Palin’s Wasilla: A small town with attitude

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

Al Grillo/AP
On the move: Vehicles on the Parks Highway through downtown Wasilla, Alaska on Wednesday. Vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin was the town’s mayor 1996-2002.

Here in Wasilla, a town of strip-mall sprawl and eccentric backwoods dwellers, people still talk about the time in 2004 when an irate resident contacted Ben Stevens, state Senate president, to question his vague explanations for taking consulting fees from an oil field-services company.

“Your [sic] just more valley trash,” the senator wrote back. The grammar was wrong, but the name stuck.

News accounts of the exchange swiftly spawned bumper stickers and T-shirts proclaiming: “Proud to Be Valley Trash.” Everyone now uses the phrase, even Sarah Palin, Wasilla’s suddenly famous resident and former mayor, to contrast this lake-dotted countryside with more-sophisticated Anchorage 45 miles away.

In a way, Wasilla and the entire Matanuska-Susitna Borough – generally called the Mat-Su Valley, or “Mad-Zoo,” by some wags – is having the last laugh. Mr. Stevens is now keeping a low profile; he and his father, US Sen. Ted Stevens, are among those embroiled in a federal corruption investigation allegedly involving, among other things, bribery and unreported gifts from the oil-services company VECO Corp. Meanwhile, Wasilla’s most powerful resident has leapt from the mayor’s office to the governor’s seat to the national stage as the new GOP nominee for vice president.

Most Mat-Su Valley residents are thrilled to see one of their own tapped for the White House. They say Governor Palin and her husband are regular folks who work with their hands, fish, hunt, and ride snowmobiles on trails that wind through the state’s commercial farms, verdant forests, jagged mountains, and high-altitude glaciers.

Raymie Redington, a local dog musher and part-time commercial fisherman, finds in the governor a kindred spirit who will be good in the White House. “We need somebody in there who’s been around and done something a little different, not sitting in an office,” says Mr. Redington, while taking a break Sunday from ferrying tourists riding dog-pulled carts at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race headquarters.

His wife, Barb, who keeps a photo of her granddaughter posing with the governor, regularly encounters Palin shopping alone at Wal-Mart – or has until now. “She’s one of those types that ain’t too good to talk to you,” she says.

Even the town’s name may favor Palin. The city is named after a revered Denaina Athabascan leader, Chief Wasilla, whose name translates into “breath of fresh air,” according to one account on the state’s webpage. Palin supporters touted her as a “breath of fresh air” in scandal-plagued Alaska when she ran for governor in 2006.

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.

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.

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.

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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