[Veep Encounter] In a far distant universe, I once lived and worked in Alaska. My job was to promote tourism in and around a little town called Wasilla, known for being the headquarters of the Iditarod Trail race. One of my board members was John Stein, a popular three-term mayor of Wasilla who seemed destined to keep his job as long as he wanted it.
But one election year—1996 to be exact—change was in the air, change in the form of plucky brunette 32-year-old Sarah Palin. Once a co-captain of her high school basketball team, Palin in 1982 led the Wasilla Warriors to win an astonishing state championship. For that, she’ll always be a local hero. At a young 28, she’d been elected to the city council and soon took issue with Stein’s “stale” leadership and “tax-and-spend mentality.”
It became apparent Stein was in for a fight of his political life.
Upon learning she’d won the hotly contested race, Palin and her supporters huddled together and prayed to Jesus Christ in gratitude. I began to wonder what was up with our local politicos. I’d watched as Palin aligned herself—in a city mayor’s race—with our newly minted Republican state lawmakers, all tripping over themselves to claim conservative Christian cred. I noticed how positions on abortion and gun rights bubbled up in a municipal race. After her win, a local cable TV show proclaimed Palin as the town’s first “Christian” mayor, much to the surprise of the town’s previous mayors who hadn’t been told their faith was revoked.
Even with all that prayer behind her, Palin’s first years as mayor were bumpy. She had to clean house and eliminate John Stein supporters among her staff. The local media and organizations around town questioned her ability to run a city without experienced people. She rather famously proclaimed: "It's not rocket science. It's $6 million and 53 employees."
That gutsy attitude along with her love of the Alaskan outdoors and her beauty-contestant good looks made her instantly popular and easy to re-elect.
About that time, I up and split Alaska, disillusioned by the conservative political sweep of my community. The Republican Party was seemingly intent on hijacking just about every nonprofit board and political office in the valley, filling them with smug, holier-than-thou operatives (I should point out that this is now changing. One Wasilla lawmaker from that era, Rep. Vic Kohring, for example, is serving time for accepting oil-industry bribes, and more are getting their comeuppance every day).
But keeping tabs from a distance, even I came to respect Palin’s subsequent moves: Being easily recognized by the Republican Party as a comer, she ran for, and lost, a bid for lieutenant governor in 2002. As a consolation prize, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski rewarded her with a chairmanship of the state’s powerful oil and gas commission. She then discovered and audaciously ratted out the commission’s good old boys on their ethical lapses. When the Republican Party turned its back on her, she ran her own campaign against incumbent Frank Murkowki, beating him in the 2006 primary. From there, it was a cakewalk against Democrat Tony Knowles to the governor’s mansion.
Bottom line: This woman is true to herself. She disarms you with her perkiness and off-the-cuff conversation style, and it is easy to mistake that quality for innocence and underestimate her. But don’t. I’m betting John Stein and Frank Murkowski are somewhere in Alaska today pounding shots in a dive bar. Nobody seems to own her. At least up until now. It remains to be seen if one maverick (McCain) can control another.
And, despite her legendary fresh face and ethical high road, she can still lay claim to hatahs. There is a little scandal brewing right now in Alaska about how she canned her public safety commissioner because he would not fire her sister’s ex-husband—a cop behaving badly. Some say she’s in over her head running Alaska, but she would likely fire right back: Hey, it’s not rocket science.
I guess I can say I knew Sarah when. But oddly enough, Dick and me go way back, too. Prior to my stint in Wasilla, I grew up in Casper, Wyo., hometown of another infamous VP maverick ... emphasis on the “ick.” [Jerre Wroble]