ANCHORAGE - Alaska's black leaders say they're not surprised to see Gov. Sarah Palin at the center of the controversy over injecting the race issue into the presidential campaign.
Palin, Republican John McCain's running mate, has repeatedly insisted that Barack Obama's former preacher, the inflammatory Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is a legitimate issue even though McCain himself has said it's out of bounds.
"She has no sensitivity to minorities," said the Rev. Alonzo Patterson, a Baptist minister and president of the Alaska Black Leadership Conference. "She's really inciting a lot of African-Americans to get out and vote."
Since taking office in December 2006, Palin has had a sometimes tense relationship with black leaders, who say they've been ignored in their efforts to get more minorities hired in her administration.
In Alaska, blacks chafed when Palin opposed a proclamation endorsing a festival that marks the freeing of slaves. On the campaign trail, her events sometimes have attracted fringe groups hostile to minorities. At one rally attended by Palin, a supporter told a black cameraman to "sit down, boy."
This week, in the final debate of the campaign, Obama himself noted the hateful tone of some the McCain-Palin crowds, singling out Palin herself for not doing enough to ease the friction.
Many of Palin's black constituents say they are disgusted with the campaign's racial overtones.
"It's really been like you're going to a Ku Klux Klan rally," said Javis Odom, an Anchorage minister. "Gov. Palin is really showing her true colors on the national stage."
In Alaska, the issue of race relations usually focuses on Alaska Natives, who make up 18 percent of the population. Blacks, in contrast, make up 4 percent.
"If you're going to embrace the entire country, you need to address the issues here," said Marilyn Stewart, president of the Alaska Black Chamber of Commerce and a volunteer on Palin's gubernatorial campaign who has served Republican and Democratic governors. "Most certainly there are qualified minorities who would love to be part her administration. People aren't asking for her selections to be based on color, but because of qualifications."
Among Palin's 417 appointments or reappointments to boards and commissions since taking office in December 2006, 240 have voluntarily identified their ethnicity. Eight are black, 49 Alaska Native, six Asian or Pacific Islander and one is Hispanic.
The Palin administration says her appointments and chief advisers reflect the state's diversity. For example, her communications director, Bill McAllister, is part black. However, her rural affairs coordinator, who is part Japanese, announced her resignation this week, saying an Alaska Native would be a better fit for the position.
McAllister, who was hired in July, said he and others on the governor's personal staff are evidence that she is committed to diversity.
"She's just a warm human being who I think communicates on a deep level, both from a mass media perspective and just a one-on-one perspective," McAllister said. "So it's shocking to me that anyone would imply that she's racist or, you know, neglectful of people of color. I think she's an extraordinary woman and it's disappointing to me that folks would make these charges."
In Palin's only face-to-face meeting with black leaders in 21 months in office, words became terse when the issue of diversity arose, according to several who attended the March 2007 gathering in Anchorage. Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell also attended the 45-minute meeting.
Participants say Palin refused to reconsider her decision not to reappoint two black officials - including Stewart - from her predecessor's administration.
The implication from Palin was "you can't tell me how to do my job," said Anchorage businessman Mayfield Evans. "Her top lip got really tight. You could tell she was upset, that something was not right."