John McCain was clear about why he picked half-term Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate. "I found someone with an outstanding reputation for standing up to special interests and entrenched bureaucracies," he said in introducing her in Dayton, Ohio, on Friday. Palin was someone, he noted, "who reached across the aisle and asked Republicans, Democrats and independents to serve in government."
It is a powerful reinforcement of McCain's own political brand: tough, reform-minded, willing to break with his own party for the right cause. And it's true that her high-profile crusade against corruption and complacency in her own state party over the past few years has made Palin the Frank Serpico of Alaska politics: she publicly ratted out her state party chairman; whupped the good old boys' network, as she likes to put it, in a gubernatorial primary; and fought a general election in which the scandal-stained state GOP didn't lift a finger on her behalf. She won only because she had the enthusiastic backing of independents and grass-roots activists.
But in the first major race of her career the 1996 campaign for mayor of her hometown, Wasilla Palin was a far more conventional politician. In fact, according to some who were involved in that fight, Palin was a highly polarizing political figure who brought partisan politics and hot-button social issues like abortion and gun control into a mayoral race that had traditionally been contested like a friendly intramural contest among neighbors.
In the early '90s, Wasilla was little more than half as big as it is today, and much more loosely confederated. The main issue then, says longtime resident Chas St. George, was public safety. "We needed a police department," he says. "So we set up a group to make it happen." That group Watch on Wasilla included a handful of the town's most influential figures: St. George; the town's mayor, John Stein; and Palin, who wasn't in elected office yet. Her father-in-law Jim Palin and his wife Faye were also in the group.
Eventually, they started a police department, led by chief Irl Stambaugh. Kaylene Johnson, author of Sarah, a Palin biography published earlier this year, says one place where the power group met was a step-aerobics class that Stambaugh and Stein took along with Palin. That class signed the original petition for Palin's first political race, for city council in 1992, which she won.
Four years later, she took on her former workout buddy in a race that quickly became contentious. In Stein's view, Palin's main transgression was injecting big-time politics into a small-town local race. "It was always a nonpartisan job," he says. "But with her, the state GOP came in and started affecting the race." While Palin often describes that race as having been a fight against the old boys' club, Stein says she made sure the campaign hinged on issues like gun owners' rights and her opposition to abortion (Stein is pro-choice). "It got to the extent that I don't remember who it was now but some national antiabortion outfit sent little pink cards to voters in Wasilla endorsing her," he says.
Vicki Naegele was the managing editor of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman at the time. "[Stein] figured he was just going to run your average, friendly small-town race," she recalls, "but it turned into something much different than that." Naegele held the same conservative Christian beliefs as Palin but didn't think they had any place in local politics.
"I just thought, That's ridiculous, she should concentrate on roads, not abortion," says Naegele.
St. George worked on Stein's campaign at the time, and while he says he has no reason to dispute Stein's recollection of events, he doesn't remember Palin's conduct being beyond the pale. "Our tax coffers were starting to grow," he says. "John was for expanding services, and Sarah wasn't. That's what the race was about."
One thing all sides agree on is that the valley was in flux. The old libertarian pioneer ethos was giving way to a rising Christian conservatism. By shrewdly invoking issues that mattered to the ascendant majority, Palin won the mayor's race. But while she may have been a new face, says Naegele, she was no maverick not yet. "The state party gave her the mechanism to get into that office," says Naegele. "As soon as she was confident enough to brush them off, she did. But she wasn't an outsider to start with. She very much had to kowtow to them."
Governing was no less contentious than campaigning, at least to begin with. Palin ended up dismissing almost all the city department heads who had been loyal to Stein, including a few who had been instrumental in getting her into politics to begin with. Some saw it as a betrayal. Stambaugh, the police chief and a member of Palin's step-aerobics class, filed a lawsuit for wrongful termination, alleging that Palin terminated him in part at the behest of the National Rifle Association, because he had opposed a concealed-gun law that the NRA supported. He eventually lost the suit. The animosity spawned some talk of a recall attempt, but eventually Palin's opponents in the city council opted for a more conciliatory route.
At some point in those fractious first days, Palin told the department heads they needed her permission to talk to reporters. "She put a gag order on those people, something that you'd expect to find in the big city, not here," says Naegele. "She flew in there like a big-city gal, which she's not. It was a strange time, and [the Frontiersman] came out very harshly against her."
Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. "She asked the library how she could go about banning books," he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. "The librarian was aghast." That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn't be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving "full support" to the mayor.
St. George, however, points out that Palin couldn't have seen everything through an Evangelical lens. She did, he says, notably resist calls to restrict operating hours for the bars in town. And even if faith did play an unusually large role in her decision-making as mayor, it may have only reflected the continued rise of Evangelicalism in the valley, a growth that continues to this day.
"We like to call this the Bible Belt of Alaska," says Cheryl Metiva, head of the local chamber of commerce. Churches proliferate in Wasilla today, and among the largest and most influential is the Wasilla Bible Church, where the Palins worship.
At the 11:15 a.m. Sunday service, hundreds sit in folding chairs, listening to a 20-minute sermon about the Book of Malachi and singing along to alt-rock praise songs. The only sign of culture warring in the whole production is an insert in the day's program advertising an upcoming Focus on the Family conference on homosexuality in Anchorage called Love Won Out. The group promises to teach attendees how to "respond to misinformation in our culture" and help them "overcome" homosexuality.
When Palin, who went on to win re-election by a landslide, was forced out of the Mayor's office by term limits in 2002, her husband Todd's stepmother Faye Palin ran for mayor. She did not, however, get Sarah Palin's endorsement. A couple of people told me that they thought abortion was the reason for Palin not supporting her family member Faye, they say, is pro-choice, not to mention a Democrat. A former city council member recalls that it was a heated race, mainly because of right-to-life issues: "People were writing BABYKILLER on Faye's campaign signs just a few days before the election." Faye Palin lost the race to the candidate that Sarah backed, Dianne Keller, who is still mayor of Wasilla. (Over the weekend, Faye Palin told the New York Daily News that she liked listening to Barack Obama speak and that she wasn't sure who she would vote for in November.)
By the time Sarah Palin was entering state politics, the hottest issue in Alaska wasn't gay marriage or even abortion. It was corruption and cronyism. Andrew Halcro, a noted Palin critic who ran against her as an independent in the governor's race, says she knew instinctively that the issues were changing. Plus, he says, her opponents, such as incumbent governor Frank Murkowski, whom she defeated in the primary, were just as hard-right on abortion and guns as she was.
She needed a new political identity to make it to the next level, so ethics reform became her calling card. "She's a very savvy politician," says Halcro. "So wedge issues were not part of the portfolio."
"If anything," he says, "she got tired of answering questions about them." Halcro recalls one debate in October 2006 in which, after repeated questions about her opposition to abortion even in cases of rape or incest, she looked at the moderator with exasperation and asked if they were going to talk about anything besides abortion. It was detracting from her new message: cleaning up the capitol.
Nor has Palin made social issues the cornerstone of her governorship. When a parental consent law was struck down by Alaska's highest court in 2007, Palin called the decision "outrageous" but refused calls from conservatives to remedy the defeat by introducing antiabortion legislation in a session that was supposed to be about drilling rights.
Wearing her faith quietly fits more with Palin's personality, says St. George. "In all the years I've known Sarah and her parents, we never talked about right-to-life or any of that," he says. "She doesn't let those issues get in the way of getting things done for the community."
In the end, her political journey from banner-waving GOP social conservative to maverick reformer may simply be about good timing. It's what former journalist Bill McAllister, who now works for Palin's press staff, used to call "Sarah-dipity" that uncanny gift of knowing exactly what voters are looking for at a particular moment. And, of course, the political will to give them what they want. (See photos of Sarah Palin here.)