By JAY NEWTON-SMALL / ANCHORAGE Monday, Jul. 06, 2009
Sarah Palin, announcing that she is stepping down from her position as Alaska governor in Wasilla on July 3, 2009
Robert DeBerry / The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman / AP
When Alaska Governor Sarah Palin announced her intention to resign on July 3, many assumed there must be a looming scandal. Why else make the surprise announcement late in the afternoon before the July 4 holiday — the equivalent of a news black hole — in tones that varied from angry to anxious? Palin even hauled her husband back from a commercial fishing trip to be by her side.
In the days since, however, it has become clear that no other shoe is likely to drop. No federal investigation or teen pregnancy or hikes along the Appalachian Trail. Alaskan politicos who have worked with Palin for years say her reasons for leaving are multilayered, and largely personal. Her unhappiness in the job came as no surprise in Alaska. In fact, given her history — and how miserable the past eight months have been for her — perhaps the surprise is that more people didn't see it coming. Here are the most important factors that Alaska insiders say went into Palin's sudden decision.
1. If It Worked Before, Why Not Try It Again?
Palin's 2004 protest resignation from the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (AOGCC) catapulted her into the political limelight. Appointed to the AOGCC by then Governor Frank Murkowski, Palin quit when fellow board member Randy Ruedrich, who was also chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, refused to give up his party role despite what many saw as a conflict of interest. Palin accused Ruedrich of engaging in politics on government time, and he was ultimately fined $11,000 — the largest ethics fine in Alaska's history. He resigned his AOGCC post (he remains to this day head of the Alaska GOP). Palin was perceived as a whistle-blower, willing to call out her own party. Less than two years later, Palin won Murkowski's job. "She was going to stand up to the corrupt administration, she was going to expose wrongdoing, she was going to slay the evil dragon," says Larry Persily, a former Palin aide who now works for a Republican state legislator. "She knows how to position herself. She knows how to appeal to the public, and that was a great move."
In her announcement on July 3, Palin sought to portray her resignation in much the same way: a selfless act that should earn her kudos for saving taxpayers' money. "Many just accept that lame-duck status, hit the road, draw the paycheck and milk it. I'm not putting Alaska through that — I promised efficiencies and effectiveness," she said. "I love my job, and I love Alaska. It hurts to make this choice, but I am doing what's best for Alaska."
Perhaps. But this time around, her motives don't ring as true. "In some ways, she is trying to repeat that feat," Persily says. "But there are some flaws in the argument. Under her thinking, every second-term governor or President was a misfit for staying in office because you can't run for re-election. That doesn't make sense."
2. Bye-Bye, Bipartisanship
At the start of her term in 2006, Palin's platform looked much more Democratic than Republican. She picked up on Dem calls for ethics reform and backed Democratic stands against oil- and gas-company interests. She made limited mention of abortion and other social-conservative issues. She would also visit the legislative offices, sometimes bringing fresh baked cookies and bagels. "I'm sure she visited some Republicans, but mostly the people she visited were Democrats," says Alaska representative Harry Crawford, an Anchorage Democrat who has known Palin for more than a decade. "With Sarah, we were able to do things that we'd been trying to do for 25 years. Everything she can point to in terms of achievements was done with nearly uniform Democrats votes and just a smattering of Republican votes."
But her vice-presidential candidacy remolded Palin in the eyes of Alaskan Democrats from a moderate willing to reach out across the aisle to a bomb thrower who accused Barack Obama of "palling around with terrorists." As she became more partisan, she lost support in Alaska — her favorable poll numbers are now in the mid-50s, down from the 80s before she was tapped for VP. Without the Democrats, her agenda has gone nowhere, and she's now attacked from both the left and the right. "I saw her on the elevator in the beginning of session in January," Crawford says. "I said, 'Good afternoon.' She didn't even reply. She was standing there six inches from me, and she didn't say a word. We've hardly seen each other since. This was someone I considered a friend."
Other legislators lay the blame at the Democrats' door. "I believe the word came down from national Democrats to local Democrats to do everything in their power to take her down," says state senator Gene Therriault, a Republican who represents the town of North Pole. "We started seeing a proliferation of ethics complaints against her. It was an orchestrated effort to take her down." Either way, all sides agree that the relationship is irreparable.
3. Do-Nothing Governor
Palin knew that coming back to Alaska wasn't going to be fun and that she'd face a lot of criticism. Her response has been to withdraw. Excluding the budget and appropriations bills, which are mandatory, she has introduced next to very little legislation. In his third legislative session in office, Murkowski introduced 32 bills and saw 19 made into law. In her third session, Palin has introduced 12 bills — none that could be considered sweeping measures — and only one has made it into law.
But Palin has spent a lot of time saying no. She fought to reject federal stimulus money, even though Alaska's legislature is expected to override her final veto of 3% of the funds intended for Alaska. She also spent a great deal of effort trying to keep a Democratic representative from taking a vacant state senate seat. Juneau representative Beth Kerttula, a former Palin ally on energy issues, made the mistake of going on national TV and saying that Palin wasn't ready for higher office. Over the space of six weeks, Palin not only rejected Kerttula but every Democrat put forth by the Juneau Democratic Party for the vacant seat, bringing the state senate to a near standstill. On the last day of session, Palin finally accepted a neutral candidate, former Juneau mayor Dennis Egan. "The governor was on the brink of being taken to court in violation of appointment statutes," says senator Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat. "All because she was trying to rebuke Beth, who during the campaign said one or two things that weren't ingratiating to the governor."
4. Remember Me, America?
Meanwhile, Palin's attempts to engage on the national stage have flopped. Partly because Alaska is so far away, her trips outside the state were noticed by Alaskans, and may well have affected her ability to govern. When she nominated a highly controversial figure for state attorney general, for example, most members of her own party joined the vote to reject him. Palin might have been able to persuade them to support the nomination, but she was out of the state, speaking to a pro-life group in Evansville, Ind.
She has also found it increasingly difficult to campaign and fundraise for 2010 congressional candidates, and her Twittering from Wasilla is like shouting from the top of Mount McKinley for all that it's heard in the lower 48. The only news that does break through nationally are tabloid items like her fights with Levi Johnston and David Letterman. "I buy that you want to spend more time with your family, the stress and demands of five children and a husband. I can buy that you want to push your conservative agenda. I would buy that she thought that she could do more on a national scale because of her popularity and because of her Hollywood stature," says representative Charisse Millett, an Anchorage Republican. "But the lame-duck analogy — you don't do that. You don't quit the game. I wish that she could've been a better example for my daughter and Alaska's daughters."
5. Show Me the Money
Between her husband's income and her own salary, Sarah Palin is by no means poor. But the Palins have had to spend more than $500,000 to deal with the 15 ethics complaints filed against Palin by various outside groups in the past eight months. Palin has been exonerated in all cases, but Alaskan law states that she has to use her own money to defend herself. More cases were expected, which could've become expensive with four kids (and a grandchild) still living at home.
Quitting frees up her time for speaking engagements; politicians of Palin's stature get as much as $50,000 a pop. "I don't think Sarah Palin is a politician. I don't think she wants to be a politician. I think she wants to be an inspirational leader," says representative Mike Doogan, an Anchorage Democrat. "She has the opportunity to make a drop-dead amount of money in the next 18 months." Without resigning, she might have been looking at more than $1 million in legal fees over her remaining 16 months in office. Now she's looking at an unlimited, and very green, horizon.