Palin's Stand on Mining Initiative Leaves Many Feeling Burned
Sunday, September 28, 2008
For months, the confrontation mounted, a face-off that arguably held in the balance the fates of two of Alaska's biggest industries. On one side were companies hoping to open Pebble Mine at a huge gold and copper reserve adjacent to one of the world's largest salmon runs, Bristol Bay. On the other side were fishermen and environmentalists pushing a referendum that would make it harder for the mine to open.
The two sides spent more than $10 million -- unprecedented for such efforts in Alaska -- and throughout it all, the state's highly popular first-term governor, Sarah Palin, held back. Alaska law forbids state officials from using state resources to advocate on ballot initiatives.
Then, six days before the Aug. 26 vote, with the race looking close, Palin broke her silence. Asked about the initiative at a news conference, she invoked "personal privilege" to give an opinion. "Let me take my governor's hat off for just a minute here and tell you, personally, Prop. 4 -- I vote no on that," she said. "I have all the confidence in the world that [the Department of Environmental Conservation] and our [Department of Natural Resources] have great, very stringent regulations and policies already in place. We're going to make sure that mines operate only safely, soundly."
Palin's comments rocked the contest. Within a day, the pro-mining coalition fighting the referendum had placed full-page ads with a picture of the governor and the word "NO." The initiative went down to defeat, with 57 percent of voters rejecting it.
Three days later, Palin was named Republican Sen. John McCain's running mate, throwing Alaska into a media frenzy. But the fallout has lingered from an episode that may stand as one of the most consequential in Palin's 21-month tenure. The state ethics panel is examining whether her comments violated the law against state advocacy on ballot measures; it had already ruled that a state Web site was improperly slanted toward mining interests.
Opponents of the referendum say Palin's intervention showed her willingness to speak up for what she saw as the state's best interests, even if it upset many Alaskans. "It was very positive," said John Shively, chief executive of Pebble Partnership, a consortium of Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty and multinational mining giant Anglo American that is planning the mine. "She's very popular as governor, and so it certainly never hurts to have a popular governor on your side."
The initiative's supporters, stunned by Palin's late intervention, say it demonstrated her bias in favor of development, even when it threatens an industry that supports thousands of Alaskans -- including Palin's husband, Todd, a part-time commercial fisherman who grew up near Bristol Bay.
For Palin to intervene as she did, with a brief, seemingly off-the-cuff statement just days before the election, also showed a lack of serious engagement on complex and important issues, initiative supporters say. Palin, they say, was simply going on the word of officials in her administration that the existing regulations sufficed, without taking into account their possible biases: Her natural resources commissioner hails from the mining industry, and mining companies directly subsidize some regulators' salaries.
"She has this great faith that nothing will go wrong, which gave her a false sense of security, so she went off a little half-cocked" and spoke out, said Tim Bristol, Alaska program director for Trout Unlimited.
McCain campaign spokeswoman Meghan Stapleton, Palin's former press secretary, defended the governor's intervention. "From the moment Governor Palin took office, she made it clear she supports responsible resource development," Stapleton said. "On the issue of the possible development of Pebble Mine -- this is not about whether you are for or against development, because they haven't even submitted a permit; this is about process and ensuring that any company that wants to come to Alaska and develop our resources is at the very least provided the opportunity to avail themselves of the state's process."
Most irksome to initiative proponents was Palin's effort to cast her intervention as "personal."
"We were just like, 'When does she have her hat on and when does she have it off?' " Bristol said. Former governor Tony Knowles, a Democrat who lost to Palin in 2006, went further and said she may have violated the law against using state resources to advocate on initiatives. He said he never took such a decisive stand on a ballot initiative.