Guest column: The thrilla from Wasilla: recounting Palin's reign

Posted: Friday, September 05, 2008

The nomination of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate is perhaps the most bizarre thing I've witnessed since moving to Alaska six years ago, arguably surpassing the time a bald eagle dropped a flounder into my hot tub. Judging by the e-mails I received on Friday - half of which were some variation of "Who is Sarah Palin?" - almost no one outside this state knows who Palin is. Here's a quick primer.

Her political career began ran in tiny Wasilla, where she defeated a three-term incumbent in a tough mayoral race that attracted hundreds of voters. According to legend, Palin campaigned aggressively and enthusiastically, knocking on every door in the city and writing personal letters to locals who'd actually bothered to show up at the polls in the previous four years. In office, Palin quickly began distributing a stable of severed equine heads to rivals and suspected foes. She slashed the city's budget and fired a host of subordinates - the head librarian and the chief of police, most notoriously - while asking for the resignations of her entire court of managers to test their "loyalty" to a 32-year-old mayor. Arguing that the city's $4 million surplus revenue would be best spent on roads and sewers, Palin hacked the appropriation for the Wasilla city museum, driving three septuagenarian curators into disgruntled retirement. When Palin proposed halving the city's property tax assessment, one city council member - in a parody of the mayor's small-government evangelism - proposed simply getting rid of it altogether.

So went her first 10 months in office. Though Palin's abrasive decisions sparked widespread grumbling, a move to recall her was bridled and a lawsuit by the fired police chief went nowhere. Palin survived a rocky initiation, and in 1999 more than 800 appreciative citizens bore her triumphantly aloft to a second term. From there, she moved on to a state resource commission and into the perennial rumor mill of potential gubernatorial and senatorial runs.

In 2006, Palin vaulted to the governor's mansion, promising to reduce corruption and draw more hydrocarbons from the soil.

In most ways, Palin has been a vast improvement over her predecessor, Frank Murkowski, who managed to aggravate every possible constituency while presiding over a vast ocean of corruption during his single term in office. She approved a bill that squeezed oil producers for more revenue, and she called out fellow Republicans, including the party's own state chairman, for their pliable ethics. Along these lines, Palin's work has been commendable, though it bears noting that after corruption indictments had been laid against nearly a dozen public officials, lobbyists and corporate executives, legislative inertia was not difficult to overcome. "Troopergate" - which I suspect is going to turn out very badly for Palin - takes the shine off Palin's image as a reformer.

As with her approach to the mayor's office a decade earlier, Palin has established a pattern of using public office to settle private scores and to retaliate against subordinates who have been deemed insufficiently helpful.

More substantively, Palin's vaunted record as a budget-trimming "maverick" and a principled opponent of federal pork is also overstated. She has never opposed federal earmarks on principle, even for the patently absurd Gravina Island bridge ("to nowhere"). And while she hacked $270 million from this year's budget, the "principles" she deployed were inconsistent and provincial. She left most projects in her home region of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley untouched. And she allowed the state to fund an "academic based" conference to highlight the state's unique argument that shrinking polar ice doesn't threaten polar bear habitats. To describe Palin as "anti-pork" requires that we overlook the basic point that for most people, "pork" is merely synonymous with "projects I don't like."

Since her nomination last week, other aspects of Palin's conservative ideology received exposure. She is fanatically anti-choice, a stance that the birth of her fifth child - and her own teenage daughter's pregnancy - will only underscore as McCain rallies social conservatives to the tent. Palin has offered modest endorsement for the view that creationist superstition should be granted equal time in high school science classes. In keeping with her administration's cautious approach to governing, though, Palin has not forwarded any legislation on these or any other issues. And while she personally opposes domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples, Palin vetoed a plainly unconstitutional bill that would have denied those benefits to state workers. These traits could be as effective a combination for McCain's candidacy as they've been for Palin in Alaska. Social conservatives will recognize her as one of their own, while moderates may not be inclined to view her as a dangerous ideologue.

As a vice presidential candidate, though, Palin could be disastrous. She's not a policy wonk, and she's incapable of holding a press conference without a coral reef of staffers to feed her answers. Though amiable and charming in debates, she is staggeringly uninformed on most issues of national significance, and voters would do well to wonder how the erstwhile Mayor of Wasilla would manage the American imperium when President McCain strokes out over a third-tier international crisis.

More ominously for Palin, she's made a tremendous number of enemies during her rise to power, folks who have remained more or less quiet about the less savory aspects of Palin's professional and personal life. Given the McCain campaign's apparent failure to thoroughly research Palin's past, I would not be surprised to see some highly public score-settling over the next few weeks.

• David Noon is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, the author of the "Axis of Evel Knievel" blog ( and a contributor to "Lawyers, Guns and Money" (

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