Sarah Palin, McCain's pick, forged maverick political path in Alaska

The GOP's surprise vice-presidential nominee brings a fresh face to the '08 race.

John Gress/Reuters
Republican vice-presidential candidate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigned in O'Fallon, Mo. on Sept. 1.

The young Sarah Heath once won the title “Miss Congeniality” in a local Alaska beauty contest. But her high school basketball teammates had another nickname for her, one that belied her genial surface: “Sarah Barracuda.”

Those monikers may sum up the contradictory political appeal of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, John McCain’s surprise choice to be his vice-presidential nominee.

She’s young, a fresh face, and a self-described “hockey mom” who eloped with her high school boyfriend after college. At the same time, she’s made a career of running against, through, and over Alaska’s old boy political network.

Governor Palin is energetic, staunchly antiabortion, pro-gun, and a maverick who has at times angered the Alaskan Republican Party. To win the governor’s mansion in 2006, she had to defeat the incumbent, scandal-weakened Frank Murkowski in the primary.

In office, Palin is a series of contradictions. Fiercely pro-development and pro-drilling, she can be combative in her dealings with the major companies that produce oil on the North Slope – BP, ConocoPhillips, and Exxon Mobil.

Her administration was harshly critical of BP for its failure to prevent pipeline corrosion, a lapse that in 2006 resulted in the North Slope’s worst oil spill. Spurred on by that, Palin established a new layer of oil-field regulation, the Petroleum Systems Integrity Office.

Like nearly all Alaska politicians (but not John McCain), she supports oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Unlike many, she also backs oil development in the federally controlled but environmentally sensitive outer continental shelf of Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Such development is much more controversial in Alaska because it has always been opposed by the North Slope’s Inupiat Eskimo residents, who fear that oil spills, chronic pollution and industrial noise will wreck the icy habitat of the region’s whales and other marine mammals.

Palin’s fights with Big Oil

But Palin has famously clashed with the major North Slope oil producers by demanding higher compensation to the state treasury for oil extracted from state-owned lands. She’s also been critical of what she characterizes as their practice of keeping oil and gas “warehoused” on the North Slope.

She’s pushed through bills creating an independent pipeline company, TransCanada Corp., to build a long-desired natural gas pipeline from the North Slope. That takes away control of the project from the major oil producers.

She’s also pushed through a rewrite of the state’s oil-production tax a year after her predecessor, Republican Frank Murkowski, got lawmakers to agree to a measure that was much easier on the oil companies. That earlier tax bill, it turned out, involved bribery that’s been central to a wide-ranging federal corruption investigation. Three former lawmakers have gone to prison.

Palin got the legislature to agree to a nearly $1 billion “energy relief” package that includes $1,200 payouts to nearly every man, woman and child in Alaska. The payments are on top of the annual dividend from the state-owned Alaska Permanent Fund.

“The fact is that a program like this, returning surplus dollars to the owners of the resource, should be seen as Alaskans taking care of our problems ourselves, and not coming to Congress looking for a handout,” she said.

Loyal fans, sometimes called “Palinistas,” praise her as highly principled while being a down-to-earth mom and wife who knows what it’s like to work with her hands.

Prior to her election as governor, her reputation as a whistleblower gave her an almost saintly aura. There were bumper stickers that asked “WWSD?” meaning “What Would Sarah Do?” Her 2006 campaign slogan was “Take A Stand,” a clear reference to her stand against the party establishment.

But critics on the right liken her to Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez – and have dubbed her “Sarah Chávez” or “Hugo Palin.” They say her policies have resulted in giving Alaska North America’s highest oil-production taxes, creating a hostile investment environment.

Palin’s critics include many mainstream Alaska Republicans.

“Anyone seriously examining her speeches and her extemporaneous comments will find very little of substance,” former House Speaker Gail Phillips, a Republican from Homer, said in a statement. “It is primarily fluff.

And critics on the left are appalled at her support for a program that allows hunter-pilot teams to gun down wolves and bears from airplanes in order to boost moose and caribou numbers, her insistence that polar bears are unharmed by global warming, and her various conservative stances on social issues such as abortion.

While they have been key Palin allies on oil and gas issues, Democratic lawmakers say Palin has been a bit opportunistic, jumping on their long years of efforts to increase oil-production taxes to levels considered fair to citizens.

“She was willing to go along with what we did,” says state Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat who was one of several lawmakers sponsoring bills in past years that would have rewritten the tax system. “She was very much sort of a product of the moment.”

Early ambition not political

Like former Navy aviator McCain, Palin’s initial career ambitions had nothing to do with politics. An avid athlete, in high school she listed her career ambition as sitting in a booth with Howard Cosell, broadcasting basketball games.

Sarah Heath was born in Idaho in 1964. Her parents moved to Skagway when she was three months old. Eventually they settled in Wasilla, where her father, Chuck Heath, became a well-known local science teacher and track coach. In high school she headed a chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes and led the Wasilla Warriors to a small-school state championship.

After graduating from the University of Idaho in 1987 with a degree in journalism, she occasionally filled in as a television sports announcer.

In 1988, she eloped with Todd Palin. Discovering that they needed witnesses for the ceremony, they recruited two senior citizens from a home across the street from the county courthouse.

Todd Palin is a commercial fisherman, oil worker, and snowmobile racer. The couple have five children. Their eldest son, Track, has joined the Army and is due soon to be deployed to Iraq. Their youngest child, Trig, born this past April, has Down syndrome.
Palin’s political career began when she won a seat on the Wasilla City Council in 1992. After reelection, she challenged and defeated the town’s sitting mayor in 1996. She clashed at times with the city’s staff, firing department heads who had been loyal to the defeated incumbent.

Booming sales-tax revenue allowed her to cut property taxes as Wasilla grew. State GOP leaders took notice and began grooming her for higher office.

In 2002, she made an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor. A year later, Governor Murkowski appointed her ethics commissioner of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

But in 2003, she broke with the Republican hierarchy, charging that state government insiders were involved in conflicts of interest and outright corruption and that state officials had ignored her complaints about it.

One of Palin’s particular targets was state Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich, whom she accused of leaking sensitive state documents to an energy lobbyist, among other things. Mr. Ruedrich later admitted to violations of ethics rules and paid a $12,000 civil fine.

In October 2005, Palin entered the Alaskan gubernatorial race. Murkowski had been weakened by the backlash to his appointment of his daughter to his old seat in the US Senate, which had become open when he was elected governor in 2002.

She may have been a maverick, but in other ways, Palin is a direct contrast to McCain, and she could help counter some of his weaknesses. She is decades younger than the Arizona senator. It may be tough for opponents to tie her in any way to the troubles of the Bush administration. And as a woman, she might attract some disaffected former supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Upon her election, Palin became Alaska’s first female governor as well as the first to be born after Alaska achieved statehood. And now she’s making new history in her home state.

“It’s a heck of a coup for Alaska,” says Steve Haycox, history professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. “It will go a very, very long way to mitigate the terrible reputation that has emerged from the ‘bridges to nowhere’, the whole earmarks debacle, [and] the corruption investigation.”

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