Part 1: 'Fresh face' launched, carries Palin's career

RISING STAR: Wasilla mayor was groomed from an early political age

Anchorage Daily NewsOctober 23, 2006 

Editor's note: This story was orginally published October 23, 2006

Sarah Palin's campaign for governor sounds a lot like her campaign for mayor of Wasilla 10 years ago, when she made her first big move in Alaska politics.

In 1996, Palin ran against an "old boy network" that she said controlled local government. She vowed to replace "stale leadership" and a "tax-and-spend" mentality with "fresh ideas and energy."

Local voters warmed to Palin's ease in public and her disarming personal touch as much as to her conservative message. And she was a local girl: daughter of a popular local teacher and coach, she was a one-time Miss Wasilla and, in a basketball-mad town, was practically canonized as the point guard for Wasilla's 1982 girls' state championship team.

But her political opponents say there was another side to the charming candidate -- one captured by her nickname from those basketball years, "Sarah Barracuda." Supporters consider the name a testament to her aggressive play and ferocious defense. But opponents said the name captured a predatory instinct that Palin could turn on friend as well as foe -- one they said occasionally revealed itself in the mayoral years to come.

During her first run for mayor, critics complained that Palin, at 32, was too young and inexperienced. The Wasilla mayor was a full-time, $68,000-a-year job. They objected to a quiet campaign by some Palin supporters raising emotional issues like abortion and gun control, which had no apparent tie to municipal politics.

And they said that by posing for ads with the area's Republican legislators, who implied they could work better with her than her opponent, she was injecting divisive party politics into what was technically a nonpartisan race.

The high-profile support from local Republicans was hardly surprising, however. Party officials say Palin was already being groomed for bigger and better things, even as she talked about sewers and road-paving projects. In Alaska's fastest-growing region, Palin was the fresh young face of the suddenly dominant Republicans.

But Palin's path to the governor's race took an unexpected turn.

In 2003, she made a dramatic break with the party leadership, including Gov. Frank Murkowski, over ethics issues. The turn against her sponsors could have left Palin an exile from mainstream politics. Instead, it propelled her to a landslide victory over Murkowski in this year's primary.

Palin's rebellion drew her into the Outsider camp on other issues as well, notably in support for a proposed in-state liquefied natural gas pipeline. Now, as the Republican nominee up against an "old guard" from both parties, Palin is once again pitching "fresh ideas." Her campaign has sometimes struggled this fall to get those ideas and positions into clear focus. But they seem almost secondary.

The main product Palin is selling this year, as in Wasilla 10 years ago, is Palin herself.

BASKETBALL SUCCESS

"I know this sounds hokey, but basketball was a life-changing experience for me," Palin said recently on a rare night home in Wasilla, while her 5-year-old daughter, Piper, worked on homework at the kitchen counter. "It's all about setting a goal, about discipline, teamwork, and then success."

Palin has been telling interviewers about the 1982 state tournament at West High in Anchorage for at least a decade, including the self-effacing line about its being "hokey."

The experience clearly was profound for her. Nobody gave the Wasilla Warrior girls' team much chance that season, after losing in the state finals the year before and graduating several key players. But with senior Sarah Heath as co-captain, Wasilla knocked off top-ranked East 50-48, then defeated another Anchorage school, Service, 58-53 in the state final.

Chuck Heath, Sarah's father, was cross-country running coach for Wasilla. He and his wife, Sally, a school secretary, say she was stubborn and hard-working from an early age. She wasn't an especially gifted runner, he recalls, but she applied her "workaholic" temperament to turn herself into one of the cross-country team's best racers.

"Starting when she was 2 years old, she was hard to bend. We couldn't change her mind," Chuck Heath said.

The Heaths came to Alaska from Idaho in 1964, when Sarah was 3 months old. They lived in Skagway and Eagle River before settling long-term in Wasilla. Chuck Heath, retired at 68, is a lifelong hunter -- his house is densely populated with trophies and antlers, and this fall he loaded the Palins' freezer with moose and bear meat from a hunt on the McLaren River.

Palin's parents say they are not political and don't know how she decided to turn her ambition and work ethic toward politics. Her Christian faith, they say, came from her mother, who took her children to area Bible churches as they were growing up (Sarah is the third of four siblings). They say her faith has been steady since high school, when she led the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and grew stronger as she sought out believers in her college years.

Palin doesn't brandish her religion on the campaign trail, but that doesn't prevent others from doing so. After she was first elected mayor, her predecessor, John Stein, objected that a Valley cable TV program had hailed her as Wasilla's first "Christian mayor." In a column for the local newspaper, he named eight previous mayors and added that he, too, was a Christian, despite a name that led some voters to suspect "I must be a non-Christian, have non-Christian blood or at least have sympathized with a non-Christian sometime in my career."

MISS CONGENIALITY

In her high school yearbook, the future gubernatorial candidate quoted the Bible, signed the class page "Sarah Heath #22," and listed a demure ambition: to sit in a broadcast booth with Howard Cosell broadcasting basketball games played by her boyfriend, Todd Palin.

Sarah went on to study journalism and political science in college, graduating from the University of Idaho in 1987. Along the way she competed in the Miss Alaska contest after being chosen Miss Wasilla 1984. In the Wasilla contest, she played the flute and also won the title of Miss Congeniality.

Curt Menard, a longtime family friend who was just elected Mat-Su Borough mayor this fall, said his wife was the one who encouraged and coached Palin in the beauty contests.

"I think that got her into the competitive mode, appearing in front of the public speaking and presenting herself," he said.

Sarah and Todd eloped in 1988, slipping away to the Palmer Courthouse where, learning they needed witnesses, they enlisted two from the pioneers' home across the street, one in a wheelchair and one with a walker. They eloped because they were poor at the time and didn't want their parents to foot the bill for a wedding, she says today.

"I tell my kids, 'Don't do what I did,' " she said. She is the mother of four. Her oldest, son Track, is attending high school and playing hockey in Michigan this year. Daughters Bristol, Willow and Piper attend Wasilla public schools.

Sarah Palin worked short stints as a television sportscaster for Anchorage stations, "between babies."

Todd Palin, who has been a quiet background presence in her campaign, broadens the family resume considerably: fisherman, oil field worker and Alaska Native. The family fishes a commercial setnet site on the Nushagak River in Bristol Bay every summer. Todd has worked 18 years on the North Slope for BP, where he is now a production operator, a job Sarah says he would quit if she's elected. His Yup'ik grandmother, Helena Andree, grew up in a traditional Native household in Bristol Bay and now lives in Homer.

Todd Palin is also a three-time winner of the Iron Dog snowmachine race, the 2,000-mile trek from Wasilla to Nome to Fairbanks that's billed as the world's longest snowmobile race. That experience proved useful several weeks ago -- and not with the NASCAR voting demographic.

At a statewide chiropractors convention, Sarah Palin had little specific to offer on the group's complicated legal and Medicaid questions. But she showed her ability to relate to audiences in a personal, almost Clintonlike way when she brought up the pounding journeys to Nome. Todd wouldn't be standing today without the help of his chiropractor, she said, and the Sheraton Hotel ballroom erupted in applause.

WASILLA TAX CUTS

This year, an accomplishment mentioned perhaps most often by Palin's supporters is that she cut taxes as mayor of Wasilla. Ironically, she took her first steps into local politics with the intent of preserving a controversial new tax and expanding local government.

In 1992, when Palin first ran for city council, Wasilla had just adopted a 2 percent sales tax and was setting up a police department. The 28-year-old Palin was approached by several council members to help them fight off anti-tax elements, who were saying no new stores would ever come to Wasilla if it had a sales tax. A 1992 Palin ad called her a "new face, new voice," who would work for "a safer, more progressive Wasilla."

As it turned out, the new sales tax built the infrastructure that turned Wasilla into the Mat-Su area's commercial hub. Booming sales tax revenues also made possible Palin's other tax cuts after she became mayor in 1996.

To become mayor, however, Palin had to bump off three-term incumbent John Stein, who had ushered in the sales tax and police force. Three terms were enough, she said. He had lost touch with the community. It was time for a change. The voters agreed.

Wasilla's growth was taking off, and Palin pushed for bonds to build sewer, water and roads. New big-box stores wanted to be in the city so they could get sewer, water and police protection, even if it meant being annexed. Palin's city was not necessarily an aesthetic crown jewel, especially along the Parks Highway, but the long snake of stores was doing good business. Sales tax revenues grew by half a million dollars a year. Much of the revenue was coming from people who lived outside the town.

Palin was able to cut property taxes by three-quarters while eliminating small taxes such as the personal property tax and the business inventory tax. She wasn't doing this by shrinking government, however: The cost of running the growing city, apart from capital projects and debt, rose from $3.9 million in fiscal 1996 to $5.8 million in fiscal 2002. Excess sales tax revenues went to paying for capital improvements such as roads and government buildings, says city finance director Ted Leonard.

Palin had priorities. She shrank the local museum's budget and deterred talk of a new library and city hall. But she also put in bike paths and obtained funds for storm-water treatment to protect the area's many lakes. She successfully pushed a half-percent sales tax increase to build a $15 million multi-use indoor ice arena. The popular sports complex is not breaking even, as its advocates projected, but the city's subsidy has been cut from $600,000 to $125,000 a year.

A like-minded majority on the city council smoothed her way. That's not to say her six years as mayor went smoothly, especially at first.

After turning out the three-term incumbent, Palin brought in an outside attorney, with city funds, to advise on the transition. She asked for resignation letters from six top department heads, saying they'd signed a letter supporting their former boss. She fired two of them -- the police chief and the museum director -- but within a year two others had quit. With the local newspaper, the Frontiersman, upset about the uproar, a citizens group started meeting to discuss a recall of the new mayor. The idea was eventually dropped.

Palin has cited her mayoral work as a central part of her qualification to serve as governor. But at the beginning of her term, asked by the local newspaper how she would run the city without experienced department heads, she made the job sound like no big deal: "It's not rocket science. It's $6 million and 53 employees."

Battling over appointments to vacant city council seats, Palin said at the time, "Some of the things I'm doing, it's obvious I'm not running for Miss Congeniality. I'm running the city."

LOCAL CRITICS

Palin's current opponents, Tony Knowles and Andrew Halcro, are saying her experience as mayor didn't prepare her sufficiently to be governor. Palin says Wasilla was a good rough-and-tumble training ground for a 32-year-old first-time mayor.

"Looking back now, it seems kind of young. At the time, it seemed perplexing that people would object," she says. "I was very bold about what needed to be done.

"I went through a lot with the press, with the legislative body, and it was rough with a staff who didn't want to be there working with a new boss," she says. "I learned you've got to be very discerning early on and decide if you can win them over or not. If you can't, you replace them early on." She added that she doesn't want to be surrounded by yes-men.

Some of Palin's hiring as mayor proved almost as controversial as her firings.

She quickly hired a deputy administrator, reworking the city budget to find money for the $50,000-a-year position, which had been empty for several years. Critics said it showed she wasn't up to the job, but Palin defended it as necessary for the fast-growing city.

Critics also noted that the deputy, John Cramer, had been hired from the staff of Sen. Lyda Green, one of the local Republicans who had endorsed Palin in the race. They said it smacked of party patronage.

Similar complaints arose when Palin hired a public works director with no engineering background, Cindy Roberts, who had been a Commerce Department official in the administration for former Gov. Wally Hickel. The wife of longtime Hickel aide Malcolm Roberts, she lasted a year in the job. The city also replaced its longtime attorney with Republican Party attorney Ken Jacobus.

Palin defends the choices, saying they all performed well for the city. She said the attorney choice was made by the city council.

A number of other disputes flared up and died down in the first year. The Frontiersman, which sparred with Palin frequently at first, accused her of rolling her eyes and making faces at city council meetings when she heard testimony she didn't like.

Many Palin opponents from her mayoral years, including Stein, who made a failed comeback bid in 1999, declined to speak for this story. One who spoke freely was her staunchest critic on the council, Nick Carney.

"The day-to-day was beyond her," he said, criticizing her hiring of Cramer and her treatment of the incumbent department heads. "It was the barracuda in her that came out, that 'Those guys were on the side of John Stein and I'm going to get rid of them.' "

Carney, part of an extended and prominent Wasilla-area family that has seen many children through public schools, said Palin's high-school nickname came from her efforts to get more playing time on the basketball court.

"She wasn't what she appeared," he said.

Palin smiled and sighed at the mention of her old adversary's name.

"I couldn't do anything without Nick Carney griping about it. That was the nature of our relationship," Palin said. "I could have walked across Lake Lucile on the water, and he would have griped about me splashing."

For Palin, her landslide re-election in 1999 answered the critics. It was the one election where her slogan changed from "new ideas" to "stay the course."

"I took that as a mandate that we were on the right path," she said.

CHOSEN ONE

Palin's rise came as the Valley's politics were changing sharply from Democratic to Republican.

An influx of conservative voters and the new district lines drawn with Hickel in the governor's office changed the local political scene. In 1994, three Republicans were elected to legislative seats in the area, defeating Democrats. None of them had any more experience than Palin brought to the mayor's race, said Tuckerman Babcock, the Republican official who redrew the lines for Hickel.

"They didn't see any contradiction to getting young people in office," Babcock said.

The national Republican Party was encouraging local party officials to groom a new generation of candidates, officials say. Palin was an obvious selection, say local party officials Roy and June Burkhart of Willow. Roy is head of the District 15 party, while June sits on the state party's executive board.

"Not only that, we've got some in the bullpen. You'll be hearing about them, too," Roy Burkhart said recently.

Another young Mat-Su Republican candidate being groomed that way was Beverly Masek, first elected to the Legislature in 1994, Babcock said. Her bright flame guttered out in a series of no-shows and an electoral defeat in 2004.

In Palin's last year as mayor, she headed straight to her next race, entering the 2002 Republican primary for lieutenant governor. The winner was going to run at the side of Frank Murkowski.

"She thought it would be a very good opportunity to be mentored," said Babcock, who is now manager of government affairs for Matanuska Electric Association and a close Palin confidant. "She had a lot of confidence she was going to win that race."

The other candidates were Robin Taylor, Gail Phillips and the eventual winner, Loren Leman. All were veteran legislators with long experience in Juneau. Officially, the party under chairman Randy Ruedrich remained neutral. But it didn't always feel that way to Palin's opponents, Phillips said recently.

"It was Randy that really talked the Republican Party into her being the bright and shining star, to the point there was a lot of preference within the leadership," Phillips said. "Boy, it was there. The three of us would discuss it among ourselves. We were saying, hey, how about experience?"

Recalling that race, Palin concedes her opponents all had impressive experience in the Legislature.

"But that's not what Alaska needed," she says. "The state needed new blood in there. A candidate with new energy and new ideas."

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