By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 14, 2008
WASILLA, Alaska -- On Sept. 24, 2001, Mayor Sarah Palin and the City Council held their first meeting after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The council condemned the attacks and approved a $5,000 gift to a disaster relief fund. Palin said she would try to obtain materials from both attack sites to include in the town's "Honor Garden."
And then the council and mayor returned to their normal business: approving funds to upgrade the public well, issuing a restaurant permit and taking up a measure forbidding residents from operating bed-and-breakfasts in their homes. After a lively debate, the bed-and-breakfast measure lost, 4 to 1.
Since joining the Republican ticket, Palin has faced questions about whether she is qualified to be vice president or, if necessary, president. In response, the first-term Alaska governor and Sen. John McCain point to the executive qualifications she acquired as Wasilla mayor, a six-year stint from 1996 to 2002 that represents the bulk of her political experience.
Palin says her time as mayor taught her how to be a leader and grounded her in the real needs of voters, and her tenure revealed some of the qualities she would later display as governor: a striving ambition, a willingness to cut loose those perceived as disloyal and a populist brand of social and pro-growth conservatism.
But a visit to this former mining supply post 40 miles north of Anchorage shows the extent to which Palin's mayoralty was also defined by what it did not include. The universe of the mayor of Wasilla is sharply circumscribed even by the standards of small towns, which limited Palin's exposure to issues such as health care, social services, the environment and education.
Firefighting and schools, two of the main elements of local governance, are handled by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the regional government for a huge swath of central Alaska. The state has jurisdiction over social services and environmental regulations such as stormwater management for building projects.
With so many government services in the state subsidized by oil revenue, and with no need to provide for local schools, Wasilla has also made do with a very low property tax rate -- cut altogether by Palin's successor -- sparing it from the tax battles that localities elsewhere must deal with. Instead, the city collects a 2 percent sales tax, the bulk of which is paid by people who live outside town and shop at its big-box stores.
The mayor oversees a police department created three years before Palin took office; the public works department; the parks and recreation department; a planning office; a library; and a small history museum. Council meetings are in the low-ceilinged basement of the town hall, a former school, and often the only residents who show up to testify are two gadflies. When Palin was mayor, the population was just 5,500.
Palin limited her duties further by hiring a deputy administrator to handle much of the town's day-to-day management. Her top achievement as mayor was the construction of an ice rink, a project that landed in the courts and cost the city more than expected.
Arriving in office, Palin herself played down the demands of the job in response to residents who worried that her move to oust veteran officials would leave the town in the lurch. "It's not rocket science," Palin said, according to the town newspaper, the Frontiersman. "It's $6 million and 53 employees."
Further constraining City Hall's role is the frontier philosophy that has prevailed in Wasilla, a town that was founded in 1917 as a stop along the new railroad from Anchorage to the gold mines further north. The light hand of government is evident in the town's commercial core, essentially a haphazard succession of big-box stores, fast-food restaurants and shopping plazas.
The only semblance of an original downtown is a small collection of historic cabins that have been gathered for display in a grassy area beside a shopping center. Most residents live in ranch houses scattered through the woods. Churches, offices, stores and most other buildings are made of corrugated metal or composite materials. Standing in contrast to the utilitarian architecture are the lakes and majestic peaks.
Many of those in town were astonished to learn that Palin had been named McCain's running mate six years after leaving City Hall.
"I was happy in a way, because it is a new beginning for the country, but also I am very worried due to her lack of experience," said Darlene Langill, a self-described arch-conservative who served on the City Council during Palin's first year in office.
Duane Dvorak, the city planner when Palin took office, said the mayor's ambition had been plain to see, but added: "My sense is that this opportunity maybe came along before she was ready for it or thought it would come along."
The McCain campaign declined to respond to questions about Palin's tenure as mayor, but the current mayor, Dianne Keller, said Palin's tenure has prepared her to be vice president.
"Executive experience is executive experience. Whether you are a mayor or a governor or an executive at a company, the duties and responsibilities are the same," said Keller, who served on the City Council under Palin.
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As constrained as Palin's duties as mayor were, her rise to power in Wasilla allowed her to hone the sharp political instinct that has guided her since. When she ran for City Council in 1992, it was as a young PTA mother and daughter of a well-liked local family.
But in her four years on the council, she picked up on sentiment that was building against the three-term incumbent, John Stein, who pushed for the 2 percent sales tax to pay for road, sewer and water upgrades. These investments laid the way for the city's growth, but they also unnerved some residents.
"People said, 'What are you doing to my city? I liked it better when we didn't have government,' '' said Richard Deuser, the city attorney at the time. "And Sarah really pandered to that resentment, that resistance to change. Sarah became their person."
Running against Stein, Palin called for an end to his "tax-and-spend mentality" -- and introduced Wasilla to the kind of socially conservative campaigning that was taking hold across the nation. A national antiabortion-rights group sent cards to voters praising Palin, and her brochures said she was "endorsed by the NRA." After she won with 616 votes -- 58 percent of the total -- a local TV station referred to her as Wasilla's "first Christian mayor," even though Stein and his predecessors were also Christian.
Palin took office as mayor in October 1996 with a show of force. She fired the museum director and demanded that the other department heads submit resignation letters, saying she would decide whether to accept them based on their loyalty, according to news reports at the time. She clashed with Police Chief Irl Stambaugh over his push for moving bar closing time from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. and for his opposition to state legislation to allow people to carry guns in banks and bars.
In notes that he took during a meeting in Palin's first week on the job, Stambaugh wrote that the new mayor told him "that the NRA didn't like me and that they wanted change," according to the Seattle Times, which reviewed the notes at a federal archive in Seattle. Stambaugh was fired on Jan. 30, 1997, partly, the mayor said, because he had not taken seriously her request for a weekly progress report "on at least two positive examples of work that was started, how we helped the public, how we saved the City money, how we helped the state, how we helped Uncle Sam." Stambaugh filed a wrongful-termination suit, which he lost.
Palin also differed with the librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons. The Frontiersman reported at the time that Palin asked Emmons three times in her first weeks in office whether she would agree to remove controversial books. The librarian said she would not. The McCain campaign has confirmed Palin's questions but said that she never demanded removal of any specific books. Palin also fired Emmons on Jan. 30 but reinstated her after an uproar.
Although the town had a $4 million surplus, Palin cut the museum budget by $32,000, and the three older women who worked there quit instead of deciding which would have to go. But Palin dipped into the budget to create the deputy administrator slot, which some council members complained was at odds with her small-government stance. She told city officials not to talk to reporters.
A recall effort in early 1997 fizzled out, but hard feelings lingered. "Working in small towns, I had never seen someone come in and clean house like that in such a precipitous manner. It was pretty scary and emotional," said Dvorak, the city planner, who left after eight months.
Deuser, the former city attorney, said it was upsetting to hear the McCain campaign refer to Palin's takeover as a matter of getting rid of the "good ol' boy network."
"They were just good public servants who did a really admirable job and deserved better," said Deuser, who was replaced in 1997.
Jeff Carney, another local attorney, said Palin was just trying to assert herself against skeptics. Members of the town's old guard "thought they could run over her and were bothered that she could think for herself and make up her own mind up and not do what someone older and wiser told her to do," he said.
In 2006, Palin told the Anchorage Daily News she learned from it all. "At the time, it seemed perplexing that people would object. I was very bold about what needed to be done," she said. "It was rough with a staff who didn't want to be there working with a new boss. I learned you've got to be very discerning early on and decide if you can win them over or not. If you can't, you replace them early on."
Palin's replacements included a public works director who lacked engineering experience but was married to a top aide to a former Republican governor, and she made a former state GOP lawyer city attorney, according to the Daily News. Langill, the former councilwoman, said the new hires fit Palin's management style.
"Sarah always did and still does surround herself with people she gets along well with," she said. "They protect her, and that's what she needs. She has surrounded herself with people who would not allow others to disagree with Sarah. Either you were in favor of everything Sarah was doing or had a black mark by your name."
But things did run more smoothly from then on, and department directors whom Palin hired said she was good at delegating authority and letting them do their job. "She's a quick study," said Don Shiesl, who took over public works in 1998. "She's a heck of a public speaker and she works her magic on people. Give her four years, with some training, and she'll be up to snuff. She's not dumb, she'll be able to catch on to stuff real quick."
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The town's coffers swelled as more stores moved in, letting Palin reap the political benefits of Stein's sales tax and infrastructure upgrades. With her natural charisma putting voters at ease after the initial turbulence, she was reelected in 1999 to the $68,000-a-year job. The budget expanded by nearly half during Palin's tenure as she increased spending on police and public works but kept a lid on city planning and the library, and further reduced the property tax.
Further buttressing the budget were the earmarks Palin sought for the town after hiring a Washington lobbyist for $38,000 a year. The town secured $27 million in all, including $1.9 million for a transportation hub, $900,000 for sewer repairs and $15 million for a rail project.
Despite the city's flush accounts, the police department under the chief Palin hired to replace Stambaugh required women who said they had been raped to pay for examination kits themselves, a policy Palin now says she rejects. State legislation passed a year later required the town to pay for the kits.
The social-issues platform of Palin's first campaign found little outlet in town, beyond some symbolic moves such as declaring Wasilla a "City of Good Character" and a resolution opposing the legalization of marijuana. Instead, she focused on continuing the city's growth and development. Her second city planner, Tim Krug, said last week that the city would sometimes "lighten" regulations, to "make things more welcoming."
Some in town had for years pressed the city for a new space for the cramped library. Palin, who calls herself a "typical hockey mom," instead focused on building a sports complex with an NHL-size rink. In 2002, by a 20-vote margin, voters approved a $14.7 million bond to be financed by a half-cent sales tax hike.
Palin had forged ahead with the project despite a lingering legal dispute over whether the city had ownership of the land. A judge had initially ruled in the city's favor, but it later lost on appeal and had to pay $1.3 million more for the land.
"The only accomplishment of note was the building of the sports complex . . . and it was bungled," said Deuser, the former city attorney. Keller, the new mayor, defended Palin, saying she had relied on legal advice in proceeding with the project.
Bound by term limits, Palin ran for lieutenant governor in 2002, came in a strong second and was later rewarded with a high-paying spot on the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
In September 2002, she presided over her last City Council meeting. The council took up an ordinance to ban sex shops. The police chief announced that Raymond Chiemlowski was promoted to sergeant. Keller "reported that traffic lights on Knik-Goosebay Road will be turned on soon and encouraged everyone to use caution while adjusting to the new traffic pattern."
And with that, at 9:48 p.m., Sarah Palin's final meeting as mayor of Wasilla was adjourned.