Alaska Governor Goes National

Posted September 2, 2008 at 7:22pm

Whenever Alaska state Rep. Carl Gatto (R) would walk into then-Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin’s office unannounced, he recalled, he could talk to her immediately.

“I remember how nice it was to be able to walk in and sit down without a lot of formality,” Gatto said. “That is who she is to the largest degree possible.”

Ten years later, a disarming and assertive Gov. Palin is about to hit the campaign trail as Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s running mate.

And while known by Alaskan voters for her approachable but no-nonsense style — one reason her approval ratings are in the stratosphere — state lawmakers also know Palin as an aggressive chief executive.

“She’s the kind of person who is hands-on,” Gatto said. “If she can do something herself, she will. And so you see her walking from the governor’s mansion to work, right down the street.”

At the center of Palin’s down-to-earth image is her family.

A reporter walking into her office one weekday this summer was greeted by one of Palin’s five children, Piper, playing reporter with spiral-bound notebook in hand.

Palin, meanwhile, discussed carpool arrangements with the man who is said to be her closest adviser: husband Todd Palin.

None of Palin’s aides sat in on the Aug. 14 Roll Call interview with Palin — which will likely not be repeated on the campaign trail this fall.

Palin’s open-toed platform shoes and earrings larger than quarters were a sign of the unpretentiousness that helps account for her popularity.

Palin continues to ride the reform wave that helped her win the 2006 three-way GOP primary with 51 percent of the vote.

Her promise to clean up Alaska government resonated with voters who had watched a half-dozen powerful state lawmakers go on trial for corruption in recent years. And her aggressive governing style, combined with her down-to-earth public persona, has proved to be a dynamite combination.

Palin’s statewide approval ratings have yet to dip below 79 percent.

Even Democrats’ faces light up when they talk about her public persona, and one politician even called her “the ultimate Alaska woman.”

John Binkley came in second to Palin in the 2006 gubernatorial primary, in which unpopular Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) finished third. Binkley recalled how Palin was always in the driver’s seat of her small campaign operation.

“She had very little campaign staff,” Binkley said. “She had two people, from what I could gather. … She wrote her own press releases, she prepared all of her own remarks. She did it all pretty much herself.”

But Palin’s go-it-alone attitude has ruffled more than a few feathers in Alaska political circles.

Palin said she speaks with the state’s two Senators on a regular basis, but she does not remember the last time she talked with longtime Rep. Don Young (R).

Palin is also at odds with state GOP Chairman Randy Ruedrich, whom she outed for ethical concerns when they both served on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

“Is she truly a reformist?” questioned one Alaska GOP operative who has worked closely with Palin. “Or is she a my-way-or-the-highway kind of leader?”

Yet because of her high popularity, state lawmakers are effectively forced to go along with the governor — or risk the wrath of her constituents.

Most recently, Palin publicly supported a resource rebate check that delivered an extra $1,200 to every man, woman and child in the state of Alaska to help with heating costs this winter. State lawmakers were effectively forced to go along with the rebate or hear the phones ringing off the hook.

“I think it’s been a little rocky with the legislators,” Binkley said. “She’s not your ordinary governor. Typically, governors have worked to put deals together with the Legislature. And I don’t think she’s been that kind of governor. … I mean, she has such public support and so much public popularity that with the legislators, she doesn’t always need to put a deal together.”

In fact, state Rep. Bob Lynn (R) from Anchorage describes a distinct split in the state Legislature: the “Murkowski-ites” and the “Palinistas.”

“Sarah Palin has shaken up the political establishment,” said Lynn, who is also a delegate at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. “She’s a Republican through and through, but she’s the new school, not the old school.”

Lynn said the governor made a lot of enemies when she vetoed several lawmakers’ projects in a supplemental budget bill. Lynn, however, remains a proud Palinista.

“I am enamored with her,” Lynn said. “A lot of people are.”

But others who have worked with her in the state House and Senate, which have a combined 62 elected Members, have a much lower opinion of the Palin governing style.

“Legislators don’t like her,” one Alaska Democratic politician said. “She’s extremely difficult to deal with. She has taken a my-way-or-the-highway approach. … She doesn’t deal with us.”

The Democrat said he believes this is in part because of her line-item vetoes, but also said the governor rarely spends time in the state Capitol, preferring instead to return to her home one hour north of Anchorage.

“She hasn’t worked well with the Legislature at all,” the Democrat added. “She’s ticked both sides off. But the people love her. Her popularity rating is very high.”

Palin’s lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell (R), called his boss’s relationship with the Legislature a “kind of a mixed bag at this point,” though he thinks highly of her executive skills.

“She is very direct in the sense that she knows what she’s there to accomplish, goes through her agenda, always gets through on time,” Parnell said.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is one of about a dozen Members of Congress who have met Palin in the past year. He recalled having dinner with Palin, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and nine of his fellow freshman Republicans in Fairbanks, Alaska, last July on the way to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

According to one Republican source, an “aggressive” Palin was insistent about staying with the Congressional delegation at their hotel in Fairbanks and made a great effort to join them on their trip to the North Slope.

McCarthy said he did not find Palin too aggressive, instead describing her as passionate and family-oriented.

“There wasn’t an issue she couldn’t talk about without talking about her family as well,” McCarthy said.

Above all, McCarthy said, he and the other Members were impressed by Palin’s personal characteristics, including her demeanor.

“Is it a gamble? Yes,” McCarthy said. “If the campaign asked my advice, I would put her on the ‘Tonight Show,’ I would put her on the ‘Late Show,’ I would put her on the ‘View’ and ‘Regis.’”