The Sarah Palin I knew

By Joel Gay 08/29/2008 | 15 Comments

As a longtime Alaska journalist and resident who once knew Gov. Sarah Palin and followed her political rise, I have to wonder what John McCain was thinking when he asked her to be his vice presidential nominee.

Sure, she's a lot of things McCain is, was or needs. The 44-year-old is a political maverick, a Republican who challenged the Alaska GOP's old-boy network and won. She is a fiscal and social conservative who opposes abortion rights. She's a photogenic former beauty queen with five kids, including one just born with Down syndrome and another in the Army heading to Iraq. She's a commercial fisherman and a moose hunter and her husband races snowmobiles.

In many respects she's the perfect choice, a combination of exotic and salt-of-the-earth to balance concerns that McCain is too old, too white and too rich. But there are so many questions surrounding his decision that I can hardly imagine how Palin will strengthen the McCain candidacy. And I like her.

Or at least I did when I knew her in the 1990s. She and her husband, Todd, had a commercial salmon fishing operation in Bristol Bay, and I operated the tender boat that steamed by their site daily and purchased their fish. Sarah and Todd were smart, polite and cheerful — not exactly common traits among setnetters — and I counted them among my favorite fishermen, not to mention my top salmon producers.

At the time, I also was a journalist in Alaska and Sarah Palin was on the Wasilla City Council, so we talked politics when she delivered the day's catch. She had grown up in Wasilla, a conservative bedroom community of about 9,000 near Anchorage. The fall after my last season in Bristol Bay, she challenged the incumbent mayor and won.

I never talked to her again, but followed with interest her political career. She won a second stint as Wasilla's mayor, then popped up in the news as president of the Alaska Conference of Mayors. In 2002, she took on a well-known Republican in the race for lieutenant governor, and suffered her first major electoral defeat. What happened next was a string of decisions that would come to haunt the Alaska GOP — and arguably could be her ticket to the White House.

U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski won that 2002 gubernatorial race, which not only ended his 22-year career in Washington, D.C. but allowed him to pick his own successor. He considered Palin, then chose his own daughter, Lisa Murkowski. The outrage was palpable throughout the state, even among those who thought Lisa Murkowski had done a credible job as state senator.

Murkowski then appointed Palin to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, and the fireworks began. She lasted about a year before resigning in protest over ethical lapses of a fellow commissioner, Randy Ruedrich — who also had been appointed by Murkowski and who happened to be chairman of the Republican Party of Alaska. She had heard numerous complaints that he was using his commission office to conduct party business.

She told The Anchorage Daily News afterward that Republicans had blocked her efforts to handle the ethics concerns internally, and that members of Gov. Murkowski's administration had been no help. The ensuing ethics investigation forced the state attorney general to resign. Ruedrich also resigned and later was fined $12,000.

Two years later, in 2006, Palin challenged Frank Murkowski in the gubernatorial primary — she being painted as the maverick, he considered part of the corrupt, closed-door GOP. She beat him, then went on to defeat the popular and former two-term Democratic governor Tony Knowles in the general election.

Since then, the Alaska Republican Party has been under steady assault. Prominent members of the Alaska Legislature have been sent to prison on federal corruption charges, and the Alaska businessman charged with bribing them will be sentenced soon. Longtime U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens goes to trial in late October on federal charges he failed to disclose $250,000 in gifts from the same businessman. And Congressman Don Young is under investigation by the FBI. Palin's lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell, challenged Young in Tuesday's GOP primary and the two are in locked in a dead heat; the outcome will likely be decided only after a recount in September.

Not surprisingly, many cheered her on as she cut the state budget, sold the jet her predecessor bought over the public's objections and has reversed some controversial administrative decisions. Though she initially supported the controversial "Bridge to Nowhere," she drove the final nail in its coffin when Congress funded it at half-strength.

Still, when word leaked in March that Palin was considered a possible VP nominee it took many by surprise. Sure she was popular, but was she ready for the big time? Even she, at the time, said it would be a stretch.

But in recent months Palin has had some ethical difficulties of her own. The Alaska Legislature has hired a private investigator to look into claims her office pressured the state Public Safety Department into firing an Alaska State Trooper — Palin's former brother-in-law. While the trooper was eventually suspended, the head of the department was fired. Palin recently acknowledged that one of her staff members had called the troopers about the brother-in-law, but said she wasn't behind the call.

The McCain/Palin ticket will have some built-in tension, including over the issue of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — she wants to drill, he doesn't. She's been a thorn in the side of many prominent Republicans in Alaska, and while some are in prison or perhaps heading that direction, they may not have kind words for her elsewhere around the country. The current president of the Alaska Senate and a resident of Palin's home town, Republican Lyda Green, told  the Daily News she thought it was a joke when she first heard the news.


And there's the question of her age and his. Writers in the Huffington Post and elsewhere have suggested her inexperience on the international arena makes her a potentially risky vice-presidential pick for the oldest candidate ever to run for a first presidential term. Lyda Green put it this way: "She's not prepared to be governor. How can she be prepared to be vice president or president?"

As for the idea that Palin might pick up disaffected supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton, the answer is no, California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer told The Los Angeles Times. "The only similarity between her and Hillary Clinton is that they are both women," Boxer said. "On the issues, they could not be further apart."

On the other hand, evangelical Christians are celebrating McCain's choice, which could buoy his support among a group into which Sen. Barack Obama has hoped to make inroads. Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, called Palin's selection "a home run," The New York Times reported.

Closer to home, it could leave Alaska in an interesting situation. If Palin and McCain win, and if her lieutenant governor prevails in his bid for Congress, the state's two top executives will be together again in Washington, D.C., leaving state Attorney General Talis Colberg at the reins.

But my big question is who will mind the fishing site next summer?


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Posted 08/30/2008 10:41 with

Excellent job, Joel. Nobody I’ve seen on the Internet has so completely and clearly summed up her history. Congrats.
Robert Cox – Abiquiu

Posted 08/30/2008 11:01 with

To bad she is not the VP choice of Obama. Then we would have a WHOLE ticket with fresh ideas in the oval office.

As things currently are, McCain is old club so to speak, as is Biden.

Therefore nothing really changes no matter which ticket gets elected in 08…Again.

The usa is viewed as a demopublican trickle down hierarchy by most worldwide due to the obvious.

Posted 08/30/2008 15:29 with

Why would Obama have wanted an unqualified ex-beauty queen bible-thumpin’ rapture reich Christo-Nazi?

Excellent article!

Posted 08/30/2008 16:19 with

Thanks for this. I’ve been looking for people who actually know the person behind all the hype and you’ve given me a small glimpse.

I think the decision was bone-headed, but I’m not McCain’s base. Not by a long shot.

Posted 08/30/2008 16:58 with

If this election about judgment, the choice of Sarah Pahin shows poor judgment on McCain’s part.

Any intelligent person knows when you choose to have unprotected sex at 43 you have a very high probability of having a child with Downs Syndrome. She used poor judgment not using birth control.

Would she use better judgment dealing with our economy?

Would she use better judgment dealing with our enemies?

I for one am not willing to take a chance on Pahin’s and McCain’s judgment.

Posted 08/31/2008 08:35 with

Her choice to not use birth control is brilliance compared to Husein O’bama’s marxist stupidity.

Posted 09/03/2008 21:13 with

And how’s that abstinence only policy going for Sarah’s daughter? Her speech at the RNC about Obama being concerned about the “rights” of Al-Qaeda is pure demagogery. It’s interesting to watch these military extremist evangelical (can someone who has heard of this woman tell me if she speaks in tongues?) women from the right-wing of the Republican party. They operate in an extremely male dominated and sexist wing of the party. When they get an ounce of power, they’re like an alcoholic with a bottle six inches away. They grab and drink it all down. She’s a fascist, albeit one with “charm.” And her commments about “American” this and “American” that in an age when everyone’s clothes are made in China, her let’s bring back the Cold War rhetoric, her “victory” in Iraq moment, these are all signs of someone who knows less than G.W. about the world. The McCain campaign is in slow mo destruct.

Posted 09/05/2008 01:58 with

What a fair and balanced article! How refreshing! Great writer.

I want to comment on the comment by kwaayesnama. I’m wondering if anyone else found it odd? This person feels Sarah Palin isn’t intelligent enough to run alongside McCain because she has bad judgement and the bad judgement is evidenced by her failure to use birth control. We aren’t (gratefully) privy to whether or not this woman uses or used birth control! Was kwaayesnama THERE when Sarah Palin conceived her child? How absurd.

Besides, why would a choice to conceive/carry-to-term/keep a child with Down Syndrome be considered bad judgement? It sounds like the good and excellent judgement of loving parents. Most of us are happy to have ANY baby…not just the “perfect” ones.

The question is how she would deal with our economy and our enemies. We can only speculate but based on her history as discussed in the article, it seems like she cuts costs agressively and it sounds like she goes after enemies like a pit bull. Hmmm…I’d love to see her in action in Washington after all!

Posted 09/05/2008 13:44 with

Right there with ya’, PJ’s. I too, had to chuckle to myself after reading kwaayesnama’s post. There are lots of ways to make babies,,,,,or not make babies,,,,,and nothing is 100%. And her decision to keep that precious little downsyndrome baby? Thank goodness we all don’t decide to keep only the “perfect” ones, otherwise, we’d ALL be perfect, and I don’t think I could handle the competition (chuckle)

C’mon (wait, I have to check my spelling) k-w-a-a-y-e-s-n-a-m-a, get with the program and grow up.

Posted 09/06/2008 04:25 with

80% of children with Down syndrome are born to women under the age of 35. Maybe women under 35 show bad judgement too?

Posted 09/06/2008 11:59 with

News flash all you Obamba haters Sarah palin is not running for president, and all you Sarah palin haters when and a women
decide to have a baby have noting to do with how smart she is polictaly
we need to look at the isures of each party and then pick our next
leader of the free world. I vote both party and don’t ether lean
more republican party, and yes i have made my mind and no i am not
telling, but I can tell you my mind was made up long before sarah palin
and also my avice is please put your country before your hate,personal
misguideing. I am black a christian but don’t froce views on anyone,unless I am invited to love everyone and try to treat everyone fair and with respect,love and respect is the greatest that was given to thi world
have a bless day

Posted 09/08/2008 11:49 with

Sounds like you just screwed yourself out of a good salmon contact.
Surely you enjoyed fishing more than writing.
Way to go ” fishin buddy”!
Still learning but I like her.

Posted 09/10/2008 16:16 with

Joel, having fished in bristol bay in the nineties myself, I have some questions for you regarding Sarah’s fishing violation, fishing without a permit, a class B misdemeanor. Were you there in “93”? Did she deliver fish to you using her sister in laws permit? Did she sign a fish ticket? From the dates involved, she might have been king fishing. When having to answer about this violation when running for LT. govenor, she brushed it off as like a parking ticket. When I received a class B misdemeanor in Bristol Bay , the standard first time offense was $3000, hardly a parking ticket. When someone runs for high office, I think we the people are owed a full account of past criminal record, court docs and all. Why not?..... bristol bay

Posted 09/10/2008 16:23 with

Joel, great perspective on Sarah Palin’s fishing background. It’s just nuts up here in Alaska over the Palin pick. Your opinion is similar to what I hear a lot of Alaskans saying: They like Sarah Palin personally, they’re satisfied with her as a governor, but they’re not quite sure she’s ready for the vice presidency (and given McCain’s health issues, potentially the presidency). Those are the kind opinions; one hears angrier comments, too.
By the way, did you know Obama opened an office in your old town of Homer?

Joel Gay
Posted 09/12/2008 10:46 with

Regarding Bristolbay’s comment, I fished in 1993, but didn’t meet the Palins until I started tendering in the Nushagak District in 1994. Being sleep deprived for the entire season, I have no idea whose permit was used or who signed the fish tickets. But there weren’t any citations written that I knew about. If she brushed off questions about her citation when running in 2002, I can’t imagine it’s an issue now. She has bigger things to worry about, like whether to support Georgia’s admission into NATO.
And to Michael_a, a voice from the past, thanks for the note. It was a surprise to hear that Alaska might actually vote Democratic in November, but that was before Palin. Obama’s campaign might think about sending that Homer staff to NM, where the outcome could determine the election.


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