In Alaska, many pine for the old Palin

The governor is a hot ticket in the Lower 48, but her in-state approval is sagging.

By , Correspondent

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    Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin arrived at a fundraiser for the developmentally disabled on June 7 in St. James, N.Y. But back home, some Alaskans are feeling neglected by the governor.
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In the Lower 48, Alaska’s governor has been basking in the white-hot celebrity spotlight, leading parades, signing autographs, blasting President Obama, appearing on news shows and in national magazines, and, most famously, feuding with talk-show host David Letterman.

Back home, meanwhile, some Alaskans are feeling neglected by Sarah Palin, the governor catapulted from obscurity to fame when she became the Republicans’ vice-presidential candidate.

Recent polls put Governor Palin’s in-state approval rating in the low or mid-50s, respectable but a far cry from one-time ratings near 90 percent. Some tie the drop to what they say is her newfound proclivity for “red meat” conservative issues over pragmatic Alaskan interests. Others cringe at the family melodramas that have become tabloid fodder. Either way, the loss of support for “Sarah-dise” – the nickname used for Palin’s smooth-running early tenure – includes some notable figures.

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Take former Gov. Wally Hickel, the elder statesman who co-chaired Palin’s gubernatorial campaign and to whom Palin referred as her mentor. He broke with his protégée months ago.

“When Governor Sarah Palin was elected in 2006, we believed she would put Alaska first. But once elected, she put Sarah first,” he said in a statement June 11. “Because of her national ambitions, she is promoting an agenda that will allow outside corporations to dominate Alaska’s resources, including our energy and the jobs it provides.”

Pushback in the Legislature

Take the once-compliant state Legislature, now pushing back against Palin. Lawmakers in April blocked her choice for state attorney general, making controversial Anchorage lawyer Wayne Anthony Ross the first cabinet nominee ever rejected in Alaska. Now, lawmakers have gathered near-unanimous support to override Palin’s veto of $28 million in federal stimulus funding for energy-conservation projects. The veto, critics say, was calculated to appeal to her conservative base in the Lower 48.

Take Alaska Natives, who say their interests are more ignored than ever.

“She can see Russia out of her house, but she can’t seem to see the things that our villages are dealing with,” says Myron Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, a tribal group serving the poverty-stricken Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in western Alaska. Palin’s nomination of Mr. Ross, who has spent much of his career fighting native hunting, fishing, and tribal interests, added “insult to injury,” Mr. Naneng says.

Native fishermen along the lower Yukon River in the past week protested with their nets, illegally catching salmon they believe has been unfairly denied to them by a neglectful governor and her administration.

A critics' refrain

Dissatisfaction is summed up by one bumper sticker: “Hey Sarah ... the job’s in Juneau.”

In Palin’s defense, she spent most of the past legislative session in the capital, says John Bitney, a high school friend who was her legislative liaison until a falling-out with the governor got him fired.

There is also the challenge of balancing parochial Alaskan issues with the demands of being a national Republican star. “She’s focused on the national level now, and she’s playing in a league that’s pretty big,” says Mr. Bitney, now a legislative staffer.

If some constituents have soured on Palin, she might feel the same way about some of them. Her selection to the GOP ticket alongside John McCain thrust Alaska’s low-key and insular politics onto the national stage, subjecting her to piercing scrutiny. On top of the “troopergate” investigation launched before she joined the top GOP ticket, a wave of ethics charges has dogged her, socking Palin with personal legal bills topping $500,000. Many have been hypertechnical complaints that probe the gray area between her in-state duties and national activities. So far, at least a dozen complaints have been dismissed, including one Palin deemed “bogus” that concerned her logo-adorned attire at the Iron Dog snowmobile race.

Defensive missives from Palin's office

Hard feelings have emerged. Belligerent, defensive missives from Palin’s office include statements urging Alaskans to rise up in a “backlash” against citizens filing ethics complaints and ridiculing lawmakers for criticizing her Lower 48 trips. “We did not anticipate that the governor’s political opponents would want their hands held in the final hours of the session,” an April 13 press release said.

During the legislative session, Palin even came to the House speaker’s office and scolded his top aide. It was “a terrible breach of respect of the Legislature by Gov. Palin. This kind of lack of decorum has never happened before,” opined the Alaska Legislative Digest, a newsletter co-written by a former House speaker.

Stephen Taufen, a fisheries activist who was once a staunch Palin supporter but is now “un-enamored with her,” questions her emotional state. “I don’t know how much to blame her or stage-show politics,” he says, but adds, “I’m not going to join the masses of people who want to psychoanalyze her.”

Less reluctant is Bob Poe, a former state trade official and former head of Anchorage’s economic-development corporation. A Democrat, he’s already launched a gubernatorial bid.

“I’m certainly not qualified to say she has a narcissistic personality disorder,” Mr. Poe says. But actions that aid her national quest at the expense of Alaska interests, such as the rejection of federal funds, are “narcissistic by definition, because it’s all about her; it’s not about Alaska,” he says.

In earlier times, a centrist tone

It wasn’t always this way. Back in Palin’s honeymoon days in office, she struck a centrist tone.

One of her first actions was to veto a bill that blocked health benefits for same-sex domestic partners of state workers. She allied with Democrats to raise taxes on oil companies and chart what she and supporters said was a path to a natural-gas pipeline that would not be controlled by the dominant oil producers.

She signed robust budgets that boosted spending on education, capital projects, and other services and facilities that lawmakers agreed had languished during the penny-pinching, low-oil-price years. She and lawmakers collaborated to pass an ethics reform package, amid a wide-ranging federal corruption investigation of Alaska’s politicians.

Some of her policies irked businesses, especially Big Oil. Critics likened her to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

But overall, the early Palin days were hopeful, says state Sen. Lesil McGuire (R). “Everybody was behind this governor – the first female, the youngest, a lifelong Alaskan, her family – what is there not to like?” Now, she says, “I see a lot of squandered opportunity.”

Senator McGuire is among many who doubt that Palin will run for re-election.

“Every indication points to the governor doing something in the next couple of years between 2010 and 2012 that’s going to prepare her for running for president,” McGuire says. But governing Alaska “really takes somebody who’s willing to make this their full-time job every single day.”

Dave Dittman, an Anchorage-based Republican pollster and consultant, predicts that Palin will run for reelection – and win easily. It’s only natural that her high ratings have deflated somewhat, he says.

But he says he can’t understand why she told Fox News host Sean Hannity, during her East Coast trip last month, that less oil revenue for Alaska “is good for our families and for the private sector.” That contradicts her prior position and the views of most Alaskans, he notes.

“There must be a context,” Mr. Dittman says. “I don’t think less oil revenue would be good for Alaska.”

Back in the governor's hometown

Palin fever remains strong in Wasilla, the rough-edged suburb that is the governor’s hometown. On a recent afternoon at the Mug Shot Saloon, an Old West-style bar in the midst of the strip malls that line the Parks Highway, the smoke was thick, cowboy music played in the background, Fox News was on the TV, and locals were defensive of their hometown girl. “She’s a great person. We love her. And they missed their chance. She should have been in there. And leave her alone now. That’s my opinion,” says bartender Dana Rush.

John Schwochert, a Palin family friend, acknowledges that the governor’s in-state popularity has diminished, but that is probably because she has settled into her job. “Everybody here’s pretty satisfied with what she’s done for the state,” he says.

If Palin doesn’t run for the US Senate next year, she is a “shoo-in” for reelection and will rise from there, Mr. Schwochert predicts. “I’m really quite sure she’s being groomed for a higher office.”

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