After a year in office, the new governor has won some new friends

Posted: Saturday, February 16, 2008

When Sarah Palin was running for governor, the public loved her everywhere but in Southeast Alaska. Now she may even be winning them over.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

Voters in the Panhandle were uncertain about her as she sought office, and she received little support in the region. But by the end of her first legislative session, polling showed Palin with a 93 percent approval rating in Southeast Alaska, on par with her immense statewide popularity.

"They've moved from unsure to favorable, that's for sure," said pollster Dave Dittman, of Dittman Research.

After her first year in office, the popular governor has made some friends in the Juneau area with the success of her legislative agenda, including popular efforts to get the state a bigger share of its oil wealth and pushing for tougher ethics rules. But she may have stirred antagonism with a push to hold a special session outside Juneau.

She also took some bold steps, such as canceling the Gravina bridge project, derided nationally as a "Bridge to Nowhere," a move that alienated some in Ketchikan, one of Southeast Alaska's most Republican communities.

"Overall, I think there's some feeling that we are the stepchild of the rest of Alaska, and it's certainly not limited to the bridge," said Bob Weinstein, mayor of Ketchikan.

A majority of Ketchikan residents supported the bridge, he said. In Juneau, a road project that divided the community was canceled as well, but that action received both praise as well as criticism.

Potential pitfalls remain for Palin, however, including Juneau's fears about losing the capital and other important regional projects that need gubernatorial support.

Some think it is surprising that Palin is as popular as she is in Southeast Alaska, considering how she became governor.

First, she whipped Ketchikan hometown favorite, incumbent Gov. Frank Murkowski, in the Republican primary last year.

Then, she solidly beat Juneau's adopted son, former Gov. Tony Knowles, in the general election to win the governorship. But in downtown Juneau, Palin didn't even get out of single digits.

Now, she's much more popular, Dittman said.

Palin probably benefited from people not knowing much about her originally. Southeast residents who supported other candidates were probably voting in favor of Knowles or Murkowski, rather than against Palin, he said.

"Beforehand, I don't know how much was unpopular or just unaware," he said.

Confrontations and winning confidence

It was a series of victories on popular issues such as oil and gas that helped Palin get there, but she's overcome some Southeast skepticism as well, particularly on the capital move and important Southeast projects.

Most recently, Palin improbably steered an oil tax plan opposed by the state's most powerful business interests and top legislative leaders to a special session victory.

Seven of the nine committee chairmen who heard Palin's oil tax bill, called Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share, voted against the bill, as did the Senate president and the House majority leader.

Still, when ACES reached the floor, it won 2-1 support from the membership in both houses.

Earlier, during the regular session, Palin's Alaska Gasline Inducement Act had its own hurdles. Then, the first committee in the House of Representatives to which the bill was sent was chaired by a legislator who was being paid off by the oil industry, which opposed the bill.

Then-Rep. Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, chairman of the House Special Committee on Oil and Gas, was indicted on federal corruption charges after the bill passed through his committee. He has since been convicted and is awaiting sentencing.

AGIA won overwhelming support as well. In fact, Palin had just won final approval on it when she stoked fears in Juneau of a capital move by suggesting a special session of the Legislature be held elsewhere. Later, the first legislative session since territorial days to be held outside Juneau was held in Anchorage to approve senior benefits.

Palin again suggested having the October oil tax session outside Juneau, but legislators decided to meet in the Capitol instead.

Still, it didn't go unnoticed in Juneau that Palin enrolled her children in Wasilla, not Juneau, schools last fall, raising fears once again.

State Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, has backed Palin on ethics and petroleum issues, and said Juneau's concerns about the capital are overblown.

"There are more phobias in Juneau than in a psychiatrist's office," he said.

Juneau Democratic Rep. Andrea Doll said she's not convinced Palin fully understands what the capital means to Juneau, and has been working with other members of the delegation and city leaders to make her more aware.

Palin's popularity may have taken a hit in Ketchikan, where she alienated some when she canceled the Gravina bridge project, citing high cost and a lack of federal money to pay for it.

Ketchikan's Weinstein said a majority of local residents supported the bridge, and Palin didn't help her popularity there with the decision or how it was handled.

Kerttula, too, said she was disappointed at how vetoes in the state's capital budget were handled.

Heartburn over vetoes

Kerttula said she'd been assuring Juneau residents that projects approved by the Legislature would get funded. Palin's surprise vetoes required Kerttula to make "a couple dozen" calls telling people their projects wouldn't get the money they'd expected.

Palin said she has new personnel this year in her legislative liaison office, and promised "more open communication" with legislators.

Weinstein said communications broke down with the Gravina bridge cancellation as well.

"There was zero communication with anybody in Ketchikan before the announcement, that's very unusual," Weinstein said.

While Weinstein and Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, criticized how project cancellations were announced, both praised Palin's support for an electrical intertie which would enable Ketchikan to shift some of its power usage from diesel to hydroelectricity.

An earlier project cancellation in Juneau, may have won as many friends as it made enemies. Just after taking office, Palin canceled Murkowski's plans for a "pioneer road," a rough track running north from Juneau along the route of a proposed highway up Lynn Canal.

Kerttula said Palin's capability as governor has already surprised her, and she's only been governor for a year.

"There are definitely areas she's going to grow in," she said. "I hope understanding Southeast and its needs is going to be one of those areas."

• Contact Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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