Tuesday, Sep. 02, 2008
Mat-Su / Valley Frontiersman / AP
It is a powerful reinforcement of McCain's own political brand: tough, reform-minded, willing to break with his own party for the right cause. And it's true that her high-profile crusade against corruption and complacency in her own state party over the past few years has made Palin the Frank Serpico of Alaska politics: she publicly ratted out her state party chairman; whupped the good old boys' network, as she likes to put it, in a gubernatorial primary; and fought a general election in which the scandal-stained state GOP didn't lift a finger on her behalf. She won only because she had the enthusiastic backing of independents and grass-roots activists.
But in the first major race of her career — the 1996 campaign for mayor of her hometown, Wasilla — Palin was a far more conventional politician. In fact, according to some who were involved in that fight, Palin was a highly polarizing political figure who brought partisan politics and hot-button social issues like abortion and gun control into a mayoral race that had traditionally been contested like a friendly intramural contest among neighbors.
In the early '90s, Wasilla was little more than half as big as it is today, and much more loosely confederated. The main issue then, says longtime resident Chas St. George, was public safety. "We needed a police department," he says. "So we set up a group to make it happen." That group — Watch on Wasilla — included a handful of the town's most influential figures: St. George; the town's mayor, John Stein; and Palin, who wasn't in elected office yet. Her father-in-law Jim Palin and his wife Faye were also in the group.
Eventually, they started a police department, led by chief Irl Stambaugh. Kaylene Johnson, author of Sarah, a Palin biography published earlier this year, says one place where the power group met was a step-aerobics class that Stambaugh and Stein took along with Palin. That class signed the original petition for Palin's first political race, for city council in 1992, which she won.
Four years later, she took on her former workout buddy in a race that quickly became contentious. In Stein's view, Palin's main transgression was injecting big-time politics into a small-town local race. "It was always a nonpartisan job," he says. "But with her, the state GOP came in and started affecting the race." While Palin often describes that race as having been a fight against the old boys' club, Stein says she made sure the campaign hinged on issues like gun owners' rights and her opposition to abortion (Stein is pro-choice). "It got to the extent that — I don't remember who it was now — but some national antiabortion outfit sent little pink cards to voters in Wasilla endorsing her," he says.
Vicki Naegele was the managing editor of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman at the time. "[Stein] figured he was just going to run your average, friendly small-town race," she recalls, "but it turned into something much different than that." Naegele held the same conservative Christian beliefs as Palin but didn't think they had any place in local politics.
"I just thought, That's ridiculous, she should concentrate on roads, not abortion," says Naegele.
St. George worked on Stein's campaign at the time, and while he says he has no reason to dispute Stein's recollection of events, he doesn't remember Palin's conduct being beyond the pale. "Our tax coffers were starting to grow," he says. "John was for expanding services, and Sarah wasn't. That's what the race was about."
Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. "She asked the library how she could go about banning books," he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. "The librarian was aghast." That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn't be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving "full support" to the mayor.
St. George, however, points out that Palin couldn't have seen everything through an Evangelical lens. She did, he says, notably resist calls to restrict operating hours for the bars in town. And even if faith did play an unusually large role in her decision-making as mayor, it may have only reflected the continued rise of Evangelicalism in the valley, a growth that continues to this day.
"We like to call this the Bible Belt of Alaska," says Cheryl Metiva, head of the local chamber of commerce. Churches proliferate in Wasilla today, and among the largest and most influential is the Wasilla Bible Church, where the Palins worship.
When Palin, who went on to win re-election by a landslide, was forced out of the Mayor's office by term limits in 2002, her husband Todd's stepmother Faye Palin ran for mayor. She did not, however, get Sarah Palin's endorsement. A couple of people told me that they thought abortion was the reason for Palin not supporting her family member — Faye, they say, is pro-choice, not to mention a Democrat. A former city council member recalls that it was a heated race, mainly because of right-to-life issues: "People were writing BABYKILLER on Faye's campaign signs just a few days before the election." Faye Palin lost the race to the candidate that Sarah backed, Dianne Keller, who is still mayor of Wasilla. (Over the weekend, Faye Palin told the New York Daily News that she liked listening to Barack Obama speak and that she wasn't sure who she would vote for in November.)
She needed a new political identity to make it to the next level, so ethics reform became her calling card. "She's a very savvy politician," says Halcro. "So wedge issues were not part of the portfolio."
"If anything," he says, "she got tired of answering questions about them." Halcro recalls one debate in October 2006 in which, after repeated questions about her opposition to abortion even in cases of rape or incest, she looked at the moderator with exasperation and asked if they were going to talk about anything besides abortion. It was detracting from her new message: cleaning up the capitol.