By Karl Vick and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 7, 2008
WASILLA, Alaska -- One Friday in June, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin joined the chief of the state prison system on a tour of the Point MacKenzie Correctional Farm, a 90-minute drive north of Anchorage. It was a routine visit but for the presence of the governor's infant son, Trig.
Palin held her baby in her arms as the warden drove a short distance around the facility, said corrections director Joe Schmidt, who sat next to Palin. A few days later, the governor got a warning from her public safety commissioner that someone had complained that she did not strap Trig into a car seat for the ride.
Palin dismissed the complaint as petty, and the commissioner, whom she appointed, took no formal action. But the incident shows the degree to which family and politics are bound together in Palin's career.
Of the many striking images of Palin -- sportswoman, beauty queen, populist -- in Alaska the most iconic is working mother, a perfectly coifed professional woman balancing public duties and child-rearing in a charismatic blur of multitasking. The governor shops at the Wal-Mart superstore off Parks Highway and drives the family Suburban herself. Under "business relationships" on a state disclosure form, she listed "family carpooling to youth basketball" because one of the parents is a lobbyist.
Long before she burst onto the national scene last month, Palin made politics a family affair in Alaska. Her role as a wife and mother shaped her entry into politics, proved central to her appeal to supporters and generated the greatest controversies in her abrupt ascension to the GOP ticket. From her children's names to her husband's public celebrity and role as unofficial adviser, Palin has created a reputation among Alaskans less as a rugged individual than as a maverick with a large and colorful family in tow.
Husband Todd, a celebrity in his own right as a champion snowmobile racer before becoming known as "First Dude," confers with Cabinet officials and is copied on the governor's e-mails. Her teenage daughter's pregnancy became a touchstone for a national debate on unwed mothers. And her sister's bitter divorce from a state trooper generated the first scandal in an administration built on vows of openness and rectitude amid a massive corruption investigation then rocking the Republican establishment.
Family offered a human touch as Palin, the mayor of an obscure municipality, positioned herself as a populist reformer against Alaska's notoriously staid and dynastic political order.
Then came the McCain campaign.
"I call her," said former aide Larry Persily, "the victor of circumstances."
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In the Alaskan context, which until a week ago was the only context that mattered, it was enough to say that Sarah Palin was the ultimate Valley Girl.
The Matanuska-Susitna Valley yawns between Fairbanks and Anchorage, and the working-class sensibilities of the homesteaders who settled there half a century ago have defined the region even as it swelled into an Anchorage exurb.
"That growth happens to parallel Sarah Palin's growth," said Mike Chmielewski, a family friend and city council member in nearby Palmer.
Palin both claimed the area's heritage and rode the change. As mayor, she presided over a city whose coffers swelled with sales tax revenue from the big-box stores lining a highway once known for ramshackle trailers. She named a marketing company "Rouge Cou" -- "Red Neck" in French.
And through her husband, she could lay claim to much of Alaska.
Todd Palin arrived in Wasilla from Dillingham on Bristol Bay in the early 1980s, and cut such a figure at the high school that girls inked T-O-D-D on the back of their fingers, Kaylene Johnson wrote in her admiring biography of the governor. The newcomer chose Sarah Heath, daughter of a popular science teacher, and flirted with her from a two-way radio on the open boat his family used when the salmon ran up Bristol Bay.
Todd Palin claims Yupik Eskimo blood through his grandmother. When he took a job on the North Slope, working Arctic Circle oil pads for British Petroleum, the family's life assumed a rhythm familiar in Alaska: a week or two at home, a week or two on "the Slope."
And when he won the Iron Dog, he basically owned the state. The endurance race involves six days of steering a snowmobile at 80 mph. From its start in Wasilla, the course runs across two mountain ranges to Nome on the Bering Sea, then back down the Yukon River to Fairbanks.
The terrain is so rough that some days drivers pull their hands out of mittens bloody from blistering, and so dangerous that drivers must move in teams. With Scott Davis, who sells concrete block in Soldotna, Palin has won the race four times.
"He's always trying to give someone else credit," Davis said.
It's a useful quality in a political spouse. And long before Todd Palin followed his wife to Juneau, he was a fixture in her career.
Guests summoned to the governor's office often find Todd Palin sitting in on the meeting.
Tom Whitstine, a fellow Wasilla-based oil worker and friend, recalled raising concerns to Todd Palin about legislation that would impact the oil industry.
"I talked to Todd sitting on the couch in his house there on Safari Lake, in April 2007," said Whitstine, who expresses disappointment with Palin's performance. "It's a known fact Todd was right there when those kind of policy decisions were being made."
Said a Bristol Bay politician who asked not to be named: "He's someone you could call and get the lowdown."
The children were always in the picture -- Piper close by at a native first-fish ceremony, Trig snuggled in a baby pouch as the governor posed with wounded vets, Bristol confessing to spending $30 on a leg waxing while an Alaska magazine writer took down the exchange: "You have razors," her mother said.
The family still lives in Wasilla most of the time, in an airy wood-frame house on the shore of Lake Lucille, upscale by Alaskan standards. The governor's mansion in Juneau, the state capital, is home only when the legislature is in session, and even then to only some of the family. The Palins enrolled the two youngest girls in Juneau schools, but Bristol went mid-school-year to live with her aunt in Anchorage, finishing at the city's West High School.
All of this complicated the Palins' child care matrix. In Wasilla the couple relied heavily on Sarah's parents, retired teachers whose two-story log home is a few miles away, a mound of moose antlers in the yard. Chuck and Sally Heath, who moved to Alaska when Sarah was 2 months old, routinely took the kids when Todd was on the Slope and Sarah politicking. Sarah's sisters Molly and Heather pitched in as well.
"The Palins and the Heaths operate as one unit," said Karen Rhoades, a family friend in Wasilla. "They are not individuals."
Todd Palin works less on the Slope lately and more with the governor. She works most often out of an office in Anchorage, sometimes bringing in one of the children.
In Alaska, they no longer need introduction. Track, 19, was named after the course of the sockeye salmon the family fishes off Dillingham. As his mother frequently mentions on the campaign trail, he joined the Army in 2007 on the anniversary of Sept. 11.
Bristol, 17, was a reference point for environmental concerns long before she became an icon for the antiabortion movement. When reporters asked Palin about a proposed mine that might imperil the world's largest salmon fishery, she signaled her sensitivity to the matter by pointing out, "We named one of our children after Bristol Bay."
She is often photographed with 14-year-old Willow -- like the state bird, the willow ptarmigan, and a nearby town -- and Piper, 7, who shares a name with the bush plane parked at the dock outside the family's house.
"Wonderful family," said Ben Harrell, who pours the governor her skinny white chocolate latte at the Mocha Moose in Wasilla. "Just cool. Even-flow type of personalities."
The April birth of Trig, Norse for "brave victory," turned out to be a powerful credential for the national Republican base, delighted that Palin delivered a child who tests foretold had Down syndrome.
But Palin's abrupt elevation to a presidential ticket also demonstrated the challenges of highlighting family in public life. On Monday the McCain campaign announced that Bristol was five months pregnant by boyfriend Levi Johnston, a thin secret in Wasilla.
"My kids knew about it, like, the day she found out she was pregnant," said Rani Roby, 37.
Charting new waters in disclosure, the campaign first identified Johnston only as "Levi," and pleaded for privacy. Two days later the local high school hockey star was seated in the VIP box of the Republican National Convention as a newly minted fiance.
Reporters next questioned Todd and Sarah Palin's story of their 1988 elopement -- to save their parents the cost of a wedding after a slow fishing season. They noted that Track was born less than eight months later. Todd's 1986 DUI arrest surfaced. And at midweek, the campaign denied a report of a Palin affair that the National Enquirer had not yet published.
"From the inside, no family ever seems typical," Palin told the convention, to thunderous applause. "And that's how it is with us. Our family has the same ups and downs as any other."
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The state investigation now dubbed "Troopergate" is also a family affair.
In 2000, while she was Wasilla's mayor, Palin wrote a hearty letter of recommendation for her sister Molly's boyfriend, a state trooper named Mike Wooten.
"I wish America had more people with a grace and sincerity that mirrors the character of Mike Wooten," she wrote.
The couple married the next year. But by 2005, the marriage was falling apart, and Palin became her sister's defender.
After a panicked phone call from Molly suggesting that Wooten was on the verge of violence, Palin and her son Track drove to their relatives' house and peered through a window to watch an argument. Describing the scene later to a police investigator, Palin said: "Mike said that 'if your dad helps you through this divorce, he will eat an f'ing bullet.' "
Wooten said he never made the threat. But over time, members of Palin's family filed more than two dozen complaints against him. An investigation showed that he misused state equipment by demonstrating a Taser on his 10-year-old stepson, drank a beer in a patrol vehicle and shot a moose illegally.
By the time Palin became governor, Wooten had been suspended for five days. But Todd Palin asked then-Public Safety Commissioner Walter Monegan for a briefing. And Sarah Palin inquired by phone and in person, and at least three times in e-mails.
Palin fired Monegan in mid-July. His replacement, the former Kenai police chief, lasted just two weeks, resigning after a previous sexual harassment complaint surfaced that had slipped by the governor's vetters.
John Cyr, executive director of the Public Safety Employees Association, which represents Alaska's law enforcement officers, said the governor's grudge against Wooten clouded her judgment and led her to hold down trooper salaries and other funding.
"The trooper budget was held hostage because they wouldn't fire Mike Wooten," Cyr said.
An investigation of Monegan's firing ordered by the state legislature complicated Palin's arrival on the national stage.
Palin's allusion to her dual role as "hockey mom" and "pit bull" in her convention speech struck a chord in Alaska, where several political observers noted how long the nickname "Sarah Barracuda" survived beyond her high school basketball years. Along with a public gift for retail politics, Palin privately displays a steely brand of righteous judgment, they said.
Baptized at age 12 by the Assembly of God church she attended with her mother, Palin often said her solidly conservative views on social issues were guided by religious belief. "Her faith wasn't a fad for her. That was very clear," said the Rev. Paul Riley, who founded the church in the 1950s. "When I baptized her, she gave a clear testimony of her faith in Christ."
When Todd's stepmother, Faye Palin, ran in 2002 for the mayoral job Palin was vacating, the incumbent withheld her endorsement. Locals noted that her mother-in-law supported abortion rights.
And last year she fired her top legislative aide, John Bitney, after he confessed to an affair with the wife of a friend of Todd's.
"When you fall out of favor with Palin, it's a pretty quick off-with-your-head," said Persily, the former aide. Bitney went to school with Sarah Palin and worked in her gubernatorial campaign before following her to the governor's office. He now serves as chief of staff to the speaker of the state House. He said he blames himself for surprising his former boss.
"Her Christianity is an important part of her and what she represents, and then that, combined with personal relationships -- she said, 'You disappointed me. You weren't forthright with me,' " said Bitney, now married to the woman with whom he had the affair.
* * *
The episode that has generated the most stubborn questions about Palin remains her account of Trig's birth. She and Todd were in Houston in April, a month before the child was due. Palin said she awoke around 4 a.m. to find amniotic fluid leaking and some mild contractions.
She did not seek medical treatment but said she consulted with her Wasilla doctor by telephone that day. She also delivered a lunch speech to the energy conference of a Republican governors group, giving no clue of her medical condition.
Then the couple headed for the airport. They changed planes in Dallas and again in Seattle, and landed in Anchorage at 10:30 p.m. local time. Then came the 45-mile drive to the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, where Trig was delivered at 6:30 a.m.
Six pounds, two ounces.
To a curious nation, Palin's account inspired astonishment, as well as an Internet rumor -- that the governor had rushed home not to deliver her own child, but to pretend to deliver her daughter's -- that was so powerful the McCain campaign said it was announcing Bristol's condition to knock it down.
But Alaskans had been content with Palin's explanation, offered to reporters at her Anchorage office, where she showed up for work with baby in tow three days after his birth.
"She loves Alaska," said Haylee Davison, who delivered a daughter the same day and watched her governor pace the hospital hallways to encourage labor. "She wanted her son to be born here, not Texas."
Staff writer Kimberly Kindy and research editor Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.