Analysis: Nation's image of Palin differs from Alaskans'

For better or worse, Alaska's governor isn't always what others make her out to be

Posted: Monday, September 08, 2008

With Gov. Sarah Palin a newcomer to the national political scene, the race is on among both Republicans and Democrats to frame the image of the Republican candidate for vice president.

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Toby Jorrin / The Associated Press
Toby Jorrin / The Associated Press

The picture they're getting from both sides isn't always the one Alaskans have.

Most Americans had barely heard of Palin's selection when the Barack Obama campaign accused her of being in the pocket of "Big Oil."

That would likely come as a surprise to Alaskans who have followed the news for the last several years as Palin feuded with Big Oil.

"It just sounded silly, didn't it?" asked Republican convention delegate Bob Lynn, a conservative state representative from Anchorage.

In Alaska, Palin is known for fighting a sometimes lonely battle against the corrupting influence of oil money in the Alaska Republican Party. She also battled the oil companies to win a bigger share of the state's oil wealth and get work started on a natural gas pipeline.

The oil industry has spent millions fighting Palin, who successfully worked with a coalition of Democrats and some Republicans to overcome state GOP leaders allied with the oil industry. The result has been billions of dollars flowing into state's coffers instead of those of the companies.

That's come despite bribes paid by oil field services company VECO Corp. to several legislators, including the representative from Palin's own hometown - Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla - who was captured in FBI surveillance tapes holding out his hand for a wad of $100 bills.

Immediately after Palin's nomination, Fox News reported that Palin had "reformed" state taxes as well as spending, stances likely to boost Palin's stature among Republicans who might think "reformed" meant "lowered."

In Alaska, that reform meant dramatically raising oil taxes over the bitter opposition of top legislative leaders, radio talk show hosts and bloggers allied with the oil industry.

That tax increase enabled the state to boost spending as well, as state budgets have taken dramatic, and according to some fiscal conservatives on the left and right, unsustainable increases.

For Palin, however, she sees that as getting the maximum return on the state's oil, a position mandated by the Alaska Constitution.

Palin's addition to the Republican ticket is shoring up shaky support for presidential candidate John McCain among social conservatives, but stirring up fears among liberals.

Soon after her nomination, MSNBC host Keith Olbermann told viewers that Palin was "fanatically anti-abortion."

That's not the full view Alaskans have of her, and they've seen a much more pragmatic approach on the issues than pundits have suggested.

While her anti-abortion views are well known, she hasn't pushed them in the Alaska Legislature, where there doesn't appear to be enough votes for tough new rules. Palin also rejected calls for a special session on abortion, saying other issues, such as energy relief, needed to take precedence.

Similar pragmatism was shown on gay rights issues. She disappointed right-wing legislators hoping to pick a fight with the Alaska Supreme Court, which had mandated same-sex partners of government workers get employment benefits.

She said the bill challenging the court's ruling was unconstitutional and vetoed it. But she signed into law another bill opposed by gay and lesbian rights groups that asked voters if they'd support a constitutional amendment to overturn the court's decision. Gay and lesbian rights groups called the vote unnecessary and divisive, but Palin said that while she was unwilling to violate a ruling of the court, she was willing to ask that the state constitution be changed.

Within a few days of Palin's selection for vice president, the New York Times reported that Palin had been a member in the 1990s of the Alaska Independence Party, creating a brief media frenzy.

The AIP's late founder, Joe Vogler, had made numerous radical anti-government statements over the years, and the party's platform has called for Alaska to secede from the United States.

"If she had any relationship at all with this party, it's going to be a problem," said Tom Brokaw of NBC News.

The AIP withdrew its claim that Palin had once been a member, but said that her husband, Todd, had been a member and she had attended some events as a candidate.

Alaskans view of the fringe party is different than the national view, though, as the party became best known when popular Republican Wally Hickel used it as his vehicle to win the governorship again in 1990 in a three-way race. That came after the Republican Party nominated a pro-choice woman for governor.

Hickel returned to the Republican Party before leaving office and later backed Palin in her race for governor.

In a story that's getting repeated frequently nationally, the Washington Post reported that Palin "slashed funding for teen moms" in the 2008 budget.

The story has a delicious irony, with Palin herself to soon become the mother of a teen mom.

What actually happened was that Palin cut $1.1 million from $5 million to help Anchorage's Covenant House expand. The transitional home for teen mothers actually received an increase of $3.9 million.

The money was in the state's 2008 capital budget, where the state provides extra money to go with the state's operating budget, which funds ongoing programs.

The McCain-Palin campaign has been making some unfounded claims as well. Multiple speakers at the Republican convention accused Obama as an Illinois state legislator of voting "present" instead of taking stands on tough issues.

They contrasted that with Palin, who as a chief executive had to actually make decisions.

The Associated Press reported that Obama did vote "present" dozens of times, part of the thousands of votes he cast in the Illinois Legislature over eight years.

The news agency reported that was sometimes part of a strategy to encourage wavering legislators to vote "present" instead of "yes" on abortion measures when a "present" vote had the same effect as a "no" vote.

And Palin herself has several times cast the gubernatorial equivalent of a "present" vote by allowing bills to become law without her signature.

One of those bills created new federally regulated Alaska driver's licenses, tracking all holders in a database.

Palin said that "most Alaskans have serious concerns about the development of a national database, and the ready access to personal information this database could give the federal government." She allowed the bill to become law without her signature, however.

Another bill creating a prescription database so customers could be monitored no matter which pharmacy they used also became law without Palin's signature.

Both bills had law enforcement at odds with civil libertarians, potentially putting Palin in a difficult spot.

"I think she may have wanted to avoid a tough decision," said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau.

• Contact Reporter Pat Forgey at

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