By John Longenbaugh
My Mother lives in Juneau, Alaska, in a house that has a great view of two things: the Gastineau Channel, and the Governor’s Mansion on the street below. She’s lived in Alaska since 1963 and is a political junkie, so you can see why she was the first person I called when I heard the news about McCain choosing Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as her running mate for what she calls a “gasp and gossip.”
(As it turns out, this is the second call she’s had about Alaskan politics in the last couple of weeks. A writer from the New Yorker who’s working on a piece called her because he’d been told she was an essential source. “I was so startled. I told him I wasn’t doing anything in Alaska politics and all I could do was give him my opinion.” Well, if her opinion’s good enough for the New Yorker, it’s good enough for me.)Alaska’s a huge state with a small population. In a small town like Juneau, the state capitol, gossip about state politics is omnipresent, and everyone knows at least something about everyone else’s business.
So what does Mom think of her neighbor? She likes regularly seeing the Governor out with her kids. “She had a pair of halibut buoys strung from a tree for the kids to play on, which I thought was sweet. Earlier this week I saw her out walking with three of them. Little Piper who’s only five was trying to go up the hill on her bike, but she couldn’t get any traction and kept falling over. Sarah was there with the baby, helping Piper along, and the teenage daughter was standing up the hill looking embarrassed. It was a classic mom and kids scenario.”
But overall in the last few months she’s seen less of Palin, who’s moved most of her operations up to Anchorage, the biggest city in Alaska and a place much friendlier to the sort of conservative pro-business pro-drilling stance that’s marked her tenure as governor. “She had started off by telling her Commissioners that none of them had to live in Juneau, which makes Juneauites nervous. We’re always convinced that they’re going to try and move the State Capitol again.”
While she was initially delighted that Palin was able to topple old-time Republican Frank Murkowski in the primary in 2006, she said that Palin’s “ethics” stance soon enough gave way to business as usual. “I’m afraid the firing of the Safety Commissioner has changed a lot of people’s minds.” She’s referring to the current investigation of Palin on ethics charges for firing Walter Monaghan, the Commissioner of Public Safety, allegedly because he refused to fire her sister’s ex-husband, a State Trooper, with whom she is in the middle of a bitter custody dispute. “Trying to get your sister’s ex-husband fired from the troopers isn’t one of those complicated issues,” she says. “Unlike some of the corruption allegations around [Senator] Stevens or [Representative] Young, most people can easily follow Palin’s case.” If firing a Commissioner because he won’t fire your brother-in-law seems weirdly petty for a politician, it’s not the first time she’s been accused of such behavior; one of her first acts as Mayor of the tiny Alaskan town of Wasilla was to fire a librarian against whom she apparently had a personal grudge.
Mom also tosses some cold water on Palin’s claim to being a “maverick” who shook up the party establishment when she was Mayor of Wasilla. “She likes to say that she stood up to the ‘old boy network’ in that town. What old boy network? And what exactly were they supposed to be doing?”
Mom acknowledges that Palin’s got high approval ratings, but in two years as governor, she says she has an undistinguished record. “She’s a lightweight,” Mom says dismissively. “She really hasn’t accomplished much of anything. There’s a company TransCanada who want to build the gas pipeline that’ll join up with the Canadian pipeline. But everybody was so annoyed with BP and Exxon for sitting on that gas for so long and not doing anything with it, that it was a pretty easy sell.”
When I ask her about Palin’s much-vaunted personal charm, she pauses. She’s been running a bookstore just a couple blocks away from the State Capitol building for over a decade, and she routinely has assorted state politicians in her shop who come by to chat and swap stories. (It’s that sort of bookstore.) “It always surprises me how personable and friendly so many of these people are, no matter how sleazy they might be in office. I don’t think she’s any different.”