Palin: More And Less Than She Seems

The mother kneels in the snow, cheerfully posing beside her bundled up daughter, behind the bloody, dead caribou the mom just shot.

Maybe not your typical family photo. But that's Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the disarming mom who's not afraid to carry arms or use them.

Palin would be a heartbeat away from the presidency if she and Republican nominee John McCain win in November. She was introduced to the country by McCain as very much the woman in that photo: tough and loving. She's the ethics-protecting, belt-tightening mom, who easily juggles family and her government job.

A visitor to her office can see Palin, a 44-year-old mother of five, as she coos to baby Trig and changes his diapers. A lush bear pelt shot by her father is draped over the couch and a three-foot king crab shell is perched on a table. Daughters Piper, Willow and Bristol stroll in and out, and crayon drawings are tucked beneath her glass desktop.

She switches back and forth between mother and governor without a blink. But details of her life that have emerged under the glare of national attention show that she's a complicated politician. She's disarming and accessible for some, vindictive and hard toward others. She has many loyal friends, tremendous hometown support, and a few fierce enemies.

This week, her lawyer is scrambling to sidetrack an ethics investigation into whether she abused her power as governor to pressure officials to fire her sister's ex-husband, a state trooper who had been disciplined for drinking beer in his patrol car, illegally shooting a moose and firing a Taser at his 11-year-old stepson.

The McCain campaign boasts of her pork-cutting, but up close it looks more like a trim. In her two years as governor, Alaska has requested nearly $750 million in special federal spending, by far the largest per-capita request in the nation. She boasts of rejecting plans to build the notorious "Bridge to Nowhere," a $389 million bridge to an island with 50 residents. But only after she said yes did she say no, rejecting the locally-popular project after it was ridiculed and Congress cut some of the funds. She hung onto $27 million to build the approach road to the bridge.

She's an opponent of government financing of sex-education programs in Alaska. When she announced last week that her 17-year-old unwed daughter, Bristol, was five months pregnant, she said having a baby would make her daughter "grow up faster than we had ever planned."

Palin was born Sarah Louise Heath in Sandpoint, Idaho, and moved to Wasilla, Alaska, as an infant with her parents, Chuck Heath, a school teacher, and Sally Heath, a school secretary. Raised in a Pentecostal church, she has called herself "as pro-life as any candidate can be."

Like many Alaskans and other rural Americans, Palin was raised hunting and fishing. She played flute in the junior high band (and years later in a beauty pageant.) In high school. Palin played basketball and ran cross country while leading her high school chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

She was a roaming student, switching from junior colleges, private institutions and public schools first in Hawaii, and later in Alaska and Idaho. During those college years, she did make one electoral bid: at 20, in a red strapless gown with her hair flipped back, Palin won Miss Wasilla and came in second at the 1984 Miss Alaska pageant, taking home the Miss Congeniality award.

Yes she smoked pot. And yes she inhaled, she says. No, she does not support legalization.

After graduating from the University of Idaho with a degree in journalism, she covered hockey matches and basketball games for two Anchorage television stations.

She married her high school sweetheart Todd, a North Slope oil field worker, and quickly started a family. She gave birth to their first son Track less than eight months later. Sarah worked for his family's commercial fishing business.

Palin entered politics in her hometown in 1992, running for City Council in Wasilla, population around 7,000. There was no police department and a dusty airstrip ran through the middle of town. Ten years later, after two terms on the council and two as mayor, Palin the sports fan had left her mark. The airstrip is now a lush park, complete with skateboard ramps, BMX track, a large playground and an Armed Forces memorial. There's a new hockey rink and sports center, and the main roads are lined with standard strip mall stores — Target, Wal-Mart, Home Depot.

When Palin was elected mayor in 1996, she received 651 votes — the loser, a nine-year incumbent, received 413. It was the biggest municipal election turnout ever, according to the local paper.

She told the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman newspaper at the time, "I knew people agreed with my message of conservatism but I didn't know if that message would reach them."

John Stein, her opponent, said Palin had brought into the campaign his "alleged stance on gun control and abortion, even why his wife had a different last name than him," the paper reported.

Palin promised to cut government. In office, part of her refashioning included a loyalty test, in which she asked the city's top managers to resign unless they would work with her new administration.

"Some of the things I'm doing, it's obvious I'm not running for Miss Congeniality. I'm running the city," she reportedly said at the time.

Police Chief Irl Stambaugh, who had supported Palin's opponent, lasted several months before he was fired. Palin denied that the firing was politically motivated, saying only, "You know in your heart when someone is supportive of you."

Stambaugh sued, accusing her of contract violation, wrongful termination and gender discrimination. He said his contract forbade his being terminated without cause. A federal judge in 2000 dismissed his lawsuit, which sought more than $500,000 in damages, saying the former police chief served at the mayor's discretion and could be terminated for nearly any reason.

The town, at least most of it, didn't hold it against Palin.

"She truly listened to what we wanted in our town and she got it done," said Richard Clayton, owner of the local bike shop who for 20 years has been equipping the Palins with everything from single speeds for Track to handlebar streamers for Piper.

In her private life, Palin is a self described "hockey Mom" — a role other moms at the Wasilla rink say is something like a soccer mom but more rugged. She needs that trait: Her baby has Down syndrome, her oldest son heads to Iraq in a week as a U.S. soldier.

Although her focus has been politics, the Palins have been involved in a series of small businesses, often with partners. These included a carwash in Anchorage — the Palins had a 20 percent stake — which last year was issued a certificate of involuntary dissolution by the state after the owners failed to pay state fees. They've also owned a snowmobile business and in 2005, Palin also registered the name for a marketing and consulting startup company: Rouge Cou, translated from French to "red neck." It never operated as a business.

Her salary as governor is $125,000 a year, and her husband — who twice registered for the Alaskan Independence Party, a states' rights group that wants to turn all federal lands in Alaska back to the state — earned about $40,000 last year for winning a 1,900 mile snowmobile race. Their lakeside home, appraised at about $500,000, is down a long, dirt driveway with a brand new "No Trespassing" sign posted at the entrance. A seaplane sits at the dock, and large windows open up to the spectacular views of Lake Lucille and the tree-covered hills beyond.

Last week when Palin was introduced to the nation she was described as a straight shooter.

But some of her positions, and her actions, are certainly more complex than they've been described, like getting rid of the governor's jet.

"That luxury jet was over the top. I put it on eBay," she told cheering Republican delegates at their convention last week. True, but she left out that it never sold on eBay. And so state staffers had to broker a deal with a buyer.

Her role as head of state's National Guard has been touted as giving her national defense experience. But in fact when the national guard is called to defend the nation, the governor relinquishes all authority to federal officials.

As governor, Palin called for environmental protection in Alaska, but she's opposed the U.S. government's listing of a variety of animals as endangered, including the polar bear and the beluga whale, both of which inhabit areas also rich in oil and natural gas.

Alaskans here, for the most part, remain proud of their anti-abortion, conservative Christian, gun shooting governor. They're largely unfazed by current charges against her of abuse of power, and they're frankly offended by all the attention paid to Palin's pregnant teenage daughter and her suddenly announced fiance, Levi Johnston.

Alaskans like her enthusiasm for more drilling for oil, and especially the $3,269 investment rebate and resource refund checks they're going to receive from the state this month. Just about everyone — including Palin — wants a natural gas pipeline built through their state.

Anne Kilkenny, a Wasilla local who grew up with Palin and whose critical essay about her has circulated internationally in the media and on the Web, said her appointment is stunning.

"People are mind boggled to think that a local girl could be the president of the United States if the Republican ticket is successful and something could happen to this 72-year-old candidate who has had four bouts of melanoma."


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