The defining moment of Sarah Palin's political career—at least up until Friday, August 29—took place while she didn't even hold elected office and occupied a place largely outside the public eye.
In 2004, two years after leaving the office of mayor of Wasilla, Alaska (a town of fewer than 10,000 souls), Palin had returned to the life of a hockey mom. Through her connections to the state GOP establishment, she had landed a spot on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, a state agency with oversight responsibility for some aspects of oil and gas development. One of the job's requirements was that she sign a statement each month reporting that there were no ethical violations occurring on the commission.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin beat out Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty for the VP nod
At that point in 2004, Palin decided she couldn't sign that statement. As a result, she knew there was a good chance she'd never hold public office again—after all, the man she was about to accuse of conflicts of interest, Randy Ruedrich, was chairman of the state's Republican Party. The Republicans dominated politics in Alaska, and they were likely to be unhappy about Palin turning on a member of her own party.
But Palin chose to become a whistleblower anyway—and far from destroying her political career, that action relaunched it. Ruedrich resigned from the commission and paid an Alaska record $12,000 fine for his misdeeds.
Meanwhile, news was beginning to trickle out about the FBI's sweeping investigation into corruption among many of Alaska's leaders. To date, four state representatives have been charged with accepting bribes from Bill Allen, the CEO of VECO, an oilfield services company, that, along with its customers—major Alaska producers like Exxon, BP, and ConocoPhillips—stood to benefit from a lower petroleum-profits tax that was being enacted. Then-Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski's chief of staff pleaded guilty as well, and several lobbyists and businessmen have also been caught up in this probe—including, most recently and publicly, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, who is slated to go on trial this fall.
In this environment, Palin suddenly stood out as the rare public official who wasn't tainted, and who stood up to corruption. By 2006, incumbent Governor Murkowski's approval ratings had tanked. In addition to pushing for the same industry-friendly petroleum-profits tax (which makes up the bulk of Alaska's revenue) that the indicted state legislators had backed, Murkowski had held closed-door negotiations with the major oil producers about a natural-gas pipeline to markets in Canada and the Lower 48.
When Palin challenged him in the Republican gubernatorial primary, she beat him handily, taking 51 percent of the vote to his 19. (Another challenger pulled 30 percent.)
In the governor's office for less than two years, Palin's main achievement has been getting a gas-line act—different from the proposal pushed by Murkowski—passed and a proposal (from Calgary-based TransCanada) approved under its provisions. The act is less favorable to the major producers than Murkowski's, as is a new petroleum-profits tax she supported. And her administration has taken on Exxon head-on over dormant leases, threatening to cancel them if the oil giant doesn't develop them.
So it's shocking that the first scandal of Palin's short career as governor is one regarding a potential ethics violation. Earlier this summer, Palin dismissed Walt Monegan, her public safety commissioner. Then word leaked out that Palin's staff, and possibly her husband, Todd, had long (and unsuccessfully) pressured Monegan to fire a particular state trooper, Mike Wooten. Wooten has a handful of serious blots on his record as a cop, but it seems the main black mark against him from the Palin administration's standpoint was that he was divorced from Palin's sister Molly and locked in a custody battle with her; Wooten also allegedly threatened to kill the sisters' father, Chuck Heath.
Thus far, the administration maintains that the members within it who contacted Monegan about Wooten did so on their own, without Palin's knowledge or consent. The state Legislature has appointed an independent investigator. The results of that investigation are due out at the end of October—on the eve of the election that will determine whether Sarah Palin makes history as the first woman to ever be elected vice president.
On the issues
• The Palin administration strongly opposed the recent listing of the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act (see "Bearing Up," an op-ed Palin wrote for The New York Times on the subject earlier this year), and is currently suing the Department of the Interior to have the decision reversed.
• She appointed an Alaska Native to the Board of Game earlier this year after an outcry from the Native community and others, but the board remains dominated by sport hunters rather than subsistence communities.
• She's largely stayed out of recent battles between mining and commercial fishing interests over a massive mining prospect in Western Alaska.
• Palin is firmly against abortion (although the issue hasn't come up much in the year and a half she's been in office). She famously chose to give birth to Trig Van Palin (yes, he's named after the band Van Halen), despite an in-utero diagnosis of Down syndrome.