3 weeks' notice

Wasilla to Juneau to D.C. and back again

Posted: Sunday, July 05, 2009

Sarah Palin's two and a half years as governor have been marked by policy peaks, instability among her departmental leaders, and an irrepressible popularity that took a hard turn toward celebrity absurdity in the months since the 2008 presidential campaign wrapped.

The former GOP vice presidential candidate announced Friday that she won't seek re-election as governor in 2010 and that she will step down later this month to avoid lame duck status and to keep Alaska moving forward.

In December 2006, Palin became Alaska's first female governor, and at 42, its youngest. She was effective in the Legislature in her first two years, delivering on her promise of ethics reform less than a year in.

Other legacy-building policy wins included passing an increase in big oil's taxes in 2007 and championing a package of incentives that prompted a race to build an ambitious 1,700-mile natural gas pipeline across Alaska and Canada to serve the Lower 48.

The new taxes on oil producers will have a lasting impact on state budgets and were largely responsible for the windfall revenue used to pay out an extra $1,200 as resource rebates through permanent fund dividends last year.

The idea for the pipeline, which two competing firms hope to have up and running by 2018, had stalled for decades as North Slope oil producers sat on the natural gas reserves, a gambler's prospect amid volatile market conditions.

At this stage, it's unclear if the latest pipeline effort - in which the state has committed $500 million as industry incentives - will become an economic boon or unravel as past attempts have.

Palin's popularity was tempered in Juneau by her governance from outside the capital. She was the first governor to not live here full-time and proposed holding a special session outside the city. Legislators criticized her for not showing up personally to push her agenda.

Despite that, Palin was likely the most popular governor in the nation for a time with an approval rating of more than 80 percent. The Anchorage Daily News in an editorial said at the time that she looked like "Joan of Arc, with a better smile and personality."

Larry Persily, a former aide, was more cynical in an interview with The Associated Press.

"She's very good at reading the public's discontent and pandering to it,"

National attention...

Palin's time on the presidential campaign trail marked a palpable shift to a more partisan political demeanor. As with many vice presidential candidates, her role on the campaign was to play attack dog for her running mate. Outwardly, it was a role that she appeared to relish along with her crowd-pleasing quips.

The national spotlight opened her to a new world of adulation, scrutiny and criticism - from outside and within the state. Her partisan rhetoric on the trail alienated much of her Democratic support in Alaska.

"I'll still work with her, but I'll never trust her again," state Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said in the waning days of the presidential election.

Palin's unusually partisan aura carried into the 2009 legislative session, with a notable snub in the drawn out Senate appointment process after Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, left his seat March 2 for a post in the Obama administration. Palin refused to accept Kerttula, local Democrats' first pick for the vacancy. The two sides' compromise pick of Dennis Egan wasn't official until April 19, the last day of the packed session.

...that won't let up

Palin's resignation speech Friday was evocative of her displeasure with the media, and reminiscent of her use of the Oct. 3 vice presidential debate as a platform to speak directly to the American people, rather than answer the moderator's questions and engage in the debate format.

Since returning to Alaska, she and her family have been dogged by media attention. Some of it was foisted on her through unsubstantiated Internet blogs, some by mainstream outlets following sensational stories like her daughter's teenage pregnancy.

In other cases, Palin herself breathed life into otherwise short-lived or under-the-radar story lines by repeatedly drawing attention to them, as with a series of 15 state ethics complaints filed against her. While it was clear to lay observers that many of the complaints had no merit, she cited them Friday as part of her rationale for leaving office, stating that thousands of staff hours and millions in taxpayer money had been wasted on them.

Recently released finance figures indicate that one of the most costly ethics complaints stemmed from a complaint she filed against herself seeking a different outcome from the independent "Troopergate" investigation the Legislature initiated, itself a $100,000 affair.

Palin was suspected of firing Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan in July 2008 because he would not fire the governor's ex-brother-in-law, state Trooper Mike Wooten, who was involved in a messy custody battle with Palin's sister.

The two investigations came to opposite conclusions about her actions. The Legislature's said she abused her power as governor; the investigation she launched did not.

Monegan is one of many top officials in her administration that have come and gone in her tenure, including one chief of staff, a second public safety commissioner, one education commissioner, one health and social services commissioner, two attorneys general, three press secretaries, two public health officials, two legislative directors and one rural advisor.

Some left with little explanation or amid public controversies. Others spoke publicly of clashing with Palin. Attorney General Wayne Anthony Ross served for two weeks before becoming the first cabinet appointee ousted by the Legislature in Alaska history.

Political beginnings

Sarah Palin started her political career at age 28 when she was elected to the Wasilla City Council. She won a second term but did not complete it because she ran for mayor in 1996.

She defeated the three-term incumbent by offering "fresh ideas and energy" and vowing to "replace stale leadership."

A platform of change became a recurring theme in her campaigns.

She hit term limits in 2002, then made an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, placing second in a five-way primary. Later that year she was appointed to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, eventually serving as its chairwoman and ethics supervisor.

In 2004, she resigned from the commission in protest and filed a formal complaint against two commission members and state political leaders who eventually resigned. The episode became part of her reputation as a maverick and a party iconoclast who battled corruption in Alaska.

Palin campaigned for governor in 2006 as a reformer under the slogans "Time for a Change" and "New energy for Alaska." She trounced incumbent Gov. Frank Murkowski in the Republican primary, then went on to win the election by defeating former Gov. Tony Knowles, 48 percent to 41 percent.

In her resignation announcement Friday, Palin repeatedly referred to a campaign promise of "no more politics as usual."

Her tenure has been anything but.

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