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 Alaska Division of Agriculture, she appointed a high school classmate, Franci Havemeister, to the $95,000-a-year directorship. A former real estate agent, Havemeister cited her childhood love of cows as one of her qualifications for running the agency.
Havemeister was one of at least five classmates Palin hired, often at salaries far exceeding their private-sector wages.
When Palin had to cut the 2007 state budget, she avoided the frustrated legislators and mayors. Instead, she huddled with her budget director and her husband, Todd, an oil field worker, and vetoed millions of dollars of projects.
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Palin walks the national stage as a foe of “good old boys” politics and a champion for ethics reform. She draws big audiences and high approval ratings. And as the GOP vice presidential nominee, she points to her management experience while deriding Barack Obama and Joe Biden as speechmakers who never have run anything.
But a look at her record as mayor of Wasilla and then governor finds that her visceral style and penchant for attacking critics contrasts with her carefully crafted public image.
Throughout her 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, John McCain's running mate has many supporters. As 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.”
Interviews show that Palin runs an administration that puts a premium on loyalty and secrecy. Palin and her top officials sometimes use personal e-mail accounts for state business; dozens of e-mail messages 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-mails of state scientists who had examined the effect of global warming on polar bears. (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 Steiner that it would cost $468,784 to process his request.
When Steiner finally obtained the e-mails – through a records request – he discovered that state scientists had in fact agreed that the bears were in trouble, records show.
“Their secrecy is off the charts,” Steiner said.
Legislators are investigating accusations that Palin and her husband pressured officials to fire a state trooper who had gone through a divorce with her sister, which she denies. But interviews make clear that the Palins draw few distinctions between the personal and the political.
Many lawmakers contend that Palin is overly reliant on a tiny inner circle that leaves her isolated. She is often described by Democrats and Republicans alike as a leader missing in action. Since taking office in 2007, Palin has spent 312 nights at her Wasilla home, some 600 miles to the north of the governor's mansion in Juneau, according to state records.
Mayors, from the state's larger cities to tiny municipalities along the southeastern fjords, are even more frustrated. Often, their letters go unanswered and their pleas ignored, records and interviews show.
At an Alaska Municipal League gathering in Juneau, mayors swapped stories of the governor's remoteness. How many of you, someone asked, have tried to meet with her? Every hand went up, recalled Mayor Fred Shields of Haines. And how many met with her? Just a few hands rose. Palin soon walked in, delivered a few remarks, and departed for an anti-abortion rally.