'First Dude' Todd Palin Illustrates Alaska's Blend of Private and Public
Monday, September 22, 2008
ANCHORAGE -- Todd Palin grew up as the archetypal Alaskan -- salmon fisherman, champion snowmobiler, North Slope oil worker. But since his wife became governor 20 months ago, his portfolio has broadened: househusband, babysitter, senior adviser, legislative liaison, and -- when the occasion warrants -- enforcer and protector.
He has supervised renovations to the governor's mansion and hopscotched by plane back and forth to Juneau to juggle duties as father and "First Dude," as he has come to be known. And to a degree that has surprised many state government observers, Todd Palin also has become involved in policy, sitting in on his wife's meetings, traveling on state business and weighing in on some legislative issues.
John Harris, the Republican speaker of the Alaska House, said he had never been called by the spouse of a governor before the two calls he got from Todd Palin. One was to argue for moving the state capital to Anchorage. The other was to ask Harris to "keep an eye" on a key aide who had an affair with the wife of one of Todd's best friends.
Political hands in both parties say the Palins are often referred to as a team -- "Sarah and Todd" -- and one Democratic lawmaker said Todd Palin has become her "de facto chief of staff."
Meghan Stapleton, a McCain spokeswoman who used to serve as Palin's press secretary, said the presence of Todd Palin has generated unwarranted criticism and that his role is in keeping with that of gubernatorial spouses in other states. "Every bit of his participating is appropriate and pertinent to his role as a spouse and as a father," she said.
"There are definitely critics out there who will blow up his level of involvement because he happens to be a stay-at-home dad when he's off from the slope, and he happens to be an active dad who wants to be with his kids and with his wife when he's not on the slope," Stapleton said.
In many ways, Todd Palin's high profile simply underscores the fine line between the personal and public in Alaska -- a huge swath of land with barely more people than Baltimore, where it can seem as if everyone knows everyone else.
Nationally, even before his wife began campaigning as John McCain's running mate, Todd Palin stood out among the country's few sitting first husbands. In Kansas, Gary Sebelius is a federal magistrate who stays away from wife Kathleen's partisan events and says he does not have time to adopt a favorite issue. Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm appointed her husband, management consultant Daniel Mulhern, to a state volunteerism board and gave him a small paid staff, drawing some criticism.
But Todd Palin, 44, the ruggedly handsome four-time winner of the 2,000-mile Iron Dog snowmobile race, was already an Alaska star before his wife's election in 2006. Along with his family duties, he held two jobs, working occasional 85-hour weeks as an oil production operator for BP and, for a month each summer, as a commercial salmon fisherman in Bristol Bay. He belongs to the steelworkers union, an alliance that may partly explain his wife's strong labor support. His Yup'ik ancestry, which traces back to his maternal grandmother, gave Sarah Palin special standing with Native Alaskans.
Since Sarah Palin's rousing speech at the Republican National Convention, Todd Palin has filled a supporting role on the campaign trail, wearing a genial expression but saying little. He gave one interview to Fox News from the family's lakeside home in Wasilla, showing off his snowmobiles and 1958 Piper PA-18 Super Cub plane.
Those who know Todd Palin say he understands the steely determination that has defined his wife's rapid climb to political prominence; he shows the same quality in the Iron Dog races, maintaining his focus at 110 mph over days of competition as Sarah and the children wait at the finish line. Once, recalled racing partner Scott Davis, Todd Palin rode the final 500 miles of a race with a broken arm. "He wouldn't let me take him to the doctor," Davis said. "It said a lot about his character, not giving up."
Though he played a low-key role during Sarah Palin's six years as Wasilla mayor (his name was occasionally invoked in her proclamations congratulating him for his Iron Dog victories), Todd Palin has backed his wife's ambitions, if not always her politics, friends say.