The defining moment of Sarah Palin’s political career — at least up until Friday, Aug. 29 — took place while she didn’t even hold elected office and occupied a place largely outside the public eye.
In 2004, two years after leaving the office of mayor of Wasilla, Alaska (a town of fewer than 10,000 souls), Palin had returned to the life of a hockey mom. Through her connections to the state GOP, she had landed a spot on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, a state agency. The job required her to sign a statement each month reporting that there were no ethical violations occurring on the commission.
At that point in 2004, Palin decided she couldn’t sign that statement. As a result, she knew there was a good chance she’d never hold public office again — after all, the man she was about to accuse of conflicts of interest, Randy Ruedrich, was chairman of the state Republican Party. The Republicans dominated politics in Alaska, and they were likely to be unhappy about Palin turning on a member of her own party.
But Palin chose to become a whistleblower anyway — and far from destroying her political career, that action relaunched it. Ruedrich resigned from the commission and paid an Alaska record $12,000 fine for his misdeeds.
Meanwhile, news was beginning to trickle out about the FBI’s sweeping investigation into corruption among many of Alaska’s leaders. To date, four state representatives have been charged with accepting bribes from Bill Allen, the CEO of VECO, an oilfield services company, who, along with their customers — major Alaska producers like Exxon, BP and ConocoPhillips — stood to benefit from a lower petroleum-profits tax being enacted. Then-Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski’s chief of staff pleaded guilty as well, and several lobbyists and businessmen have been caught up in this probe — including, most recently and publicly, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.
In this environment, Palin suddenly stood out as the rare politician who wasn’t tainted, and who stood up to corruption. By 2006, incumbent Murkowski’s approval ratings had tanked. In addition to pushing for the same industry-friendly petroleum profits tax (which makes up the bulk of Alaska’s revenue) that the indicted state legislators had backed, Murkowski had held closed-door negotiations with major oil producers about a natural-gas pipeline to Canada and the Lower 48.
When Palin challenged him in the Republican gubernatorial primary, she took 51 percent of the vote to his 19. (Another challenger pulled 30 percent.)
In the governor’s office for less than two years, Palin’s main achievement has been getting a gasline act — different from the proposal pushed by Murkowski — passed and a proposal approved under its provisions. The act is less favorable to the major producers than Murkowski’s, as is a new petroleum-profits tax she supported. And her administration has taken on Exxon over dormant leases, threatening to cancel them if the oil giant doesn’t develop them.
So it’s shocking that the first scandal of Palin’s short career as governor involves a potential ethics violation. Earlier this summer, Palin dismissed Walt Monegan, her public safety commissioner. Then word leaked that Palin’s staff, and possibly her husband, had long pressured Monegan to fire a particular state trooper, Mike Wooten. Wooten has a handful of serious blots on his record, but it seems the main black mark from the Palin administration’s standpoint was that he was divorced from Palin’s sister and locked in a custody battle with her; Wooten also allegedly threatened to kill their father, Chuck Heath.
Thus far, the administration maintains the members within it who contacted Monegan about Wooten did so on their own, without Palin’s knowledge. The state legislature has appointed an independent investigator. The results of that investigation are due out at the end of October — on the eve of the elections.
Krestia DeGeorge is editor of the Anchorage Press.
On the issues
Environment: The Palin administration strongly opposed the recent listing of the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act and is currently suing the Department of the Interior to have the decision reversed.
She appointed an Alaska Native to the Board of Game earlier this year after an outcry from the Native community and others, but the board remains dominated by sport hunters rather than subsistence communities.
She’s largely stayed out of recent battles between mining and commercial fishing over a massive mining prospect in Western Alaska.
Abortion: Palin is firmly against abortion (although the issue hasn’t come up much in the year and a half she’s been in office). She famously chose to give birth to Trig Van Palin (yes, he’s named after the band Van Halen), despite an in-utero diagnosis of Down syndrome.
Foreign policy: Palin doesn’t have much experience here. She visited troops in Iraq last year, and her eldest son, Track, is set to be deployed there on Sept. 11.
Energy: She recently appointed an energy czar to help map the state’s energy future. The plan includes both renewable energy and fossil fuels, including coal, oil and gas. She’s taken on petroleum producers over a gasline, a petroleum-profits tax and inactive leases. She recently passed a rebate that will give $1,200 to most citizens to offset higher energy costs in Alaska.