The Joan of Arc of Alaska politics

Gov. Sarah Palin: A biography

August 29, 2008 

Sarah Palin was a hockey mom, small-town mayor and rising young Republican star in Alaska in 2003 when she ran afoul of her party's establishment as a whistleblower and was cast into the political wilderness.

But she came charging back as an ethics crusader to win the governor's office in 2006 (including a landslide primary victory over incumbent Republican governor Frank Murkowski) and has remained one of the most popular local politicians in America even as she continued to take on such powerful figures as the oil companies and the leaders of her own state party.

Palin, 44, has been the Joan of Arc of Alaska politics, marching into battle against long odds on such big local issues as oil taxes and construction of a natural gas pipeline only to see her opposition crumble. Days after her 2006 primary victory, an FBI investigation into political corruption involving the oil industry and Republican legislators burst into view with surprise raids of legislative offices. Criminal indictments and convictions followed, often just in time for the headlines to help her win another contest in Juneau.

Though fearless in choosing the outsider's path in politics, she remains relatively untested as a campaigner, a politician and as a governor who has held office less than two years. And even as she drew increasing attention nationally as a potential vice presidential nominee in recent months, she has come under withering criticism at home from business-minded Republicans who consider her a misguided populist and an intellectual lightweight.

Her criticism of congressional earmarks, for instance, seemed out-of-touch to Alaska political veterans who saw them as essential to getting money to a small-population state. But her rejection of Ketchikan's "Bridge to Nowhere" funding was one of the first thing's John McCain mentioned Friday.

In one-on-one settings, Palin's relaxed, no-bull manner has contributed to her popularity in a state of 670,000 residents, where such contacts are not only possible but essential for political success. Voters here also warmed to the outlines of her all-Alaska biography.

THE HOOPS HERO

She was born in Idaho and came to Alaska when she was 3 months old. She grew up in Wasilla, where her father, Chuck Heath, was a teacher and coach, her mother, Sally, a school secretary. One of her most formative experiences, she has said, was helping to lead her high school basketball team to the 1982 state championship. Palin played point guard and got the nickname from her teammates of Sarah Barracuda.

Palin 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 both contests, she played the flute and won the title of Miss Congeniality. As runner-up in the state contest, she lost to the first African-American Miss Alaska, Marilyne Blackburn.

She grew up hunting with her father, whose living room wall is densely populated with trophies and antlers. Her favorite meal, she said during her gubernatorial race, is moose meat stew after a day of snowmachining.

She eloped in 1988 with her high school sweetheart, Todd Palin, who expands the family biography considerably. He is a commercial fisherman, an oil field worker, a member of the United Steelworkers and an Alaska Native. Todd's grandmother grew up in a traditional Yup'ik Eskimo house in Bristol Bay and accompanied Sarah in her race for governor as she sought support from Alaska Native voters. Sarah Palin has joined her family in fishing a commercial setnet site on the Nushagak River in Bristol Bay every summer.

Todd Palin has worked 20 years on Alaska's North Slope for BP, where he has continued to work as a production operator. He is also a four-time winner of the Iron Dog, the 2,000-mile snowmachine race from Big Lake to Nome along the Iditarod Trail and then on to Fairbanks. Since Sarah was elected governor, Todd has remained in the background as a close political confidante and "First Dude," an expression his wife sometimes uses.

Sarah Palin made her way into local politics on the Wasilla City Council in 1992 and then ran for mayor as an agent of change. Though she established a reputation as a tax fighter, she actually increased the budget and spending on roads and sewers, reducing property taxes at the same time thanks to a huge increase in sales tax revenues coming to the booming commercial hub. She's had the same luck as governor -- a fiscal conservative in charge of a wealthy government, this time because of high oil prices.

BUILDING AN ETHICS BASE

Palin finished a strong second in the 2002 primary for lieutenant governor and was being groomed by the party for higher office when she clashed with state Republican Party chairman Randy Ruederich. They both had seats on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, appointed by Gov. Frank Murkowski, the Republican she would later depose. She accused Ruederich of misusing the job for political chicanery and eventually resigned in frustration. Ruederich was forced to resign the job as well, though he remains head of the state party.

Palin later took on Murkowski's attorney general in a conflict-of-interest scandal that forced his resignation. And when state Sen. Ben Stevens, the son of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, was caught making a dismissive remark about the Wasilla area, Palin appeared in a rebuttal ad wearing a "Valley Trash" T-shirt.

In 2006, she knocked off Murkowski and then Democratic former Gov. Tony Knowles in a campaign that drew on grassroots support, relying on neighbors and friends for staff rather than the party and veterans of big-time campaigns.

She had strong support from social conservatives and often speaks of her religious faith. The Palins have five children, including their first-born, Track, who enlisted in the Army on Sept. 11, 2007. Track Palin is 19 and stationed at Fort Wainwright with the Stryker Brigade, preparing for a deployment to Iraq in September. The Palins also have three daughters: Bristol, Willow and Piper.

The newest member of the family, a son, Trig, was born in April ago after a pregnancy that Palin managed to keep secret for seven months. Trig was born with Down syndrome, which the Palins had discovered through testing.

But as governor, she has not pushed any big-agenda items of social conservatives. She spoke favorably in her campaign of schools teaching the creationism debate with evolution, but lived up to her pledge to do nothing as governor to push the idea. Her first veto was of a bill that would have denied benefits to employees in same-sex relationships -- she said she supported the idea but accepted legal advice that it was unconstitutional. This year, she declined to call a legislative special session on two abortion bills because they would have interfered with her top priority, a measure promoting a new natural gas pipeline.

OIL AND GAS ISSUES

Her focus has been on raising oil taxes -- long suppressed by oil-friendly legislators, the taxes seemed ridiculously low once oil prices started rising -- and on launching construction of a $40 billion gasline from North Slope oil fields. Palin took on the oil producers, especially Exxon Mobil, saying they had been dragging their feet on a gasline. She persuaded the Legislature to pass a bill authorizing an independent company to build the line with state subsidy.

The ongoing corruption scandal in the Legislature over influence of the former oil field services company Veco helped Palin force change in the Juneau state capitol. That scandal has spread to include Alaska's two longtime powers in Congress, Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young. Palin has kept distance between herself and those Republican icons and backed ethics reform measures that passed the Legislature.

Palin's clean image has lately taken a shot, however, over charges that she tried to use her office to get rid of an Alaska state trooper who had gone through a messy divorce with one of Palin's sisters. Palin denied any involvement but has conceded a staff member made inappropriate calls. The Legislature has hired a special investigator, with the strongest criticism coming from Republicans antagonized by Palin during the oil and gas battles of the past two years.

She was already under steady criticism from some quarters, including conservative radio talk show hosts in Anchorage and rental car executive Andrew Halcro, a former state representative who ran as an independent in the last governor's race and features almost-daily criticism of her on his blog. Critics call her naive, a panderer in her economic populism and reckless in her dealing with the vital oil industry.

But at a time when state coffers are spilling over with new oil revenues, Palin has remained popular with voters, recently pushing through a $1,200 per person "rebate" to help with high fuel costs.

Anchorage Daily News is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service