Even Democrats optimistic about Palin transition

Posted: Sunday, December 03, 2006

ANCHORAGE - When Gov.-elect Sarah Palin announced her transition team, state Sen. Kim Elton sat down at his computer.

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The usual political operatives were not on her list. Elton, a Juneau Democrat, electronically searched for information on the people picked to transform Palin from candidate to chief executive.

Representing a city that voted against Republican Palin, Elton could have plenty of reasons to dread the next four years, from the unknown to his confirmed political differences with her.

But Palin's brief history in statewide politics, her campaign, and especially her appointments so far, has Elton sleeping well.

"I'm reassured that what she is looking for are professionals," he said. "Their professionalism is going to be more important than their politics. I think that's a good sign."

"I'm reassured that what she is looking for are professionals," he said. "Their professionalism is going to be more important than their politics. I think that's a good sign."

Palin, 42, will be sworn in Monday. She will be Alaska's youngest and first woman governor - and likely, the first former pageant queen and former point guard on a state championship basketball team to hold the job.

She was criticized during the campaign as a political lightweight. But as her inroads with politicians of a different stripe indicate, she is capable of surprising results.

Palin grew up in conservative Wasilla, proclaimed evangelical Christianity and signed up for a lifelong membership in the National Rifle Association. She's a member of the Alaska Outdoor Council, the Alaska Miner's Association and the Alaska Resource Development Council.

On lightning rod issues such as abortion, she has stated her opposition. That will not, however, necessarily translate into public policy.

"I've honestly answered the questions on what my personal views are on things like abortion and a lot of controversial issues," she said Friday. "I won't hesitate to answer those questions about what my personal views are, but I am not one to be out there preaching and forcing my views on anyone else."

Elton and Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, expect Palin to be more than the sum of a bunch of labels.

"I take her at her word that she is a positive person who wants to reach out to me and my colleagues and wants to get a lot accomplished," Ellis said.

Palin said she expected campaign opponents to tag her as inexperienced.

"I was used to it," she said. "I had already gone through that. I was very young when I served on the Wasilla City Council and relatively young as a mayor and manager of Alaska's fastest growing city."

What some viewed as a vulnerability, Palin managed to turn into an asset.

"Years being a professional political, if that's all someone's done for so many years, creates a disconnect between the people whom you are to be serving and yourself," she said. "I think it should be refreshing that I'm not there with all those years creating a disconnect.

"I want Alaskans to see me as an approachable, open-minded Alaskan who ran for the right reasons and desires to serve for the right reasons."

Her standard response to her lack of experience, or not having every answer in campaign debates, was to promise to surround herself with good people.

"I've said this before, that everything I ever needed to know I learned on the basketball court, I learned as the captain of a basketball team," she said. "All about setting goals and working hard and having self-discipline and knowing what strengths were in team members and then assembling those team members and tasking the team to fulfill missions. That's what you learn in sports."

Political affiliation so far has taken a back seat. Her cabinet picks include a Revenue Department commissioner who's a Democrat, a Public Safety commissioner who's the cousin of a Democratic lawmaker, and an acting Natural Resources commissioner who advised Palin's general election opponent, former Gov. Tony Knowles, on natural gas line issues.

But Patrick Galvin, Walt Monegan, Marty Rutherford and others picked so far are long on experience. Palin promises to give them clear direction, remind them of their mission and not micromanage.

Palin's also getting a warm reception from political opposites because of another asset: She's not Frank Murkowski. She has a simple explanation for her victory over the incumbent in the Republican primary: "Alaskans were really ready for change."

Ellis said Murkowski's four years were marked by arrogance and bully tactics. After midterm elections two years ago, Ellis said, he and fellow Democrats listed 13 issues they felt could be addressed in the last two years of Murkowski's term, then met with the governor.

"He basically ignored those and harangued us about something he wanted us to do," Ellis said.

Murkowski's good will with the public, built up over 22 years as a U.S. senator, also largely dissipated.

He appointed his own daughter to complete his U.S. Senate term. With no prior hint from his campaign speeches, Murkowski ditched Alaska's longevity bonuses, monthly checks to Alaska's oldest senior citizens, a program on its way out as they died off. He picked an attorney general who had never practiced law in Alaska, then watched him resign under public pressure for having a financial interest in a company that stood to gain from an international trade deal he was helping craft.

In one of the most politically tone-deaf moves ever made by an Alaska politician, Murkowski insisted the state buy a jet aircraft. And he pushed hard for a deal for a $25 billion North Slope natural gas pipeline on his watch long after most Alaskans had concluded the proposal conceded too much to the petroleum companies.

Palin's immediate to-do list sounds like a Murkowski undo list.

She already has announced plans to split Alaska State Troopers back into officers who do police work and wildlife officers devoted to enforcing fish and game laws - blue shirts and brown shirts.

She wants to share state revenue with financially strapped municipalities.

Part of the reason she hired Rutherford, who had worked on gas pipeline negotiations under Murkowski, was to quickly come up with a revised gas pipeline contract.

And the state jet? It will fly away.

Palin says she will back revised ethics legislation.

"I think it's a shame, though, that we have to pass more laws and write out more rules for people just to get them to do the right thing," she said. "But evidently that's what's needed."

Elton said good leaders are flexible on policy and rigid on ethics, not the other way around. Palin has proven herself with tough ethics demands on member of her own party, he said

"It's one thing do it when these people are acquaintances in the other party," Elton said. "It's much more difficult to do when they're in your own party. I recognize that. I think most Alaskans recognize that."

Ellis said there are a lot of unknowns about Palin's policies and governing style but he's hopeful she can deliver on her promises.

"If she can keep that and reach out to legislators of both political parties, I think we can have a very productive session."

Palin said there is no other option.

"It's time that everybody's working together in order to progress the state," Palin said. "We really can't afford division right now. We really need to grow up and grow together in order to meet some of the challenges that are facing Alaska."

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