National image of Palin isn't what Alaska knows

JUNEAU, Alaska --- With Gov. Sarah Palin a newcomer to the national political scene, the race is on among both Republicans and Democrats to frame the image of the Republican candidate for vice president.


The picture they're getting from both sides isn't always the one Alaskans have.

Most Americans had barely heard of Mrs. Palin's selection when Barack Obama's campaign accused her of being in the pocket of "Big Oil." That would likely come as a surprise to Alaskans who have followed the news for the past several years as Mrs. Palin feuded with Big Oil.

"It just sounded silly, didn't it?" asked Republican convention delegate Bob Lynn, a state representative from Anchorage.

In Alaska, Mrs. Palin is known for fighting a sometimes lonely battle against the corrupting influence of oil money in the Alaska Republican Party. She also battled the oil companies to win a bigger share of the state's oil wealth and get work started on a natural gas pipeline.

The oil industry has spent millions fighting Mrs. Palin, who successfully worked with a coalition of Democrats and some Republicans to overcome state GOP leaders allied with the oil industry. The result has been billions of dollars flowing into state's coffers instead of those of the companies.

That's come despite bribes paid by oil field services company VECO Corp. to several legislators, including the representative from Mrs. Palin's hometown -- Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla.

IMMEDIATELY AFTER Mrs. Palin's nomination, Fox News reported that Mrs. Palin had "reformed" state taxes in addition to spending, stances likely to boost her stature among Republicans who might think "reformed" meant "lowered." In Alaska, that reform meant dramatically raising oil taxes over the bitter opposition of top legislative leaders, radio talk show hosts and bloggers allied with the oil industry.

That tax increase enabled the state to boost spending, as state budgets have taken dramatic, and according to some fiscal conservatives on the left and right, unsustainable increases.

Mrs. Palin, however, sees that as getting the maximum return on the state's oil, a position mandated by the Alaska Constitution.

MRS. PALIN'S ADDITION to the Republican ticket is shoring up shaky support for presidential candidate John McCain among social conservatives, but stirring up fears among liberals.

Soon after her nomination, MSNBC host Keith Olbermann told viewers that Mrs. Palin was "fanatically anti-abortion." But Alaskans have seen a much more pragmatic approach on the issues than pundits have suggested.

Though her anti-abortion views are well-known, she hasn't pushed them in the Alaska Legislature, where there doesn't appear to be enough votes for tough new rules. Mrs. Palin also rejected calls for a special session on abortion, saying other issues, such as energy relief, needed to take precedence.

Similar pragmatism was shown on gay rights issues. She disappointed right-wing legislators hoping to pick a fight with the Alaska Supreme Court, which had mandated same-sex partners of government workers get employment benefits.

She said the bill challenging the court's ruling was unconstitutional and vetoed it. But she signed into law another bill opposed by gay and lesbian rights groups that asked voters whether they'd support a constitutional amendment to overturn the court's decision.

WITHIN A FEW DAYS of Mrs. Palin's selection for vice president, the New York Times reported that she had been a member in the 1990s of the Alaska Independence Party.

The AIP's late founder, Joe Vogler, had made numerous radical anti-government statements over the years, and the party's platform has called for Alaska to secede from the United States.

The AIP withdrew its claim that Mrs. Palin had once been a member but said that her husband, Todd, had been a member and that she had attended some events as a candidate.

In Alaska, the party became best known when popular Republican Wally Hickel used it as his vehicle to win the governorship again in 1990 in a three-way race. Mr. Hickel later backed Mrs. Palin in her race for governor.

THE WASHINGTON POST has reported that Mrs. Palin "slashed funding for teen moms" in the 2008 budget.

The story has a delicious irony, with Mrs. Palin to soon become the mother of a teen mom.

What actually happened was that Mrs. Palin cut $1.1 million from $5 million to help Anchorage's Covenant House expand. The transitional home for teen mothers received an increase of $3.9 million.

THE MCCAIN-PALIN campaign has been making some unfounded claims as well.

Several speakers at the GOP convention accused Mr. Obama as an Illinois state legislator of voting "present" instead of taking stands on tough issues.

They contrasted that with Mrs. Palin, who as a chief executive had to make decisions.

The Associated Press reported that Mr. Obama did vote "present" dozens of times, part of the thousands of votes he cast in the Illinois Legislature over eight years.

The news agency reported that was sometimes part of a strategy to encourage wavering legislators to vote "present" instead of "yes" on abortion measures when a "present" vote had the same effect as a "no" vote.

And Mrs. Palin herself has several times cast the gubernatorial equivalent of a "present" vote by allowing bills to become law without her signature.

One of those bills created new federally regulated Alaska driver's licenses, tracking all holders in a database.

A bill creating a prescription database so customers could be monitored no matter which pharmacy they used also became law without Mrs. Palin's signature.

Both bills had law enforcement at odds with civil libertarians, potentially putting Mrs. Palin in a difficult spot.

Pat Forgey covers state and federal government in Alaska's capital. Reach him at