Aides say despite campaign travel, Palin's still in charge

GOVERNOR'S ABSENCE: Aides say buck still stops with governor.

September 17, 2008 

She's hitting campaign stops across the nation. She's being quizzed on national television. She's raising money and brushing up on foreign policy.

So who's running the state while Gov. Sarah Palin runs for vice president?

Palin's cabinet members insisted this week that the buck still stops with the governor. Several of them said they communicate with Palin through e-mail or through her chief of staff, who talks with the governor daily, adding that it helps this is a relatively slow time of year for state government.

Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell said he's filling in for Palin at some speaking engagements, and taking a bigger role in budget-making and setting the governor's legislative agenda.

"She is just as much in charge as she ever was," said spokesman Bill McAllister.

Still, there are only so many hours in a day, and Palin is suddenly one of the most high-profile people on the planet. And she's a long way from Alaska.

"The rigors of campaigning are tough, and there's just no denying that it's going to be a time crunch for her, and she's going to have to find time in the day to be governor," said John Bitney, a former Palin aide who is now chief of staff for House Speaker John Harris.

On the other hand, he said, "We just stand so much to gain by having Sarah Palin be out there talking about Alaska and presenting Alaska in a very positive light."

Palin briefly returned to Alaska late last week, including a short, unpublicized visit to her Anchorage office Friday, McAllister said.

That day, the state announced the selection of a new public safety commissioner, Joe Masters.

Masters said he talked to Palin for about a half-hour on the phone Friday before the announcement. A selection committee interviewed him previously, he said.

"She seemed very engaged and focused on what we were discussing," Masters said. Some commissioners said they haven't actually spoken to Palin since her selection by McCain on Aug. 29 but said that's not necessarily unusual.

Revenue Commissioner Pat Galvin said Palin recently approved the timing of Permanent Fund Dividend payments and -- when scheduling wouldn't allow for her to make the announcement herself -- had Parnell publicly announce the amount of the checks.

Chief of Staff Mike Nizich and Kris Perry, director of the governor's Anchorage office, traveled with Palin when she was first selected by McCain. Perry and Nizich are now back in Alaska, and the governor's office says no state employees are currently traveling with Palin.

The presidential election is Nov. 4.

Asked when the governor will return to Alaska, McAllister kicked the question to the McCain/Palin campaign, which declined to answer.

OTHER POLITICIANS BUSY TOO

Palin isn't the only Alaska politician with distractions this year. There's the mayor of the largest city, Democrat Mark Begich, running against U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens -- the Senate's longest serving Republican.

Stevens heads to trial later this month, defending himself against seven charges of failing to disclose gifts from the Veco Corp. as part of the federal government's corruption investigation.

Then there's Rep. Don Young, who is seeking re-election too but facing a possible recount from the Aug. 26 Republican primary against Parnell.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the only elected statewide officeholder who doesn't have a campaign or court case, said she recently met with her staff in Washington to "remind everyone we're really going to have to be buckling down and picking up slack, and that's a good thing and we're willing to do it."

In any other year, the House and Senate match-ups would be the talk of Alaska politics. But Palin's surprise candidacy for vice president has eclipsed them all.

CRAFTING A STATE BUDGET

Two days after McCain announced her as his running mate, Palin told the Daily News she would still be governor and was "used to multi-tasking."

Palin's bid for vice president pulls her out of state for at least two months. The state Legislature is not in session and doesn't meet again until after the election.

Palin's team is preparing to put together the next state budget, which is due Dec. 15. For now, that means the Office of Management and Budget is meeting with various state agencies to talk about spending, said budget director Karen Rehfeld.

By late October or early November, Rehfeld said, the administration will start making decisions about what to include in the spending plan -- a process she expects to work closely on with Nizich, the chief of staff.

Nizich did not return e-mails or phone messages for comment this week.

A governor's chief of staff often handles day-to-day operations. McAllister described the job as the "make-it-so guy."

Even with Palin on the road, McAllister said, Palin is running state government, not the chief of staff.

McAllister noted that George Bush and Bill Clinton both ran in presidential races as sitting governors. He did not respond to requests for copies of recent Palin e-mails that could illustrate her decision-making from the trail.

Asked if she's worried Palin will be out of pocket during the budget-making process, Rehfeld said no.

"Once we get to the decision points, I'm sure we'll be able to get with her and go through this," she said.

'MARCHING ORDERS'

Over the past two weeks, revenue commissioner Galvin said, he's worked with Palin through Nizich, which Galvin described as the normal chain of command. Galvin said he talked to the governor's office about potential release dates for dividend checks and how to announce the amount of this year's payout.

"In all the cases that I've been engaged in, it's been pretty clear that the governor made the call," he said. "Mike's not a guy who's going to step out and say, 'I'm going to make the call for the governor.' "

Galvin said he exchanged e-mails with Palin on Tuesday. She told him good job on this year's handling of the dividend and he passed along kudos to his department, he said.

Commissioners interviewed estimate the governor holds cabinet meetings -- collecting her various department heads together at the same time -- anywhere from twice a month to once every two months.

"We did receive a notice that there was one (cabinet meeting) to be scheduled that had to be canceled," said Administration Commissioner Annette Kreitzer.

But Krietzer said the department heads know what's expected of them.

"You understand what the marching orders are when you're appointed," she said.

"When you think you might be off a little bit, you go back and touch base with the chief of staff or send an e-mail to the governor and say, 'This is what's going on, are we on the same page here?"

For now, the governor's personal office in Anchorage remains open, even if Palin's not there, McAllister said.

"The door is open. And I see the bear skin's still on the couch."


Daily News reporter Erika Bolstad contributed to this report. Find Kyle Hopkins' political blog online at adn.com/alaskapolitics or call him at 257-4334.

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