Palin led strange year in politics

2009 forever raised standard for downright unbelievable events

Posted: Friday, January 01, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Sarah Palin stepped down as Alaska governor and became larger than life. Former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens saw corruption charges dropped but not forgiven. And two convicted state lawmakers were freed pending reviews of their bribery cases.

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Al Grillo / The Associated Press
Al Grillo / The Associated Press

Politics are never dull with Alaskans, but 2009 forever raised the standard for downright unbelievable, not to mention distracting.

"There's nothing that compares to this year," said Stephen Haycox, a University of Alaska Anchorage history professor who has lived in the state 40 years.

Playing a starring role was Palin, who quit her elected office in July with 17 months left in her first term, handing the job over to then-Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, a fellow conservative. The abrupt resignation came less than a year after she was named Republican John McCain's running mate, vaulting to international celebrity as a partisan heavy hitter.

"I was astonished," Haycox said. "She turned her back on Alaskans."

Palin cited the toll of multiple "frivolous" ethics complaints filed against her that she said crippled her administration and cost her family more than $500,000 in legal debts. Supporters had set up a legal defense fund in April, but the fund is in limbo after an investigator hired by the state to look into one of the complaints found probable cause that it violated the law. Most of the other complaints - including several filed after Palin's resignation - have been dismissed, although Palin reimbursed the state about $8,000 for some trips by family members found to be of questionable state interest, under a settlement agreement over one complaint that found no wrongdoing.

In stepping down, Palin said she was acting in the best interest of the state, adding she didn't need a title to bring about positive change. She also hinted on her Facebook site that she would take on a larger, national role, citing a "higher calling" to unite the country along conservative lines.

The bombshell move shocked even supporters and fueled rabid speculation on her next career step - with predictions ranging from seeking the presidency in 2012 to hosting a conservative talk show.

Her future plans remain a mystery and Palin has been coy about them. In November, she told Barbara Walters that a 2012 presidential bid was not on her radar, but added she wouldn't rule out playing some role in the next presidential election.

For now, she's had enormous success with her best-selling memoir "Going Rogue," released four months after she left office. She launched a national book signing tour around the time of the November release, hitting some of the political battleground states from the 2008 election and drawing thousands of fans.

Palin, 45, kept a low profile while she worked on her book with a collaborator in San Diego. She has since burst back onto the public stage, her drawing power bigger than ever, courted by media seeking interviews and Republican candidates coveting endorsements from the star conservative.

Palin gave a speech at an investment conference in Hong Kong. She sat down with media luminaries including Walters and Oprah Winfrey. She made a surprise appearance on "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" and poked fun at herself in a speech at the winter dinner of the Gridiron Club, an organization of Washington-based journalists.

She regularly posts messages on Facebook, where she has more than 1.1 million followers, many begging her to run for president. Facebook, in fact, was the vehicle Palin used in August to coin a phrase that was widely repeated and widely renounced, saying President Barrack Obama's health plan would create a "death panel" denying care to the neediest citizens.

"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care," Palin wrote.

Throughout the year, every other tidbit in Palin's family or those connected with her - however distant - also was minutely examined by mainstream and gossip outlets alike.

All the tabloid attention exhausted state Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat. He's hoping 2010 turns out to be a time for sharper focus on serious state issues such as reversing Alaska's notoriously high gasoline prices and moving forward on building a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to lower 48 markets.

"It was a distraction having national media attention on things that weren't really all that important," he said. "It took away from the problems we really need to solve."

Still, Palin is a phenomenon unlike any politician Clive Thomas has ever seen besides, perhaps, Obama. But Palin's resignation has little real impact on the state except to perpetuate the perception among many that Alaskans live in a weird place full of quirky, bizarre people, said Thomas, a veteran political science professor at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau.

For Thomas and others, the downfall of Stevens carries greater potential to affect the state.

The once-powerful lawmaker was renowned not just for his crotchety demeanor and wearing his Incredible Hulk tie when the going got rough in Congress. He also was celebrated for his legendary skills in bringing federal pork back to heavily subsidized Alaska.

"He may be a nasty person, but he's one of the most effective persons this state and nation have ever seen," Thomas said.

Stevens, once the Senate's longest serving Republican, narrowly lost his re-election bid to Democrat Mark Begich in 2008 just days after being convicted of lying on Senate disclosure forms. The election - Begich won by less than 4,000 votes - dragged on for days before Stevens conceded, ending his 40-year run in office.

Then in April, a judge vacated the conviction because of prosecutorial misconduct. The charges were wiped out after the Justice Department admitted it failed to turn over evidence favorable to the defense prior to trial. The same issue led to the release of former state House Speaker Pete Kott and former state Rep. Vic Kohring while a judge decides whether to drop charges or order new trials for their own corruption cases.

Although Stevens was not declared innocent, his legal redemption left Begich to fend off Republican calls that he resign because of a tainted election.

Stevens, who is now 86, wasted no time filing a statement of candidacy for the 2014 election, but an aide said at the time to not read too much into it. Stevens has since made a few public appearances but has not discussed his case.

Stevens and "the great drama" of Palin are yesterday's news left for history to judge, as far as state Rep. Mike Hawker is concerned. The Anchorage Republican, however, believes Stevens will win in that regard, given his decades of service to the state.

"He has a much larger record for history to deal with than the former governor," Hawker said.

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