group – until coal bed methane,” she says. Now many parts of the borough are clamoring for growth controls, she says.

Not everything in Wasilla has changed, though.

Victor Kohring, one of the state legislature’s most conservative members, was handily re-elected in 2006, despite being one of six lawmakers whose offices were raided that summer by FBI agents. Now he is in prison, one of three former state lawmakers convicted in a still-unfolding bribery and corruption scandal. On June 30, the day he began serving his sentence, he stood for three hours by the side of the highway that runs between Wasilla and Anchorage, next to a large sign that said “Thanks, Alaska!”

“Traumatic as it has been,” he told Anchorage Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins that morning, “I’ve been getting just a ton of very positive comments and support from people.”

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