Candidate Palin has character problem

June 26, 2009 

Could my governor, the charismatic Sarah Palin, be the leader Republicans are desperately looking for to lead their party out of the wilderness in 2010?

Unlike Fox News commentator and former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, Palin attracts adulatory crowds wherever she ventures beyond her home state. On Wednesday, the Pew Research Center reported that 73 percent of Republican respondents rate her favorably, way ahead of Mitt Romney, her nearest competitor.

For Republicans to gain congressional seats in the 2010 elections, they must energize their conservative base. Most Alaskans, who never met a federal dollar they didn't like, were scratching their heads over Palin's veto in May of federal stimulus money, but it made perfect sense as a ploy to solidify her appeal to that base. The only other governor to reject the federal money was South Carolina's Mark Sanford, who, like Palin, was eying a run for the presidency. His confession Wednesday that he's been cheating on his spouse leaves Palin as the only charismatic Republican whose support of family values seems to fit the facts of her family life. Assuming, as I do, that Palin won't be running for a second term in Alaska, she will almost certainly use her star power to help Republican candidates in 2010. Her help could prove decisive.

But is Palin the party's best bet to overturn the Obama machine and capture the presidency 2012? The conservative-leaning New York Daily News thinks not: "There are a treasure trove of scandals for a Democratic opponent to mine: Troopergate ... a wardrobe wracked up on campaign contributions, family travel paid for by tax dollars and the Bridge to Nowhere."

I agree, although the New York paper skirts the real reason for her vulnerability as a presidential candidate. Sarah Palin's problem is her character.

In 1991, my wife and I started the Alaska Budget Report newsletter; our angle was ferreting the straight scoop about state government out of reams of boring state documents. When Gov. Walter Hickel blocked our access to state records, we sued. Gov. Tony Knowles clamped down even tighter on our access to public documents and fought our claims in the courts. The Alaska Supreme Court eventually ruled that the budget documents Hickel and Knowles had kept secret must be made public. It forced the state to reimburse us for $22,000 in legal fees.

But Knowles' successor, Frank Murkowski, carried governmental secrecy to an even higher level. His administration paid $25,000 in public money for a consulting report on how to combat negative public perceptions about Murkowski. When we asked for a copy, the administration declared it confidential and refused to make it public.

That's why it was so refreshing when Sarah Palin, a woman who had stood up against corruption in the Murkowski administration, made openness and transparency in state government a central theme in her 2006 campaign for governor. In November 2006 Palin defeated Murkowski.

As Palin's first Juneau press conference as governor was breaking up, she called my wife and me aside. With apparent sincerity she asked us why we had had so much trouble getting public records from previous governors: "Why wouldn't they want you to have the full story about what they were doing?" It struck me at the time as both naive and refreshing.

Two weeks later I discovered a memorandum from a senior state attorney revealing that a top Palin aide had instructed him to keep documents secret from our newsletter even if the legal basis for doing so was weak or problematic. A few weeks after that, Meghan Stapleton, Palin's then-press secretary, told me they were keeping the documents secret because they public might misunderstand them.

Since then Palin has become the most secretive governor in Alaska's history. This month she refused to release even her official schedule or reveal when she is leaving the state. Questions from reporters are often simply ignored, or she answers a different question than the one asked. All the while she continues to mouth the claim that her administration is "open and transparent."

When it comes to letting the public know what her government is doing, Sarah Palin is either a cynical hypocrite or delusional. Either way, it reveals something important about her character.


Juneau economic consultant Gregg Erickson is editor-at-large of the Alaska Budget Report newsletter. He and his wife received the Alaska Press Club's 2009 First Amendment Award. Erickson can be contacted at gerickso@alaska.com.

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