How Palin Governed

Watching press coverage of the Republican candidate for vice president, it’s sometimes hard to decide whether Sarah Palin is incompetent, stupid, unqualified, corrupt, backward, or — or, well, all of the above. Palin, the governor of Alaska, has faced more criticism than any vice-presidential candidate since 1988, when Democrats and the press tore into Dan Quayle. In fact, Palin may have it even worse than Quayle, since she’s taking flak not only from Democrats and the press but from some conservative opinion leaders as well.
After John McCain unexpectedly chose Palin as his running mate, reporters raced to Alaska to look into her family life, including her teenage daughter’s pregnancy; into her per diem expense requests; into her controversial firing of the state’s public-safety commissioner; into her husband’s role as informal adviser; into the gifts she received; and into much more. Those investigations have yielded hundreds of stories. But Palin’s time in the governor’s office hasn’t been all, or even mostly, family drama and minor controversy. She was also, lest we forget, the state’s chief executive. So, what did she do every day? How deeply involved was she in the workings of government? What were her priorities?

And also: Before Palin moved into the governor’s office, she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, population 7,028. How did she adjust to a big new job? Was she up to it? What was her learning curve? Discovering how she made that transition could tell us how she might handle becoming vice president.

Yes, there are legitimate concerns about Palin’s lack of experience. Who wouldn’t, at the very least, wish that she had more time in the governor’s office on her résumé? But a look at Palin’s 20 months in power, along with interviews with people who worked with her, shows her to be a serious executive, a governor who picked important things to do and got them done — and who didn’t just stumble into an 80 percent job-approval rating.

The top issue of the 2006 Alaska governor’s race was whether, and how, to build a pipeline to bring the estimated 35 trillion cubic feet of natural gas under Alaska’s North Slope to market. Palin’s Republican predecessor, Frank Murkowski — a man who had spent nearly 22 years in the U.S. Senate before becoming governor — wanted to make a deal with three big oil companies, Exxon Mobil, BP, and Conoco Phillips.

A lot of critics, including Palin, thought Murkowski’s proposed deal gave too much to the companies. For one thing, it called for Alaska to relinquish its right to tax the pipeline, and instead agree to a series of payments from the oil companies — payments that would be locked in for as long as 45 years. In addition, the deal would have rewritten leases and other regulatory devices that the state normally controls. It was an unprecedented proposal, representing sweeping changes from the traditional way of doing business — and not to the state’s advantage.

Palin defeated Murkowski in the primary, and went on to win the governorship, on a platform of throwing out the old deal and starting fresh. Once in office, she was deeply involved in making that happen. “She had four principles she wanted to bring to the process,” says Joe Balash, who served as Palin’s special assistant for energy issues. “One, to have competition. Two, to have clear and objective measures of progress, because with a massive project like that it’s going to be years before any dirt turns. Three, there had to be a commitment to expansion [the pipeline would have to be big enough to handle more gas in the future]. And four, it had to be done without surrendering the state’s sovereignty.”

It was a big, and extraordinarily complex, task. There was no consensus on how it should be done. But Palin, by all accounts, assembled a first-rate group of people to come up with what eventually became a proposal to grant a license to the company TransCanada to build the pipeline. “I give her credit for hiring good people,” says Beth Kerttula, the Democratic minority leader in the Alaska house of representatives who worked with Palin on oil and gas issues and has lately emerged as one of Palin’s leading critics. “She had a strong team.”

There were times during the negotiations when it appeared Palin’s proposal would fall through, perhaps not even getting to a vote in the legislature. Associates say she was determined to prevent that. “She went literally from office to office asking that, regardless of how people intended to vote, that they permit a vote to take place,” Balash recalls. “If she hadn’t made those visits, it in all likelihood would never have come to a vote.”

And when she made those visits, she scored points with legislators of both parties. “On the issues where I worked with her, she listened, and in the long run, she even overrode her own team on things that House Democrats thought were important,” Kerttula recalls. Last summer, Palin’s strategy led to victory, when Alaska’s house and senate approved the TransCanada proposal.

Noting that Palin had also, in 2007, won a fight to raise taxes on the energy companies, the Anchorage Daily News reported that the pipeline deal “sealed the popular Republican governor’s second major victory in two years against not only her opponents in the Legislature but also major oil companies Palin sometimes has poked publicly.” Her approval rating soared.

Palin’s other top priority was an overhaul of the state’s ethics laws. It became something of a signature issue for her. In 2003, after she served as mayor of Wasilla and had run unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor, she was appointed to chair the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. While there, she became convinced that fellow commissioner Randy Ruedrich, the head of the Alaska Republican party, was conducting party business on the commission’s time. Palin filed an ethics complaint against Ruedrich, leading to a long and contentious investigation. In 2004, Ruedrich admitted guilt and agreed to pay a $12,000 fine, which was the largest such punishment ever in Alaska.

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