JUNEAU, Alaska – In her first year as governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin has plunged ahead with the fearlessness of a polar explorer.
The populist Republican, who was born in Sandpoint, Idaho, has raised taxes on the powerful oil industry. She has pushed through ethics legislation amid a burgeoning corruption investigation of Alaska lawmakers.
She has bucked her party’s old guard. And she has ordered her administration to seek fewer congressional earmarks after Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” became a national symbol of piggish pork-barrel spending.
The 43-year-old University of Idaho graduate has emerged as a national figure and media darling, posing recently for Vogue magazine.
Alaska’s first female governor, a former Miss Wasilla with upswept light-brown hair, says it is her responsibility to be available even to fashion magazines if it can help change the state’s reputation for graft and gluttony at the public trough.
“We’ve got to make sure the rest of the United States doesn’t believe the only thing going on in Alaska is FBI probes and corruption trials,” Palin said.
Palin was just three months old when her family moved from Sandpoint to Alaska, her father, Chuck Heath, told The Spokesman-Review in 2006. She returned to Idaho to attend UI, graduating in 1987 with a degree in journalism.
Heath grew up in Hope, Idaho, and taught in Sandpoint schools in the early 1960s.
Palin has dismissed speculation she might leave Juneau for higher office before her term expires in 2010, saying, “My role as governor is where I can be most helpful right now unless something drastic happens, and I don’t anticipate that right now.”
Nevertheless, John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist with Claremont McKenna College in California and former analyst for congressional Republicans, said Palin could be an ideal presidential running mate next year.
“What separates her from others is that at a time when Republicans have suffered from the taint of corruption, she represents clean politics,” Pitney said.
“The public stereotype of Republican is a wrinkled old guy taking cash under the table,” he said. “One way for Republicans to break the stereotype is with a female reformer.”
Party labels seem to mean very little to Palin. Her revenue commissioner is a Democrat. Her husband, Todd, a blue-collar worker on Alaska’s oil-rich North Slope, is an independent.
The mother of four is often seen bounding down the Capitol stairwell, holding a pink backpack and rushing to get her 6-year-old daughter, Piper, off to school on time – something that Pitney said could make Palin more appealing to a national audience.
The former mayor of the Anchorage suburb of Wasilla ran on ethics reform in trouncing Gov. Frank Murkowski in the GOP primary. In the general election, she handily beat former Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat.
She immediately took on the state’s most lucrative industry, questioning whether Alaska – which gets about 85 percent of its revenue from big oil – is getting its fair share of the oil companies’ billions of dollars in quarterly profits.
She got what she wanted from the GOP-controlled Legislature. Relying heavily on Democratic votes, she won approval last month to boost taxes on oil company profits from 22.5 percent to 25 percent. That could bring in an additional $1.6 billion annually for the state, depending on oil prices.
The state has also accepted bids for the right to build a multibillion-dollar pipeline to deliver Alaska’s natural gas to the rest of the nation.
On the same day a former Alaska lawmaker was convicted on federal bribery charges, Palin signed an ethics reform bill into law.
Since then, two more former lawmakers have been found guilty of bribery related to VECO Corp., an oil field contractor. Another former lawmaker awaits trial, and Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, both Republicans, are under investigation.
Palin’s climb is being done without the backing of the state Republican Party, led by Randy Ruedrich. In 2004, as chairwoman of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, Palin exposed Ruedrich for ethics violations when he was a fellow commissioner.
She has also made trouble for the party’s establishment by calling on Stevens to give the public an explanation of why the feds have raided Stevens’ Alaska home in the investigation of his ties to VECO’s founder.
“I don’t sweat it at all that the partisanship isn’t playing a big part of my agenda,” Palin said. “What that tells me is this: that I’m on the right track, and that it hasn’t stopped us.”