Gov. Sarah Palin stunned Alaska and the nation Friday by abruptly announcing her resignation from office. Palin, the governor of Alaska for two and a half years, said she will step down in three weeks and hand power over to Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell.
Palin made the announcement at a hastily called press conference held at her Wasilla home as the holiday weekend began. She complained about ethics complaints lodged against her, said the media isn't reporting her accomplishments, and struck conservative political themes like smaller government, resource development and national security.
Her statements sparked an immediate national debate over whether this kills any chance Palin had ever winning national office, or frees her up to concentrate on national politics.
Palin, 45, said she decided first not to run for re-election next fall when her term is up, then figured in that case she'd just leave now. Palin said she didn't want to be a "lame duck," a political phrase for officeholders who have signaled they are leaving office and therefore lose clout to push their political agenda. Palin said that instead, she'll work for the Alaska's interests without the title.
"Many just accept that lame duck status and they hit the road, they draw a paycheck. They kind of milk it. And I'm not going to put Alaskans through that. I promised efficiencies and effectiveness," she said.
But Palin could have waited until next year to announce she wasn't running for re-election, said Valdez Republican state Rep. John Harris, who plans to run for governor now that Palin isn't. The deadline for her to decide wasn't until next June, after the next legislative session is over. Harris called her decision "strange."
Palin's explanation makes no sense, agreed state Rep. Mike Hawker, a leading critic of her.
"That isn't a reason. Seated governors just don't resign in the last year of their term no matter how successful or for that matter unsuccessful they've been. Right now there are a lot more questions than answers. And until the governor chooses to reveal more of her motive here, it's just one of those questions we will never know the answer to," said Hawker, a Republican from Anchorage.
Hawker noted that Palin's decision to quit "gives her unfettered ability to pursue her economic interests, whether it be a book deal or speeches, that type of thing, without being cluttered by state ethics law."
Palin said the decision came after polling her children about whether they wanted her to "make a positive difference and fight for all our children's future from outside the governor's office." She said four responded yes and one "Hell yeah!"
"The 'hell yeah' sealed it -- and someday I'll talk about the details of that. I think much of it for the kids had to do with recently seeing their baby brother Trig mocked by some pretty mean-spirited adults recently," Palin said.
An Alaska blogger recently photo-shopped the head of a pro-Palin talk radio host onto a picture of Trig Palin being held by the governor, causing Palin and her allies to declare outrage.
Palin said people changed after John McCain picked her last August as the Republican nominee for vice president. She talked about all the ethics complaints against her, saying they get dismissed but cost the state and herself in legal bills.
"It's pretty insane -- my staff and I spend most of our day dealing with this instead of progressing our state now. I know I promised no more 'politics as usual,' but this isn't what anyone had in mind for Alaska," the governor said.
As for her future, Palin said: "I look forward to helping others -- to fight for our state and our country, and campaign for those who believe in smaller government, free enterprise, strong national security, support for our troops and energy independence."
RUN FOR PRESIDENT?
Palin did not take questions. Her personal spokeswoman, Meg Stapleton, said the decision shows how "selfless" Palin is. She knew she wasn't going to run for re-election and instead of dragging it out and just drawing more attacks that cost the state, she's passing the reins to Parnell to press the same agenda, Stapleton said. Palin will work for Alaska from outside of the governor's office, although exactly how she'll do that still needs to be determined, Stapleton said.
Asked if Palin is running for president, Stapleton said nothing has been ruled out, other than running against Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski or Congressman Don Young next year. "Other than that, the world is her oyster," she said.
Andrew Halcro, who ran as an independent against Palin in the 2006 governor's race, said Palin has left herself open to all kinds of speculation by making such an abrupt and "bizarre" decision without giving a clear reason why. She still had strong approval ratings in Alaska, he said, and now will be labeled a quitter.
"It's got to be one of three things. Either there is something going on in the family that she's got to deal with and doesn't want to deal with it in the public position as governor, or number two is that she's got a sweet gig she's going to follow, whether it's a TV show or travelling around the country spending her SarahPAC money on helping people get elected," Halcro said. "Or three that there's some kind of a brewing scandal out there and she wanted to get out of dodge before it hit."
Stapleton said speculation about a scandal is "absolute nonsense." She said it's wrong to say Palin is quitting. "She said, 'Hey, here we go, I'm not going to quit, I'm going to fight, I'll just go around this defense and find my own way to the basket."
Alaska Republican Sen. Murkowski, who Palin earlier said she'd go out and campaign for, issued a terse statement condemning the resignation.
"I am deeply disappointed that the governor has decided to abandon the state and her constituents before her term has concluded," Murkowski said.
Alaska's other U.S. senator, Democrat Mark Begich, said Palin gave no indication of a resignation when he met with her for 45 minutes just two days ago.
No one appeared to have much notice. Even Parnell, who will take over as governor on July 26, said he didn't find out until Wednesday night when Palin called him and his wife, Sandy, into her office.
"I was very surprised at first. But then as she began to articulate her reasons I began to understand better," he said.
Parnell said it will be hard for people to grasp why Palin is doing this unless they've been in her position and dealt with the kinds of things she's had to deal with. He said that Palin "wants to be able to expand her work on behalf of us all and I could tell she felt frustrated where she was and unable to do that."
After Parnell is sworn in as governor, Craig Campbell, head of the state Department of Military Affairs and National Guard, will become lieutenant governor.
VEXING ETHICS COMPLAINTS
Palin's communications director, David Murrow, also found out Wednesday.
"I sat down and they told me what the governor's plans were and I was in shock. I've only been on the job three weeks," said Murrow, who described the news as "a punch in the gut."
In that conversation, Palin talked the most about the ethics complaints filed against her, Murrow said. "She was saying that she spent a large percentage of her time defending against those. It's cost her a lot of money, and her desire was that Alaska have a governor that was not so encumbered by this constant barrage of attacks."
The member of Palin's cabinet who is possibly closest to her, Department of Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt, didn't see this coming.
"All of Sarah's decisions have been very easy for me to support, and I will support this one. But this one took me aback a little bit," said Schmidt, who went to high school with Palin.
Palin's closest ally in the state Legislature, Senate Minority Leader Gene Therriault, was also taken by surprise.
"Not sure what the governor intends to do at this point. I suspect she's keeping her options open," Therriault said.
Republican Party of Alaska Chairman Randy Ruedrich reacted with "complete surprise" to Palin's decision to step down.
But he said it could free Palin up to spread her message. "For the governor to make any statement in person in the Lower 48 is at least a six hour plane trip to the central U.S."
"She can become a much more functional spokesman for Alaska working from a more southerly location," Ruedrich said.
DEMOCRATS: pALIN'S A QUITTER
Leading Alaska Democrats struck hard at the governor following the announcement. State House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat, said it "was almost a relief" to have Palin out of office.
"But on another, deeper level, it is disturbing that she is leaving her post. On the eve of the 4th of July, in Alaska's 50th year of statehood, to have the governor stand down is a terrible statement about commitment to public service and our state," she said.
Anchorage Democratic Sen. Hollis French, a likely candidate for governor who oversaw the "Troopergate" investigation of Palin last year, said it's a jaw dropping move.
"She's my governor just like she's every Alaskan's governor and to have her quit midstream is kind of un-Alaskan. It's not something Alaskans value," he said.
Palin, while hugely polarizing, has fascinated the nation and drawn supporters whose passion burned white hot. A national survey last month by the Pew Research Center found that 73 percent of Republicans polled had a favorable impression of her. But many national Republicans said Palin's resignation now kills her chances at national office, that it does nothing to shake what Republican pollster Whit Ayers called "the 'lightweight' monkey on her back."
For elected officials with lengthy records of service, such as former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, stepping down from their current post to run for president was a smart move, said Stuart Roy, a Republican political consultant at Prism Public Affairs.
But it doesn't work for Palin, Roy said, adding that he admired Sen. John McCain's decision to pick her last year.
"Maybe there is a personal reason of some sort," he said. "But barring that, if it's a political move geared at 2012, it's one of the most politically tone deaf moves in years. Two and a half years as governor doesn't mean you shouldn't be president, look at Barack Obama. But it doesn't set you up for anything either," he said.
Larry Persily, a former aide to Palin in her Washington, D.C., office, said he thinks she is shedding all that is bad about her job as governor -- from the ethics complaints to her bruising fights with the Legislature -- "and she can just be a national star in front of adoring crowds," whether or not it leads to a presidential run.
"It's like the kid who leaves college early for the NBA draft and says, this is when I am at my height in the market and I'm going for it," said Persily, a former Anchorage Daily News opinion editor who is now an aide to Rep. Hawker.
Tim Lindell, an Air Force master sergeant stationed in Nebraska who blogs on the site conservatives4palin.com under the name Videmus Omnia, on Friday wrote that his political faith in Palin was initially shaken by the news. He said her decision was like Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon River, the point of no return.
"It's a gamble of incredible proportions. None of us saw it coming, and we're the most dedicated political junkies you will find anywhere. It took our breath away," Lindell wrote. "... She will now be the anti-Obama, standing up for her personal beliefs, free of the constraints the Alaskan people have placed on her. She is now free of them, and they of her -- though I think they will be the ones to regret it first."
Find reporter Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call 257-4344. Also contributing to this story were Daily News reporters Erika Bolstad, Lisa Demer, Megan Holland and Kyle Hopkins.