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Palin Attuned More to Public Will, Less to Job's Details

By Amy Goldstein, Kimberly Kindy and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 19, 2008

It was three days before the legislature was to go home, and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was frustrated. The state Senate was thwarting a reduction she wanted in the fee for business licenses. So the governor's aides culled records at the state Department of Commerce for the e-mail addresses of nearly 23,000 Alaskan business owners.

Using the addresses, Palin sent a mass "special message" with her official portrait, the state seal and a backdrop of snow-rimmed mountains. "I urge you to contact your senator TODAY," she wrote, enclosing the phone number of every member of the state Senate.

Lawmakers and other critics were livid. The governor, they complained, had misused state records, violating people's privacy and flouting an ethics rule that forbids Alaska's state employees to use information to which they have access for personal or political benefit. Palin insisted she had done nothing wrong. And the legislature reduced the fee.

The episode in April over the license fee, which went from $100 to $50, illustrates central aspects of Palin's style of governing during her 21 months as Alaska's chief executive. According to lawmakers, senior gubernatorial aides and others who have watched her closely, the woman chosen by Republican Sen. John McCain as his vice presidential running mate has little interest in political give-and-take, or in sustained working relationships with legislators or other important figures around the state. Nor has she proven particularly attentive to the details of public policy. "She's not known for burning the midnight oil on in-depth policy issues," said Larry Persily, a former journalist who was associate director of the governor's Washington office until the spring.

But those who know her say Palin, 44, is uncommonly deft at something else: sensing the mood of her constituents, shaping her public messages and harnessing a remarkable personal popularity to accomplish what she wants. "She has an incredible pulse on the public will," said Bruce Botelho, a Democrat who is mayor of Juneau, the state capital.

"She tends to . . . create a situation where legislators are cornered -- going against her would be political suicide," said John Bitney, who grew up with Palin, was her campaign policy director and became her first legislative liaison.

Her ear for the job insecurities of Alaskans has blended with her pro-business conservatism, making the state's economic development her main priority.

To that end, she has taken on environmental restrictions and members of her own party -- even a co-chairman of her campaign who is a gray eminence of Alaska politics. She has instituted tax breaks that could prove lucrative to small oil and gas exploration firms; sued the Bush administration over listing polar bears as a threatened species because the listing could stop oil drilling; spoken out against a state referendum that could have impeded a giant copper and gold mine proposed near the world's largest salmon run; and sought bids for a geothermal project near a volcano. She favors oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, something McCain has opposed.

Yet Palin has been less ideologically pure than the public image she has cultivated. An avowed fiscal conservative, she has increased state spending by about one-fifth since taking office. An ardent opponent of abortion, she did not fight for measures requiring parental consent and banning the procedure opponents call "partial birth" abortion -- bills the legislature ultimately defeated. A proponent of public safety, she has drawn criticism for devoting too little money to the state police and public safety projects.

Her admirers view her as gutsy and sure-footed; her detractors see her as reckless and insular. She relies heavily on a small coterie of senior advisers, and her husband, Todd, an oilfield worker and commercial fisherman, is present in the statehouse to a degree unusual for a first spouse, sitting in on news conferences, occasional Cabinet meetings and private sessions with lawmakers.

With her independent streak and her method of governing by leveraging her popular appeal, some who know Palin wonder privately how she would adapt as second-in-command in a McCain administration. Others can envision a natural role she might play. "She is going to be the deliverer of the message," said Bitney, who is now chief of staff to the state House speaker, "as opposed to sitting down and hashing out the war strategy for the Mideast."

Reform-Minded Voters

Palin rose to power at a singular moment in the history of a state whose political culture and economy are unlike those anywhere else in the United States. More than four-fifths of Alaska's revenue comes from oil, and the money is so abundant that, instead of taxing its residents, the state mails every man, woman and child a dividend check each year.

But in 2006, the year the Palin ran for governor, Alaskans also regarded oil as a corrupting influence that had gained too much power. The FBI had been investigating a bribery scandal involving oil lobbyists, and Palin's predecessor, Frank H. Murkowski (R), was the least popular governor in the nation, widely regarded as imperious and secretive for buying a state jet for his use and negotiating privately with the three major oil companies on Alaska's North Slope over plans for an enormous natural gas pipeline that had been discussed for years.

As mayor for six years of her small home town, Wasilla, Palin had defined herself as a social conservative. When she challenged Murkowski in the Republican primary for governor, she campaigned as a reformer who would bring transparency back to government.

"She hears the mood of the electorate very, very well," said Stephen Haycox, a historian at the University of Alaska at Anchorage. "She realized this was a grand opportunity because the voters of the state were now ready for someone to give them an alternative to business as usual."

She vowed to stand up to Big Oil, get a better deal for the state and its people from Alaska's energy resources, and improve political ethics -- stances now cited by the McCain campaign as evidence that Palin is an independent-minded advocate of reform. Unmentioned, Alaska political insiders say, is that the year Palin ran for governor, politicians of both parties were portraying themselves as reformers, too.

"It was just this message of change. . . . Every single candidate," recalled Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat elected to the state Senate that year. "So there was going to be change regardless of who was in office, as long as it wasn't Frank Murkowski."

Once in the governor's office, Palin swiftly established that she would be different from her predecessor. Murkowski had fired his natural resource commissioner for speaking out against his pipeline plan as too favorable to Exxon Mobil, BP and Conoco Phillips. "It truly became a huge giveaway," recalled Marty Rutherford, one of six other senior members of the department who resigned in protest. The group was nicknamed the "Magnificent Seven."

Two months after she took office, Palin hired back the commissioner and made Rutherford a key deputy. They brought with them a framework for a pipeline deal they favored: To protect the state's interest, they would specify requirements that any oil company would have to meet if it decided to build the pipeline. Palin took the idea further, Rutherford said, proposing that the state open the project to competitive bids and create financial incentives for gas exploration. She agreed to her staff's suggestion that the state offer a $500 million inducement.

The move to open competition to anyone willing to build the pipeline was popular, Haycox said. "It appeared to put the state in a position of equality with the oil industry. We don't need to go hat in hand, begging," he said. "Nobody in the state has ever said we should just forget about the oil and gas industry. . . . She found a middle ground . . . to say, we do have some leverage."

Still, Palin struck some lawmakers as curiously detached from the process. In early March 2007, she invited the state Senate's leaders to her office for a preview of the pipeline legislation. To the astonishment of the five senators and their aides, she barely said a word for the hour. As staff members explained her signature plan, the governor was preoccupied with her two BlackBerries.

"It was so bizarre. We all talked about it afterwards," said a legislative source, one of three participants in the meeting who recounted the governor's silence. "We all said, 'What was that? Was she even paying attention?' "

Haycox summed up a common criticism of Palin: "She seems as if she is incurious about the mechanism of government."

In the spring of 2007, the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act "was not going well. It was going to be a touchy vote," Bitney recalled. But as it turned out, Palin's timing was extraordinarily lucky. Early that May, days before the session was to end, a state representative and two former legislators were indicted on charges of extortion and bribery in a scandal involving the pipeline plan Murkowski had brokered.

"The legislature couldn't pass her bill fast enough at that point," Bitney said.

Broken Alliances

Some say Palin's focus on a narrow set of goals has excluded other problems facing Alaska, such as health care and the long-term stability of the state budget. "She can only handle a few issues directly," said Lois Epstein, director of the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, who has attended meetings with Palin. "And she relies on a very small number of trusted advisers for those issues. . . . That means certain issues don't get any attention."

Nor do many legislators -- of either party.

Shortly after Palin took office, state senators were in an eight-hour ethics seminar when the new governor called an 11 a.m. news conference to unveil her ethics bill, borrowing from ideas Democrats had advocated for years, recalled Senate President Lyda Green (R), who represents Palin's home town and quickly became a nemesis. With the senators tied up in their training, the only people who stood with Palin before the cameras were a former Republican U.S. attorney and a former Democratic lawmaker.

The news conference foreshadowed a pattern: Time after time, Palin's pursuit of her goals would trump her allegiances.

Last month, just before a vote on a ballot initiative to strengthen environmental restrictions on the proposed Pebble Mine -- an enormous project critics say would damage salmon-rich Bristol Bay -- she broke with a long tradition in which Alaska governors have not taken public positions on such citizen initiatives and announced that she opposed it. She had not alerted Rick Halford (R), an influential former state Senate president who had helped her get elected and had been an informal adviser -- and who was a leader of the pro-initiative forces. It failed.

Palin has been equally willing to antagonize Democrats who have helped push through her bills. After her first legislative session, she stunned allies by using her line-item veto to make unprecedented cuts in capital budgets for projects in their districts -- $231 million in all -- a particular surprise in a time of large budget surpluses.

"I remember when we were crafting the budget, there were discussions: 'Where is the governor at? What does she want the total size to be?' . . . We could never get a firm answer from her," Wielechowski said. And then, he said, she "whacked . . . without warning, really."

Wielechowski had been one of two Democrats who, incurring the anger of their party caucus, had spoken out forcefully on the Senate floor to support Palin on the pipeline and on an oil tax increase she also pushed through. But the governor cut capital funds for his Anchorage district, he said, by 95 percent. He was startled to discover that, at the same time, she had approved money for a kitchen in a sports complex in Wasilla and for bleachers and stadium lights at high schools just outside her home town.

A typical dispute occurred in January when Palin asked to deliver her State of the State address on the legislative session's opening day at 6 p.m., an hour earlier than the custom, because she had to catch a flight to attend the graduation of her eldest child, Track, from boot camp. When Green, the state Senate president, said the request would conflict with the chamber's schedule, the governor's office threatened that she might deliver her speech only to the House.

In the end, the legislature and the governor agreed on a 4 p.m. start for her 25-minute remarks. Still, Palin called a local radio show to express her displeasure. The host, Bob Lester, sided with her. He twice said that Green, a survivor of breast cancer, was "a cancer" on Alaska's progress, and he called her a bitch. On an audiotape of the show, Palin is heard giggling at the expletive.

In response to complaints about her e-mails to business owners, Palin insisted that the Commerce Department records are public. "You just pick up the phone and ask," she told a news conference the day after this year's legislative session ended.

Besides, she said, sidestepping the matter of where the addresses came from, "every other governor has gone out for calls to the public to pay attention to certain bills."

A reporter shot back, "Governor Palin has said time and again she does business differently than Governor Murkowski." The governor left it to her staff to reply.

Staff writer Karl Vick and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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