Juneau, Meet Palin

Can the governor win over skeptical residents of her new hometown?

Posted: Sunday, December 10, 2006

Alaska's new governor, recently arrived in Juneau, now faces a whole new challenge: Winning over residents of the state's capital, who didn't support her at election time and worry about her intentions for the capital.

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It may be even more important for Juneau residents, however, to win over Gov. Sarah Palin, who arrived Friday with her family.

She received a warm reception Friday night from citizens on the streets outside the Capitol with "welcome home" signs as she made her way to the Governor's Mansion.

Helping bridge any divide between Palin and her temporary home will be those who supported her during the election, including Paulette Simpson of the Capital City Republican Women.

Simpson said that not only are Juneau residents going to warm to Palin, but she also will prove to be a friend to the city as well.

"I think she'll settle into the community pretty well," Simpson said. "Our attitude has been, 'Let's just give her a chance.'"

That attitude might be expected from one of Juneau's most prominent Republicans, but Palin may find support from Democrats as well, said Rep.-elect Andrea Doll.

"I'm really looking forward to her coming," Doll said last week. "I think she has a wonderful attitude of looking across party lines. I think we can express our welcome to her, whether it is through the receiving line at the Governor's Mansion, it's in the way we smile and put out our hand to her."

Palin spokesman Curtis Smith said she was excited about moving to Juneau.

Another prominent Democrat, Mayor Bruce Botelho, helped organize the welcoming crowd that greeted her on the way to her new home Friday.

The challenges facing Simpson and Botelho in bridging the gap appear substantial, however.

The Governor's Mansion is in Juneau's downtown precinct, where Palin did dismally on election night.

She did so dismally, in fact, that if she walks downtown, she can count on less than one in every 10 people she sees as a supporter. Palin polled in single digits in that precinct, with 9.4 percent support, placing third behind Democrat Tony Knowles and independent Andrew Halcro.

Throughout Juneau, Palin received 22.9 percent of the vote, compared to the 48.3 percent she received statewide.

Palin's rocky relationship with Juneau started when she was mayor of Wasilla and supported moving the capital out of Juneau. Later, while campaigning for governor, she said she supported keeping the capital in Juneau and the "star on the map."

However, she also raised anxiety here when she said she wouldn't oppose the Legislature if it chose to meet somewhere other than Juneau.

Then, after winning the governorship, Palin held her inauguration in Fairbanks instead of Juneau and decided to decided that members of her cabinet, the top officials who run state government, would not be required to live here as they had in the past.

That prompted KJNO, Juneau's right-wing talk radio station, to suggest those actions were enough to question her campaign promise to support the capital.

"Are these positions really consistent with her campaign statement?" asked Station Manager Richard Burns.

While Palin's mission may be a tough one, her supporters and her former opponents say she's up to the challenge and has the people skills to convert adversaries.

"She has a way of engaging with people. She's very warm," Simpson said.

Another member of the Capital City Republican Women, Ginger Johnson, agreed. She led the volunteer effort to decorate the mansion for Christmas for the new governor.

Johnson said she'd talked about the capital move with Palin and thinks local fears about it are overblown.

"I believe Sarah Palin has always supported Juneau," she said. "No one but Juneau has made the capital move an issue."

State Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said he wasn't offended when Palin held her swearing-in at Fairbanks to honor the constitutional convention. A swearing-in that took place in Wasilla or Anchorage would have been a reason for raised eyebrows, he said.

Democrat Doll met Palin during a campaign visit to Juneau and agrees with Simpson and Johnson.

"She was very welcoming," Doll said.

And that continued after the campaign, she said. After Doll finally won her squeaker victory for a seat in the House of Representatives, she got a congratulatory call from Palin.

Doll said Palin's decision to call newly elected representatives was unusual, but may be a sign of a new attitude throughout the Capitol.

"I can only hope and pray that's true," she said. "We are so tired of the divisiveness."

Also surprised to get a call from Palin recently was Dennis Egan, son of Alaska's legendary Democratic governor, asking him to speak at her inauguration.

"She's a very personable lady," he said. "I was impressed by her talk at the swearing-in."

Egan isn't a Republican, but said Palin didn't care. He is the son of the president of the constitutional convention, held 50 years ago in Fairbanks.

He, too, thinks Juneau will warm to Palin.

"We have a very large stake in her doing well," he said. "I think she's starting off on the right foot.

"Hopefully, a lot of the concerns that were expressed, she'll prove to us those were wrong."

Botelho, who served in Knowles' cabinet as attorney general, thinks the divide between Palin and Juneau may not be as serious as feared.

"I'm certain there's a strong desire on both sides to draw together," he said.

• Pat Forgey can be reached at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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