I got a fascinating e-mail from a Wasilla, Alaska resident who was witness to Sarah Palin's tenure as mayor. Except for a New York Times article this week that explored how Palin ran as an anti-abortion candidate of the Christian right, I haven't yet seen much detailed reporting of exactly what she did as a local government official in Wasilla. How did Palin handle the "actual responsibilities" of a small-town mayor that she bragged about to the nation on Wednesday night, when she was officially nominated as John McCain's VP?
For starters, Palin "turned Wasilla into a wasteland of big box stores and disconnected parking lots" while lowering taxes for businesses and increasing the sales tax burden on residents. Far from being a fiscal conservative, she "oversaw the greatest expansion of city government in Wasilla's history." Palin borrowed taxpayers' money to fund an unprofitable sports complex "in a city without a sewage treatment plant or storm drainage system," and "built streets to early 20th century standards."
This account lays it all out, from an observer who says she "attended more City Council meetings during (Palin's) administration than about 99% of the residents of the city." She was one of roughly 100 Wasilla citizens who stood up for the city librarian when Palin tried to fire her in 1996, early in her first term as mayor.
But what really struck me was the picture this author paints of Palin's ruthless, unbridled ambition, and willingness to try and fire or destroy anyone who stands in her way. Even though national reporters are hunkering down in Alaska, the details of Palin's life and political career emerging from her hometown will probably be distorted and whitewashed. Her own neighbors are afraid to speak out about what they've witnessed during her quick rise to power, scared to cross her, fearful of retribution.
If this side of Sarah Palin was more widely known, it would frighten and disgust most of the U.S. voting public. Haven't we had enough of incompetent, crony-driven leadership from George W. Bush over the past eight years? Do we really want someone in national office who believes rabidly partisan, personal political loyalty tests should continue to be the sole qualification for government employment? Someone who keeps enemies lists, and surrounds herself with appointees who are "loyal to the point of abusing their power to further her personal agenda"?
Here's more excerpts:
I am a resident of Wasilla, Alaska. I have known Sarah since 1992. Everyone here knows Sarah, so it is nothing special to say we are on a first-name basis. Our children have attended the same schools. Her father was my child's favorite substitute teacher. I also am on a first name basis with her parents and mother-in-law.
I attended more City Council meetings during her administration than about 99% of the residents of the city.
She is enormously popular in Wasilla; in every way she's like the most popular girl in middle school. Even men who think she is a poor choice and won't vote for her can't quit smiling when talking about her because she is a "babe".
She is savvy. She doesn't take positions; she just "puts things out there" and if they prove to be popular, she takes credit.
Her experience is as mayor of a city with a population of about 5,000 (at the time), and less than 2 years as governor of a state with about 670,000 residents.
During her mayoral administration most of the actual work of running this small city was turned over to an administrator. She had been pushed to hire this administrator by party power-brokers after she had gotten herself into some trouble over precipitous firings which had given rise to a recall campaign.
Sarah campaigned in Wasilla as a "fiscal conservative". During her 6 years as Mayor, she increased general government expenditures by over 33%. During those same 6 years the amount of taxes collected by the city increased by 38%. This was during a period of low inflation (1996-2002).
She reduced progressive property taxes and increased a regressive sales tax which taxed even food. The tax cuts that she promoted benefited large corporate property owners way more than they benefited residents.
The huge increases in tax revenues during her mayoral administration weren't enough to fund everything on her wish list though, so borrowed money was needed, too. She inherited a city with zero debt, but left it with indebtedness of over $22 million. What did Mayor Palin encourage the voters to borrow money for? Was it the infrastructure that she said she supported? The sewage treatment plant that the city lacked? Or a new library?
No. $1m for a park. $15m-plus for construction of a multi-use sports complex which she rushed through to build on a piece of property that the City didn't even have clear title to, that was still in litigation 7 yrs later--to the delight of the lawyers involved! The sports complex itself is a nice addition to the community but a huge money pit, not the profit-generator she claimed it would be. She also supported bonds for $5.5m for road projects that could have been done in 5-7 yrs without any borrowing.
These are small numbers, but Wasilla is a very small city.
While Mayor, City Hall was extensively remodeled and her office redecorated more than once.
As an oil producer, the high price of oil has created a budget surplus in Alaska. Rather than invest this surplus in technology that will make us energy independent and increase efficiency, as Governor she proposed distribution of this surplus to every individual in the state.
In this time of record state revenues and budget surpluses, she recommended that the state borrow/bond for road projects, even while she proposed distribution of surplus state revenues: spend today's surplus, borrow for needs.
She's not very tolerant of divergent opinions or open to outside ideas or compromise. As Mayor, she fought ideas that weren't generated by her or her staff. Ideas weren't evaluated on their merits, but on the basis of who proposed them.
While Sarah was Mayor of Wasilla, she tried to fire our highly respected City Librarian because the librarian refused to consider removing from the library some books that Sarah wanted removed. City residents rallied to the defense of the City Librarian and against Palin's attempt at out-and-out censorship, so Palin backed down and withdrew her termination letter. People who fought her attempt to oust the librarian are on her enemies list to this day.
Sarah complained about the "old boy's club" when she first ran for Mayor, so what did she bring Wasilla? A new set of "old boys". Palin fired most of the experienced staff she inherited. At the City and as Governor she hired or elevated new, inexperienced, obscure people, creating a staff totally dependent on her for their jobs and eternally grateful and fiercely loyal--loyal to the point of abusing their power to further her personal agenda, as she has acknowledged happened in the case of pressuring the State's top cop.
As Mayor, Sarah fired Wasilla's Police Chief because he "intimidated" her, she told the press. As Governor, her recent firing of Alaska's Public Safety Commissioner (Walter Monegan) has the ring of familiarity about it. He served at her pleasure and she had every legal right to fire him, but it's pretty clear that an important factor in her decision to fire him was because he wouldn't fire her sister's ex-husband, a State Trooper.
Under investigation for abuse of power, she has had to admit that more than 2 dozen contacts were made between her staff and family to the person that she later fired, pressuring him to fire her ex-brother-in-law. She tried to replace the man she fired with a man who she knew had been reprimanded for sexual harassment; when this caused a public furor, she withdrew her support.
She has bitten the hand of every person who extended theirs to her in help. The City Council person who personally escorted her around town introducing her to voters when she first ran for Wasilla City Council became one of her first targets when she was later elected Mayor. She abruptly fired her loyal City Administrator; even people who didn't like the guy were stunned by this ruthlessness.
Fear of retribution has kept all of these people from saying anything publicly about her.
When then-Governor Murkowski was handing out political plums, Sarah got the best, Chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission: one of the few jobs not in Juneau and one of the best paid. She had no background in oil & gas issues. Within months of scoring this great job which paid $122,400/yr, she was complaining in the press about the high salary.
I was told that she hated that job: the commute, the structured hours, the work. Sarah became aware that a member of this Commission (who was also the State Chair of the Republican Party) engaged in unethical behavior on the job. In a gutsy move which some undoubtedly cautioned her could be political suicide, Sarah solved all her problems in one fell swoop: got out of the job she hated and garnered gobs of media attention as the patron saint of ethics and as a gutsy fighter against the "old boys' club" when she dramatically quit, exposing this man's ethics violations (for which he was fined).
As Mayor, she had her hand stuck out as far as anyone for pork from Senator Ted Stevens. Lately, she has castigated his pork-barrel politics and publicly humiliated him. She only opposed the "bridge to nowhere" after it became clear that it would be unwise not to.
As Governor, she gave the Legislature no direction and budget guidelines, then made a big grandstand display of line-item vetoing projects, calling them pork. Public outcry and further legislative action restored most of these projects--which had been vetoed simply because she was not aware of their importance--but with the unobservant she had gained a reputation as "anti-pork".
She is solidly Republican: no political maverick. The State party leaders hate her because she has bit them in the back and humiliated them. Other members of the party object to her self-description as a fiscal conservative.
Around Wasilla there are people who went to high school with Sarah. They call her "Sarah Barracuda" because of her unbridled ambition and predatory ruthlessness. Before she became so powerful, very ugly stories circulated around town about shenanigans she pulled to be made point guard on the high school basketball team. When Sarah's mother-in-law, a highly respected member of the community and experienced manager, ran for Mayor, Sarah refused to endorse her.
Like most Alaskans, she favors drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She has questioned if the loss of sea ice is linked to global warming. She has pushed the state's lawsuit against the Dept. of the Interior's decision to list polar bears as threatened species.
McCain is the oldest person to ever run for President; Sarah will be a heartbeat away from being President. There has to be literally millions of Americans who are more knowledgeable and experienced than she.
However, there are a lot of people who have underestimated her and are regretting it.
CLAIMS VS. FACTS
* "Hockey mom": true for a few years
* "PTA mom": true years ago when her first-born was in elementary school, not since
* "NRA supporter": absolutely true
* "Experienced": Some high schools have more students than Wasilla has residents. Many cities have more residents than the state of Alaska. No legislative experience other than City Council. Little hands-on supervisory or managerial experience; needed help of a city administrator to run town of about 5,000.
* "Political maverick": not at all
WHY AM I WRITING THIS?
First, I have long believed in the importance of being an informed voter. (I have) participated in local government, education, and PTA/parent organizations.
Secondly, I've always operated in the belief that "Bad things happen when good people stay silent". Few people know as much as I do because few have gone to as many City Council meetings.
Third, I am just a housewife. I don't have a job she can bump me out of. I don't belong to any organization that she can hurt. But, I am no fool; she is immensely popular here, and it is likely that this will cost me somehow in the future: that's life.
Fourth, she has hated me since back in 1996, when I was one of the 100 or so people who rallied to support the City Librarian against Sarah's attempt at censorship.
Fifth, I looked around and realized that everybody else was afraid to say anything because they were somehow vulnerable.
I am not a statistician. I developed the numbers for the increase in spending & taxation 2 years ago (when Palin was running for Governor) from information supplied to me by the Finance Director of the City of Wasilla.
You may have noticed that there are various numbers circulating for the population of Wasilla, ranging from my "about 5,000" up to 9,000.
The day Palin's selection was announced a city official told me that the current population is about 7,000. The official 2000 census count was 5,460. I have used "about 5,000" because Palin was Mayor from 1996 to 2002, and the city was growing rapidly in the mid-90's.
(UPDATE 9/8: As noted in the comments below, this e-mail was no hoax. Its author is Anne Kilkenny, a homemaker and education advocate from Wasilla, Alaska. She wrote it on August 31 and sent it out to friends and family, but asked that it not be posted online with her name attached. It went viral anyway. Later in the week, with her permission, it was published online by various media outlets including the Anchorage Daily News, Crosscut Seattle, and The Nation. Yesterday Anne herself posted the full text of her e-mail on HuffPo.)
Erik Ose is a veteran of Democratic campaigns in North Carolina and blogs at The Latest Outrage.