Palin Attuned More to Public Will, Less to Job's Details
Friday, September 19, 2008; Page A04
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."