Sarah Palin has been Governor of Alaska for less than two years. Her longest stint as a political official was as mayor of the tiny town of Wasilla, Alaska, for six years. Today, Wasilla has less than 7,000 residents. When Sarah Palin was elected to its city council in 1992, its population was 4,635. In 66 days, she stands at the threshold of assuming the second-highest office in a country of over 300 million people. That is an enormous step.
There is much to know about her, but what can be gleaned from her early political past is a highly ambitious and strong-willed woman. However, the mythology presented by her supporters as a tax-cutting fiscal conservative is not what it appears.
In 1984, she was selected as Miss Wasilla and later runner-up in the Miss Alaska contest. She earned the pleasant title of Miss Congeniality. However, this is just one side of Sarah Palin. Two years earlier in 1982, she led her high school basketball team to a surprise state championship. At that time, her aggressive play earned her the nickname â€œSarah Barracuda.â€ Fourteen years later, when she assumed the mayorâ€™s position in Wasilla, that nickname would re-emerge.
In1996, Palins defeated three-term Wasilla Mayor John Stein by 616 votes to 413. It was a good year for Republicans, and she was swept in with a conservative tide that ran throughout the Mat-Su Valley just north of Anchorage.
Palin began her political career in 1992 when she won a seat on the city council with 52 per cent of the vote. In that year, she was not the tax-cutting fiscal conservative presented today. Even the non-partisan nationaljournal.com has it wrong: â€œPalin won a seat on the Wasilla City Council in 1992 as a â€˜new face, new voiceâ€™ and by opposing tax increases.â€ Not true. She cut her political teeth advocating a massive tax increase that would balloon Wasillaâ€™s budget. Prior to 1992, Wasilla survived primarily on a property tax base of less than $500,000.
Palin had a plan to change Wasilla forever. She was one of the primary backers of a 2 per cent sales tax plan intended to start a police department. It would later become the primary source of all city funding. In 1992, the sales tax Palin supported passed by a thin 493-444 margin.
One of her allies in proposing the tax hike was Mayor Stein. Change they would get, especially four years later when Palin challenged her sales tax ally Stein.
Palinâ€™s campaign for her first mayoral race involved a lot of hard work and some questionable campaign tactics. Palin said she went to the household of every Wasilla voter, except for those with vicious dogs. She also followed up with handwritten letters to voters with a history of regular voting. She attacked Stein as a â€good ole boyâ€ who needed to go. The mayorâ€™s race was a nonpartisan office, but Palin was aware that the traditionally Democratic tendencies of Wasilla were changing to Republican. Stein claims his loss was influenced by Palinâ€™s injection of non-mayoral issues like gun control and abortion.
Once again, Palin ran as a candidate of change. She advocated cutting the mayorâ€™s bloated $68,000 salary, slashing local property taxes in half and scrutinizing the cityâ€™s funding of the arts. She advocated more funding for infrastructure and enticing business development.
Stein had been in office for three terms and many people were ready for change. Palin fit the bill. Steinâ€™s legacy had been impressive. The city had created a police force, a 2 percent sales tax and $3 million in reserves. However, that might have been his undoing. With so much in reserves, people did not see the reason for continuing to pay high local taxes.
During the election, the city department heads lined up in favor of Stein. When Stein was defeated, Palin took no prisoners. Shortly after taking office, she requested that the police chief, public works director, finance director and library director resign as an act of loyalty. The director of the city museum had already resigned a few weeks earlier. Palin, in one of her first moves as mayor, eliminated his position.
Palin then proceeded to fire the police chief and library director. The city museum, now without its director, also faced an additional $32,000 in cuts. The three remaining employees, elderly and generally nonpolitical women, knew that at least one of them had to go. Refusing to choose among themselves, they protested by resigning en masse.
The change was a little too much for the townspeople of little Wasilla. A group of about 60, calling itself the Concerned Citizens of Wasilla, organized for the recall of the new mayor. At this point, Palin had been in office for four months. However, the group held off on the recall, asking Palin to explain herself first.
At that point, Palin backed down a bit. The library director could remain, but Palin was adamant that the police chief, Irl Stambaugh, be dismissed. Stambaugh responded with a lawsuit accusing the mayor of contract violation, wrongful termination and gender discrimination. The lawsuit did not do Stambaugh any good as he was replaced. The recall fires slowly smoldered away. Palin survived the crisis that could have ended her political career.
With the 2 per cent sales tax, Wasillaâ€™s coffers had grown considerably since 1992. By 1996, it was bringing in $4 million a year, compared to $500,000 from property taxes. Palin proceeded with her promise to cut property taxes as well as eliminate the townâ€™s personal property tax, business inventory tax and taxes on boats, snowmachines and planes.
The tax cutting appears quite impressive. However, Wasilla was not a town in dire financial straits. It had a $3 million surplus. Besides, Palinâ€™s tax-cutting reputation was only possible because of the 2 per cent sales tax she helped initiate in 1992.
Wasilla is the commercial hub for the Mat-Su Valley. By imposing a 2 per cent sales tax, the city was able to collect money from non-residents. Suddenly flush in funds, Mayor Stein and his supporters used the money liberally on projects while developing a surplus. Palin figured if there is a surplus, then there are too many taxes. She slashed taxes for the residents, but kept the sales tax that was primarily funded by non-residents. It is hard to go wrong on a tax policy that brings in money from outsiders and slashes taxes for taxpayers.
Wasilla citizens agreed and kept her in office with an overwhelming 909 to 292 victory over Stein in a 1999 rematch.
The tax-cutting Miss Congeniality found a comfortable place alongside â€œSarah Barracudaâ€™sâ€ tangling with her political opponents. Repeatedly, Palin has appeared single-minded, almost close-minded, in her decision-making. The librarian director Palin spared, Mary Ellen Emmons, recounted an uncomfortable discussion with Palin. Palin asked her if she â€œcould live with censorship of library books.â€ Fortunately, censorship never happened. Palin said the conversation was only a â€œrhetoricalâ€ exercise.â€ Nevertheless, it is an â€œexerciseâ€ few politicians dare broach.
Once Palin has made up her mind, she moves forward without regard to others. It is remarkably similar to George Bushâ€™s mindset, except Bush is loyal to his friends. Palin has show little sentimentality, as John Cramer was to learn.
For six years, John Cramer was Palinâ€™s deputy administrator at Wasilla. Suddenly, seven weeks before her term was to expire in 2002, Cramer received a dismissal notice a day before his weeklong vacation was to begin. Although Cramer and Palin left on good terms, Cramer was never given an explanation other than that Palin wanted to make the transition easier for the next mayor. Cramer thought he might be able to do that staying on.
Her fiscal conservative reputation took another blow in 2002 when she pushed through a multi-use sports complex. The land purchase was mishandled and led to an extra cost, plus that 2 per cent sales tax Palin advocated in 1992 was raised up a Â¼ of a percent. When she left office, Wasilla had $20 million in long-term debt. That exceeded $3,000 per resident. It had a budget close to $6 million. That is a long way from the town financed by property taxes before Palin became a council member. In all, Palinâ€™s tenure in Wasillaâ€™s city goverment resulted in a massive tax increase and vast expansion of city services.
After an ill-fated race for Lt. Governor in 2002, Palin took a position as Ethics Commissioner of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. She quickly ran afoul of the Republican establishment. Once again, she claimed opposition to a â€œgood ole boyâ€ network. In 2006, she ran a successful insurgent campaign against the sitting Republican Governor in the primary and beat a former two-term Democratic Governor in the general election. The tenacity and determination of â€œSarah Barracudaâ€ was never clearer than in that race.
Nevertheless, the ruthless politician in Palin may remain as well. A political scandal involving the firing of Walter Monegan, the stateâ€™s public safety director, has drawn increasing attention. Monegan refused to fire the estranged former brother-in-law of Palin, Michael Wooten, a state trooper. Although Wooten is not a sympathetic character, Palin has admitted that calls from her office that could be misinterpreted as political pressure. The state legislature, split between Republican control in the House and a Democratic-Republican coalition in the Senate, authorized an investigation into Palinâ€™s conduct. Moneganâ€™s firing looks remarkably like Palinâ€™s past in 1996 when she swept out the cityâ€™s department heads. Once again, it looks like a polarized George Bush outlook. Palin appears to see the world as â€œyou are either with me or against me.â€
Behind the easy smile and past honor as Miss Congeniality is a darker person. â€œSarah Barracudaâ€ does not take prisoners with those who oppose her. In a leadership position, that is not always a bad thing. However, a closed mind and a â€œtake no prisonersâ€ attitude often spells trouble. Is Sarah Palin open to outside ideas? That remains unanswered, but growing up in a small Alaskan town does not generally expose one to the wider world of national politics and international relations.
Although Palin appears incorruptible, there is doubt that she can see the world through the eyes of others. Her duplicity on taxes, advocating it, then tax-cutting, then massive spending and advocating more taxes while appearing as a fiscal conservative is disturbing.
Who is Sarah Palin? The sweet Miss Congeniality from Wasilla or the single-minded â€œSarah Barracudaâ€ at point guard? We have 66 days to find out.