September 13, 2008

Sarah Palin, America's right-wing sweetheart

Twelve years before she became America's right-wing sweetheart, Sarah Palin rode another wave of "change" to power.

Immediately after her election as mayor, the self-described pit bull ran into trouble in this tiny community tucked into Alaska's Matanuska-Susitna Valley, sparking a colourful internecine political battle. It was remarkable even by the intense, incestuous standards of America's Last Frontier.

John McCain's Republican presidential running mate arrived as mayor already facing allegations she had introduced conservative social issues – including her anti-abortion position – into the mayoral campaign. She even questioned why the incumbent mayor's wife still used her maiden name.

As mayor, she fired administrators, gagged others and tried to move a museum out of the downtown.

She mused about banning books, was accused of being in the pocket of the National Rifle Association, dissolved a commission seeking ways to improve the city's problem with drinking and driving, and faced charges she had tried to break laws to put her supporters on council. On Day 120 of her administration, the first day such a move was allowed by law, she faced an incipient recall movement.

Her journey to today as the most talked about politician in the U.S. began Oct. 1, 1996, when she won 616 votes, enough to win election as Wasilla's mayor.

Immediately, Wasilla's local newspaper, The Frontiersman, publicly worried about the new leadership being "too deeply entrenched in the conservative agenda."

One by one, city officials who had backed defeated incumbent mayor John Stein felt the wrath of "Sarah Barracuda" as she began to fire department heads.

When the Wasilla newspaper accused newly minted Mayor Palin of trying to break laws to stack council with her supporters she called it "brilliant manoeuvering" on her part, before backing down.

Four months later, The Frontiersman editorialized that she thought her election was a coronation.

"Welcome to Kingdom Palin," it wrote, "the land of no accountability."

She stared down her opponents and brazened her way through her first mayoral year, an early performance that foreshadowed this week's interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson in which she fixed her steely gaze on her interlocutor and told him she "never blinked" when McCain asked her to be his running mate.

"I have never cared for Sarah's style of campaigning, but she has always had a dedicated base behind her and I find that worrisome," said Darlene Langill, who served on city council during the first year of the Palin administration.

Langill, a fiscal conservative, butted heads with Palin on financial and administrative issues.

"She and her backers are borderline extreme conservatives," Langill said. "They think only their way is the right way and if you question that, you will feel the backlash... I define extremists as those who push their agenda on others."

Linda Beller, a member of the Wasilla Historical Society, also bucked Palin when she tried to move a museum from the downtown, claiming it was costing Wasilla $16.79 every time a visitor walked through the museum door.

At the time, a defiant Beller said: "You can't put a price tag on a museum and what it offers the community."

Beller won and Palin ultimately backed down.

"My first impression was, `Oh my God, who is this little punk?'" Beller recalled. "I didn't understand where she thought she had anything to give this community."

Today, Beller still differs with Palin on abortion – Beller is pro-choice – and she has a non-uniformed niece stationed in Iraq but cannot support the war.

Maintaining a populist streak Sarah Palin cut her $68,000 mayor's salary by 10 per cent, saying such a stipend for the mayor of such a small community was "embarrassing."

Still, behind the populist streak was a draconian bent.

Three days after her election as mayor she dissolved the city's Liquor Task Force and won plaudits and campaign contributions from The Wasilla Bar and The Mug Shot who were allowed to stay open later – even though drunken patrons were driving home to nearby Anchorage where bars closed earlier.

"We were just starting to connect with the bar owners and getting more public awareness about alcohol problems," Michelle Overstreet, co-ordinator of the Mat-Su Council Outreach program, said at the time. "It's a shame some kind of power trip could end that."

Under Palin, Wasilla was the only community in Alaska which forced rape victims to pay for their own medical exams, former Governor Tony Knowles told reporters.

Knowles signed a bill outlawing the practice eight years ago as a direct response to Palin's policy.

But Palin's major confrontations the first year were with the fired police chief Irl Stambaugh and chief librarian Mary Ellen Emmons.

Today, both matters are shrouded in gossip and selective memories.

Stambaugh, the town's first police chief, sued for $275,000, a suit he ultimately lost.

He claimed he was fired for his backing of ex-mayor Stein, his opposition to a concealed weapons law Palin backed and his opposition to the extended bar hours.

He alleged Palin secretly told him the NRA had wanted her to fire him and denied allegations that the much larger Stambaugh had tried to "intimidate" her at meetings.

The Emmons controversy had its roots with Palin twice inquiring about banning books in Wasilla, something she said she had raised only "rhetorically."

Nobody would discuss which books Palin wanted to ban.

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