The Joan of Arc of Alaska politics

Tom Kizzia
Anchorage Daily News archive 1982 - Wasilla point guard Sarah Heath (Palin), No. 22, during the 1982 state basketball championships.
Photo by ADN / Anchorage Daily News
Anchorage Daily News archive 1982 - Wasilla point guard Sarah Heath (Palin), No. 22, during the 1982 state basketball championships.
Photo by UNKNOWN / Anchorage Daily News
Sarah Heath (Palin)Wasilla High Yearbook
Photo by UNKNOWN / Anchorage Daily News
Anchorage Daily News archive photo 1984. Studio portrait of Sarah Heath, Miss Wasilla.
Photo by UNKNOWN / Anchorage Daily News
Sarah Heath (Palin)Wasilla High Yearbook
Photo by UNKNOWN / Anchorage Daily News
Sarah Heath Palin, candidiated for Wasilla City Council. Photo, September 29, 1992. (Photo, Bob Hallinen, Anchorage Daily News)
Photo by BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Wasilla mayor Sarah Palin reloads while shooting at the fur & feather station that features ground-level and airborne targets at the 5th Annual Alaska Ladies Charity Classic sporting clays shoot Saturday June 3, 2000 at Grouse Ridge Shooting Grounds.
Photo by ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Sarah Palin and daughter Piper greet Todd Palin after he finished second in the 2004 Iron Dog with partner Scott Davis at the Big Lake Lodge on Saturday, February 21.
Photo by STEPHEN NOWERS / Anchorage Daily News
Governor Sarah Palin gives her husband Todd Palin, defending champ and four-time Tesoro Iron Dog winner, a hug at the start on Big Lake on Sunday, February 10, 2008. The snowmachine race covers 2,000 miles of Alaska wilderness, going to Nome, before finishing in Fairbanks.
Photo by BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Republican gubernatorial candidate Sarah Palin and her supporters at her election night headquarters on November 11, 2006.
Photo by MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Sarah Palin talks with television reporters with her running mate Sean Parnell on November 11, 2006.
Photo by MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Sarah Palin anxiously awaits as results trickle in on election night on on November 11, 2006. Her running mate Sean Parnell is at left.
Photo by MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Governor-elect Sarah Palin outlines her plans and announces Mike Tibbles as the head of her transition team at a press conference midday Wednesday November 8, 2006 in Anchorage.
Photo by ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Republican candidate for governor Sarah Palin talks to Alden Todd after she gave a speech to the Bartlett Democratic Club at the Royal Fork on Thursday, January 26, 2006.
Photo by BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Sarah Palin talks to television reporters at the Egan Center on election night on November 11, 2006.
Photo by MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Alaska governor Sarah Palin, center, talks with family friend Jodie Schindele, left, during the 2007 Mat-Su Inaugural Ball at Raven Hall on the Alaska State Fairgrounds in Palmer on Saturday, January 27, 2007.
Photo by STEPHEN NOWERS / Anchorage Daily News
Republican gubernatorial candidate Sarah Palin at her election night headquarters on November 11, 2006..
Photo by MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Republican gubernatorial candidate Sarah Palin and her supporters at her election night headquarters on November 11, 2006.
Photo by MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Sarah Palin and supporters watch election results at her Hotel Captain Cook headquarters on on November 11, 2006.
Photo by MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Alaska governor elect Sarah Palin's daughter Piper Palin smiles and claps as the confetti falls after her mother finished up a television interview at Election Central on election night, November 7, 2006.
Photo by BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Governor Sarah Palin spent time Sunday getting her message out on ACES during a community briefing at the Loussac Library on October 14, 2007.
Photo by JIM LAVRAKAS / Anchorage Daily News
Peter Jacobs of Bethel, right, presents Gov. Sarah Palin with a tool for pounding fish eggs to make akutaq (Eskimo ice cream) at a reception honoring the governor and her family Saturday January 27, 2007 at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Elders from around the state including Alice Petrivelli, Teddy Mayac, Sr., Chief Marie Smith-Jones, Daisy Demientieff, Bill Thomas and Jacobs spoke and presented gifts to the new first family.
Photo by ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Alaska governor Sarah Palin during her short speach to guests at the 2007 Mat-Su Inaugural Ball at Raven Hall on the Alaska State Fairground in Palmer on Saturday, January 27, 2007.
Photo by STEPHEN NOWERS / Anchorage Daily News
Sarah Palin at home with her family in Wasilla, Alaska in 2006. From left is Piper, 5, husband Todd, Willow, 12, and at right is Bristol, 16. Not pictured is Palin's son Track, 17. Trig Palin was born in 2008.
Photo by LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Sarah and Todd Palin at their Wasilla, Alaska, home in October 2006. (Photo / Marc Lester, Anchorage Daily News)
Photo by MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Alaska governor Sarah Palin in her downtown Anchorage office on Friday, August 24, 2007.
Photo by STEPHEN NOWERS / Anchorage Daily News
Alaska governor Sarah Palin in her downtown Anchorage office on Friday, August 24, 2007.
Photo by STEPHEN NOWERS / Anchorage Daily News
Governor Sarah Palin and daughter Piper, look over samples of invasive weeds at the Weeds Fair at Lidia Selkregg Chalet in Russian Jack Springs Park on Tuesday evening, June 17, 2008. This marked the start of the invasive weeds season and the Municipal Parks and Recreation Citizen Weeds Warriors program. Behind the Palins are Lori and Troy Zaumseil who founded the program.
Photo by ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Governor Sarah Palin's oldest son, Track.
photo courtesy of the Governor's Office
Wasilla's Track Palin skates against the Kenai Kardinals on Friday, December 10, 2004 at the Brett Ice Areana in Wasilla.
Photo by STEPHEN NOWERS / Anchorage Daily News
Governor Sara Palin and her husband Todd present their fifth child, a boy named Trig Paxson Van Palin, who was born April 18th, 2008. The Palin's confirmed that Trig, their second son, has Down Syndrome.
Photo by JIM LAVRAKAS / Anchorage Daily News
Governor Sara Palin and her husband Todd present their fifth child, a boy named Trig Paxson Van Palin, who was born April 18th, 2008. The Palin's confirmed that Trig, their second son, has Down Syndrome.
Photo by JIM LAVRAKAS / Anchorage Daily News
This photo, released by the Alaska governor's office, shows Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin talking to Sgt. Dewey Green, of Nome, Alaska, during her visit with soldiers of the Alaska National Guard's 3rd Battalion 297th Infantry Regiment at the Life Support Area in Kuwait Tuesday, July 24, 2007. Palin is visiting the soldiers to learn about their mission in Kuwait. (Alaska Governor's Office, Christopher T. Grammer)
Photo by Christopher T. Grammer / Alaska Governor's Office,
This photo released by the Alaska governor's office shows Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin visiting soldiers of the Alaska National Guard's 3rd Battalion 297th Infantry Regiment at the Life Support Area in Kuwait, Tuesday, July 24, 2007. (Alaska Governor's Office, Christopher T. Grammer )
Photo by Christopher T. Grammer / Alaska Governor's Office,
Governor Sarah Palin was the star at the Governor's Picnic on the Park Strip on Saturday July 28, 2007. Governor Palin served hamburgers, talked with constituents, had her picture taken countless times, sign autographs and signed the senior benefits bill in to law at the picnic.
Photo by BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Governor Sarah Palin was the star at the Governor's Picnic on the Park Strip on Saturday July 28, 2007. Governor Palin served hamburgers, talked with constituents, had her picture taken countless times, sign autographs and signed the senior benefits bill in to law at the picnic.
Photo by BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Governor Sarah Palin was the star at the Governor's Picnic on the Park Strip on Saturday July 28, 2007. Governor Palin served hamburgers, talked with constituents, had her picture taken countless times, sign autographs and signed the senior benefits bill in to law at the picnic.
Photo by BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Governor Sarah Palin was the star at the Governor's Picnic on the Park Strip on Saturday July 28, 2007. Governor Palin served hamburgers, talked with constituents, had her picture taken countless times, sign autographs and signed the senior benefits bill in to law at the picnic.
Photo by BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Governor Sarah Palin was the star at the Governor's Picnic on the Park Strip on Saturday July 28, 2007. Governor Palin served hamburgers, talked with constituents, had her picture taken countless times, sign autographs and signed the senior benefits bill in to law at the picnic.
Photo by BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Governor Sarah Palin was the star at the Governor's Picnic on the Park Strip on Saturday July 28, 2007. Governor Palin served hamburgers, talked with constituents, had her picture taken countless times, sign autographs and signed the senior benefits bill in to law at the picnic.
Photo by BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Governor Sarah Palin was the star at the Governor's Picnic on the Park Strip on Saturday July 28, 2007. Governor Palin served hamburgers, talked with constituents, had her picture taken countless times, sign autographs and signed the senior benefits bill in to law at the picnic.
Photo by BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Governor Sarah Palin was the star at the Governor's Picnic on the Park Strip on Saturday July 28, 2007. Governor Palin served hamburgers, talked with constituents, had her picture taken countless times, sign autographs and signed the senior benefits bill in to law at the picnic.
Photo by BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Sarah Palin and daughter Piper cheer as the second place team of Todd Palin and Scott Davis finish the 2004 Iron Dog at the Big Lake Lodge on Saturday, February 21. Dusty VanMeter and Mark Carr won the race.
Photo by STEPHEN NOWERS / Anchorage Daily News
Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, center, delivers the annual State of the State to the legislature in Juneau, Alaska, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2008. In background are Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, and Speaker of the House John Harris, R-Valdez.
Photo by CHRIS MILLER / AP
Seven of Alaska's governors gathered for a portrait in a gallery of the Anchorage Museum on Friday, May 9, 2008. In back row are Governors Bill Sheffield, Tony Knowles, Steve Cowper and Frank Murkowski. In front is Governors Sarah Palin, Mike Stepovich and Keith Miller. The historic gathering was part of an event for the governors to sign collectors prints of Legacy of Alaska which features a Sydney Laurence painting of Denali. The fund-raiser will benefit events to celebrate Alaska's 50th anniversary of statehood. 080509
Photo by MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Governor Sarah Palin and Reverend Helen S. Peters outside the new Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center in Fairbanks in August 2008.
Governor's Office photo
Governor Sarah Palin and Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell greet picnickers at the Governor's 2008 Annual Picnic in Anchorage.
Governor's Office photo
Alaska Governor Sarah Palin enjoys a traditional blanket toss in Barrow, Alaska on June 30, 2008.
Governor's Office photo
Alaska Governor Sarah Palin (center) and Mayor Edward Itta (left) in Barrow, Alaska on the last day of the 2008 annual whaling festival.
Governor's Office photo

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.


By TOM KIZZIA
tkizzia@adn.com