Palin's career one surprise after another

'MAVERICK': Gop's bright light became target of complaints and allegations.

July 4, 2009 

Sarah Palin was always full of surprises.

She burst onto the political scene in Alaska in 2002 almost as stunningly as she stepped onto the national stage as Sen. John McCain's out-of-nowhere choice as his vice presidential running mate in 2008.

Years before she and McCain ran for the nation's highest offices as a pair of "mavericks," Palin built a skyrocketing political career in Alaska on just that quality.

The mayor of Wasilla came across as a bright, charismatic woman with an independent streak. She called shots as she saw them and relished taking on the powers that be. She demanded high ethical standards, and her rise to populist prominence in Alaska tracked a series of ethical lapses in the administration of former Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski and a federal investigation of corruption in the state Legislature.

Relying on strong bipartisan legislative support and stratospheric popular approval from Alaska residents, Gov. Palin pushed through ethics reforms, major changes in the way the state taxed oil companies, and a natural gas pipeline deal that injected momentum into a project that had sat dormant for decades.

METEORIC RISE

It all started in 2002, when Palin came within 200 votes of defeating right-wing conservative state Sen. Loren Leman in the race to be Murkowski's lieutenant governor running mate.

"People are looking for a different message and different leadership," Palin said then. "People are tired of the rich white guy" image of the Republican Party.

Palin was an everyday mom who lived in the Mat-Su Borough, took her kids to hockey practice and helped her husband fish a setnet site hundreds of miles away in Bristol Bay.

And she was magnetic.

After the 2002 election, Murkowski appointed her to the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, an obscure but powerful oil industry regulator. Within months, she had accused a fellow commissioner and Murkowski appointee, Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich, of doing party business on state time and state computers. She resigned the $122,000-a-year job when the state's Department of Law told her she couldn't talk aloud about her complaints. Ruedrich ended up paying a $12,000 fine.

In late 2004, Palin and state Rep. Eric Croft, an Anchorage Democrat, called for an ethics investigation of both Murkowski and his attorney general, Gregg Renkes, over Renkes' involvement in a coal deal the state signed with Taiwan. Renkes owned stock in a company involved in the transaction; he resigned in 2005 amid the investigation.

CHARMING THE PUBLIC

As a candidate for governor in 2006, Palin humbled Murkowski in the Republican primary. A week later, the FBI raided the offices of several state lawmakers; the corruption scandal erupted in public as Palin's popularity was hitting heights rarely seen in Alaska or anywhere else.

Running as the outsider breath of fresh air, she charmed many voters and trounced former two-term Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles in the general election.

Her very first act as governor broke with decades of tradition. Palin took the oath of office in Fairbanks, far from the state's capital in Juneau. She was the first governor to do so.

The emcee at her inaugural was Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race -- who did so by driving her dogs into a blizzard that stopped every other musher in their tracks.

Palin drew a parallel with Riddles. "She was an underdog," Palin said of the musher. "She was a risk-taker, kind of an outsider."

Palin was hugely popular. Opinion surveys in her first year in office consistently showed her approval ratings at or approaching 80 percent.

Palin used her popularity, her own squeaky-clean image and bipartisan support in the Legislature to leverage some major achievements in her first six months as governor. She pushed through a rewrite of state ethics laws. She also crafted legislation that changed the state's approach to jump-starting a multibillion-dollar North Slope natural gas pipeline project -- a project that had eluded previous governors and could bring a fresh new source of petroleum wealth to Alaska.

Later that year, ethics again was at the center of Palin's push to raise oil taxes when prices are high. The federal corruption probe was centered largely on bribery during legislative debate of an oil-tax rewrite in 2006, while Palin was running for governor. She called a special legislative session that resulted in a major tax increase on Alaska's oil companies when oil prices are high.

QUESTIONS ABOUT ETHICS

The across-the-aisle partnership with Democrats began to fall apart last year, however, even before Palin's turn on the national stage drew international focus on her background and abilities.

Questions about the governor's own ethics bubbled up last summer when she dismissed popular Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan. Was Monegan forced out because he had refused to fire state trooper Mike Wooten, the ex-husband of Palin's sister, whom Palin, her husband Todd and others considered a threat to her family?

A bipartisan Senate Judiciary Committee launched an investigation. The attention intensified when McCain tapped the 44-year-old Palin as his running mate on Aug. 29.

Suddenly, Palin was on a national stage and few of the players she shared it with knew anything about her.

Her Democratic allies in Alaska became Obama-supporting liabilities in the view of her new campaign strategists. Her imperfect mastery of international affairs became a target of political pundits and late-night comedians. Her television look-alike, Tina Fey, caricatured Palin mercilessly.

All the same, she was the star of McCain's campaign and a fundraising dynamo who brought out conservative Republicans by the thousands wherever she appeared. Americans who identified Alaska only as a faraway land of mountains, snow, bears and wolves suddenly had a face to put with the place.

And when the election was over, Palin returned to Alaska without really leaving the nation's stage, a much-talked-about contender for the 2012 presidential campaign who seemed to find it difficult to readjust to life in Juneau, Anchorage and Wasilla.

Once the champion of ethics reform and honesty in government, Palin found herself the target of ethics complaints and allegations lodged by critics before and after the national campaign. And she bristled at the attention.

Besides the Wooten case, questions were raised about her charging the state $17,000 in per diem payments while staying at home in Wasilla, the state paying for her children's travel costs, her use of a private Yahoo account for communicating with staff.

Palin has been cleared of wrongdoing in many of these cases, but that hasn't quieted critics or eased her frustration at having the ethics spotlight shined on her.

The costs of investigating and defending against them were high both for the state and for Palin. Friends and supporters created a legal defense fund for the governor, whose expenses were recently estimated in excess of $600,000.

Her frustration showed Friday during the press conference at which she announced her coming resignation.

"Over the past nine months I've been accused of all sorts of frivolous ethics violations, such as holding a fish in a photograph, wearing a jacket with a logo on it, and answering reporters' questions," she said.

"Every one -- all 15 of the ethics complaints -- have been dismissed. We've won! But it hasn't been cheap. The state has wasted thousands of hours of your time and shelled out some two million of your dollars to respond to 'opposition research.' That's money not going to fund teachers or troopers (or) safer roads."

UNDER ATTACK

Her once-dominating influence over the state Legislature began to unravel. Some Republicans as well as Democrats questioned her announced intentions to refuse millions in federal stimulus dollars.

Last April, a Legislature that two years earlier gave Palin just about everything she wanted voted to reject her choice of Anchorage lawyer Wayne Anthony Ross as her new attorney general -- the first time in state history lawmakers had turned down a governor's nominee to head an agency.

Palin also is unpopular with some Alaska Natives, who have criticized her for failing to appoint a Native to a rural affairs position, and for being slow to respond to fuel and flooding crises in the Bush and along the Yukon River, among other shortcomings they cite.

Trips to Republican gatherings Outside attracted new criticism this year, even as her Republican star power Outside continued to ascend: Was she distracted from her Alaska duties? Was she too busy building a national image as a conservative contender for the party's presidential nomination in 2012?

Then came Friday's last-minute scheduling of a press conference on a national holiday, and the announcement that stopped cable television networks in their tracks and interrupted coverage of Michael Jackson's mysterious death.

"I am determined to take the right path for Alaska even though it is unconventional and not so comfortable," Palin said, trying to explain her decision to resign as governor later this month.

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