New York Times Article on Palin:
Once Elected, Palin Hired Friends and Lashed Foes
This article is by Jo Becker, Peter S. Goodman and Michael Powell.
WASILLA, Alaska — Gov. Sarah Palin lives by the maxim that all politics is local, not to mention personal.
So when there was a vacancy at the top of the State Division of Agriculture, she appointed a high school classmate, Franci Havemeister, to the $95,000-a-year directorship. A former real estate agent, Ms. Havemeister cited her childhood love of cows as a qualification for running the roughly $2 million agency.
Ms. Havemeister was one of at least five schoolmates Ms. Palin hired, often at salaries far exceeding their private sector wages.
When Ms. Palin had to cut her first state budget, she avoided the legion of frustrated legislators and mayors. Instead, she huddled with her budget director and her husband, Todd, an oil field worker who is not a state employee, and vetoed millions of dollars of legislative projects.
And four months ago, a Wasilla blogger, Sherry Whitstine, who chronicles the governor’s career with an astringent eye, answered her phone to hear an assistant to the governor on the line, she said.
“You should be ashamed!” Ivy Frye, the assistant, told her. “Stop blogging. Stop blogging right now!”
Ms. Palin walks the national stage as a small-town foe of “good old boy” politics and a champion of ethics reform. The charismatic 44-year-old governor draws enthusiastic audiences and high approval ratings. And as the Republican vice-presidential nominee, she points to her management experience while deriding her Democratic rivals, Senators Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr., as speechmakers who never have run anything.
But an examination of her swift rise and record as mayor of Wasilla and then governor finds that her visceral style and penchant for attacking critics — she sometimes calls local opponents “haters” — contrasts with her carefully crafted public image.
Throughout her political career, she has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and sometimes blurred the line between government and personal grievance, according to a review of public records and interviews with 60 Republican and Democratic legislators and local officials.
Still, Ms. Palin has many supporters. As a two-term mayor she paved roads and built an ice rink, and as governor she has pushed through higher taxes on the oil companies that dominate one-third of the state’s economy. She stirs deep emotions. In Wasilla, many residents display unflagging affection, cheering “our Sarah” and hissing at her critics.
“She is bright and has unfailing political instincts,” said Steve Haycox, a history professor at the University of Alaska. “She taps very directly into anxieties about the economic future.”
“But,” he added, “her governing style raises a lot of hard questions.”
Ms. Palin declined to grant an interview for this article. The McCain-Palin campaign responded to some questions on her behalf and that of her husband, while referring others to the governor’s spokespeople, who did not respond.
Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell said Ms. Palin had conducted an accessible and effective administration in the public’s interest. “Everything she does is for the ordinary working people of Alaska,” he said.
In Wasilla, a builder said he complained to Mayor Palin when the city attorney put a stop-work order on his housing project. She responded, he said, by engineering the attorney’s firing.
Interviews show that Ms. Palin runs an administration that puts a premium on loyalty and secrecy. The governor and her top officials sometimes use personal e-mail accounts for state business; dozens of e-mail messages obtained by The New York Times show that her staff members studied whether that could allow them to circumvent subpoenas seeking public records.
Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska professor, sought the e-mail messages of state scientists who had examined the effect of global warming on polar bears. (Ms. Palin said the scientists had found no ill effects, and she has sued the federal government to block the listing of the bears as endangered.) An administration official told Mr. Steiner that his request would cost $468,784 to process.
When Mr. Steiner finally obtained the e-mail messages — through a federal records request — he discovered that state scientists had in fact agreed that the bears were in danger, records show.
“Their secrecy is off the charts,” Mr. Steiner said.
State legislators are investigating accusations that Ms. Palin and her husband pressured officials to fire a state trooper who had gone through a messy divorce with her sister, charges that she denies. But interviews make clear that the Palins draw few distinctions between the personal and the political.
Last summer State Representative John Harris, the Republican speaker of the House, picked up his phone and heard Mr. Palin’s voice. The governor’s husband sounded edgy. He said he was unhappy that Mr. Harris had hired John Bitney as his chief of staff, the speaker recalled. Mr. Bitney was a high school classmate of the Palins and had worked for Ms. Palin. But she fired Mr. Bitney after learning that he had fallen in love with another longtime friend.
“I understood from the call that Todd wasn’t happy with me hiring John and he’d like to see him not there,” Mr. Harris said.
“The Palin family gets upset at personal issues,” he added. “And at our level, they want to strike back.”
Through a campaign spokesman, Mr. Palin said he “did not recall” referring to Mr. Bitney in the conversation.
Laura Chase, the campaign manager during Ms. Palin’s first run for mayor in 1996, recalled the night the two women chatted about her ambitions.
“I said, ‘You know, Sarah, within 10 years you could be governor,’ ” Ms. Chase recalled. “She replied, ‘I want to be president.’ ”
Ms. Palin grew up in Wasilla, an old fur trader’s outpost and now a fast-growing exurb of Anchorage. The town sits in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, edged by jagged mountains and birch forests. In the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration took farmers from the Dust Bowl area and resettled them here; their Democratic allegiances defined the valley for half a century.
In the past three decades, socially conservative Oklahomans and Texans have flocked north to the oil fields of Alaska. They filled evangelical churches around Wasilla and revived the Republican Party. Many of these working-class residents formed the electoral backbone for Ms. Palin, who ran for mayor on a platform of gun rights, opposition to abortion and the ouster of the “complacent” old guard.
After winning the mayoral election in 1996, Ms. Palin presided over a city rapidly outgrowing itself. Septic tanks had begun to pollute lakes, and residential lots were carved willy-nilly out of the woods. She passed road and sewer bonds, cut property taxes but raised the sales tax.
And, her supporters say, she cleaned out the municipal closet, firing veteran officials to make way for her own team. “She had an agenda for change and for doing things differently,” said Judy Patrick, a City Council member at the time.
But careers were turned upside down. The mayor quickly fired the town’s museum director, John Cooper. Later, she sent an aide to the museum to talk to the three remaining employees. “He told us they only wanted two,” recalled Esther West, one of the three, “and we had to pick who was going to be laid off.” The three quit as one.
Ms. Palin cited budget difficulties for the museum cuts. Mr. Cooper thought differently, saying the museum had become a microcosm of class and cultural conflicts in town. “It represented that the town was becoming more progressive, and they didn’t want that,” he said.
Days later, Mr. Cooper recalled, a vocal conservative, Steve Stoll, sidled up to him. Mr. Stoll had supported Ms. Palin and had a long-running feud with Mr. Cooper. “He said: ‘Gotcha, Cooper,’ ” Mr. Cooper said.
Mr. Stoll did not recall that conversation, although he said he supported Ms. Palin’s campaign and was pleased when she fired Mr. Cooper.
In 1997, Ms. Palin fired the longtime city attorney, Richard Deuser, after he issued the stop-work order on a home being built by Don Showers, another of her campaign supporters.
Your attorney, Mr. Showers told Ms. Palin, is costing me lots of money.
“She told me she’d like to see him fired,” Mr. Showers recalled. “But she couldn’t do it herself because the City Council hires the city attorney.” Ms. Palin told him to write the council members to complain.
Meanwhile, Ms. Palin pushed the issue from the inside. “She started the ball rolling,” said Ms. Patrick, who also favored the firing. Mr. Deuser was soon replaced by Ken Jacobus, then the State Republican Party’s general counsel.
“Professionals were either forced out or fired,” Mr. Deuser said.
Ms. Palin ordered city employees not to talk to the press. And she used city money to buy a white Suburban for the mayor’s use — employees sarcastically called it the mayor-mobile.
The new mayor also tended carefully to her evangelical base. She appointed a pastor to the town planning board. And she began to eye the library. For years, social conservatives had pressed the library director to remove books they considered immoral.
Ms. Palin chose Talis Colberg, a borough assemblyman from the Matanuska valley, as her attorney general, provoking a bewildered question from the legal community: “Who?” Mr. Colberg, who did not return calls, moved from a one-room building in the valley to one of the most powerful offices in the state, supervising some 500 people.
“I called him and asked, ‘Do you know how to supervise people?’ ” said a family friend, Kathy Wells. “He said, ‘No, but I think I’ll get some help.’ ”
The Wasilla High School yearbook archive now doubles as a veritable directory of state government. Ms. Palin appointed Mr. Bitney, her former junior high school band-mate, as her legislative director and chose another classmate, Joe Austerman, to manage the economic development office for $82,908 a year. Mr. Austerman had established an Alaska franchise for Mailboxes Etc.
To her supporters — and with an 80 percent approval rating, she has plenty — Ms. Palin has lifted Alaska out of a mire of corruption. She gained the passage of a bill that tightens the rules covering lobbyists. And she rewrote the tax code to capture a greater share of oil and gas sale proceeds.
“Does anybody doubt that she’s a tough negotiator?” said State Representative Carl Gatto, Republican of Palmer.
Yet recent controversy has marred Ms. Palin’s reform credentials. In addition to the trooper investigation, lawmakers in April accused her of improperly culling thousands of e-mail addresses from a state database for a mass mailing to rally support for a policy initiative.
While Ms. Palin took office promising a more open government, her administration has battled to keep information secret. Her inner circle discussed the benefit of using private e-mail addresses. An assistant told her it appeared that such e-mail messages sent to a private address on a “personal device” like a BlackBerry “would be confidential and not subject to subpoena.”
THERE IS MUCH MORE, BUT TOO MUCH FOR THIS BLOG. GO TO THE N.Y. TIMES BLOG LINK AT THE TOP OF THIS POST.