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As mayor, Palin used sharp elbows to transform small town

WASILLA, Alaska — The world arrived here more than a century ago with the gold rush and later the railroad. Yet one aspect of American life did not come to town until 1996, the year Sarah Palin ran for mayor and Wasilla got its first local lesson in wedge politics.

The traditional turning points that had decided municipal elections in this town of less than 7,000 people — Should we pave the dirt roads? Put in sewers? Which candidate is your hunting buddy? — seemed all but obsolete the year Palin, then 32, challenged the three-term incumbent, John C. Stein.

Anti-abortion fliers circulated. Palin played up her church work and her membership in the National Rifle Association. The state Republican Party, never involved in the past because city elections are nonpartisan, ran advertisements on Palin's behalf.

Two years after Newt Gingrich, then the Republican leader of Congress, helped draft the Contract With America, Palin and her passion for Republican ideology and religious faith overtook a town known for a wide libertarian streak and for helping start the Iditarod dog sled race.

"Sarah comes in with all this ideological stuff, and I was like, 'Whoa,' " said Stein, who lost the election. "But that got her elected: abortion, gun rights, term limits and the religious born-again thing. I'm not a churchgoing guy, and that was another issue: 'We will have our first Christian mayor.' "

"I thought, 'Holy cow, what's happening here? Does that mean she thinks I'm Jewish or Islamic?' " recalled Stein, who was raised Lutheran, and later went to work as the administrator for the city of Sitka in southeast Alaska. "The point was that she was a born-again Christian."

For all the admiration in Alaska for Palin, her rapid ascent from an activist in the PTA to the running mate of Sen. John McCain did not come without battle wounds. Her years in Wasilla, her first executive experience, reveal a mix of successes and stumbles, with Palin gaining support from the majority of residents for her drive, her faith and her accessibility but alienating others with what they said could be a polarizing single-mindedness.

Palin is widely praised for following through on campaign promises by cutting property taxes while improving roads and sewers and strengthening the police department.

Her supporters say she helped Wasilla evolve from a ridiculed backwater to fast-growing suburb. The city limits are filling quickly with big box stores, including a Target that is scheduled to open on Oct. 12, one of three opening statewide that day in the chain's Alaska debut.

But her critics say too much growth too quickly has made a mess of what not long ago was homesteaded farmland.

And for some, Palin's first months in office here were so jarring — and so alienating — that an effort was made to force a recall. About 100 people attended a meeting to discuss the effort, which was covered in the local press, but the idea was dropped.

Shortly after becoming mayor, former city officials and Wasilla residents said, Palin approached the town librarian about the possibility of banning some books, though she never followed through and it was unclear which books or passages were in question.

Ann Kilkenny, a Democrat who said she attended every City Council meeting in Palin's first year in office, said Palin brought up the idea of banning some books at a council meeting. "They were somehow morally or socially objectionable to her," Kilkenny said.

The librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, pledged to "resist all efforts at censorship," Kilkenny recalled. The mayor fired Emmons shortly after taking office but rescinded the termination after residents made a strong show of support. Emmons, who left her job and Wasilla a couple of years later, declined to comment for this article. In 1996, Palin suggested to the local paper, the Frontiersman, that the conversations about banning books were "rhetorical."

Emmons was not the only employee to leave. During her campaign, Palin appealed to voters who felt that city employees under Stein, who was not from Wasilla and had earned a degree in public administration at the University of Oregon, had been unresponsive and rigid regarding a new comprehensive development plan. In turn, some city employees expressed support for Stein in a campaign advertisement.

Once in office, Palin asked many of Stein's backers to resign — something virtually unheard of in Wasilla in past elections. The public works director, city planner, museum director and others were fired. The police chief, Irl Stambaugh, whose resignation Palin did not initially accept, was later fired outright.

Stambaugh lost a wrongful termination lawsuit against Palin. He did not respond to a request for an interview.

Palin also upended the town's traditional ways with a surprise edict: No one was to talk to the press without her permission.

"It was just things you don't ever associate with a small town," Victoria Naegele, then the managing editor of the Frontiersman, recalled of Palin's first year in office. "It was like we were warped into real politics instead of just 'Do you like Joe or Mary for the job?' It was a strange time."

Palin, her critics note, was also not always the fiscal watchdog she has since boasted to be. In her second term as mayor, she pushed for a half cent increase in the local sales tax to pay for a $15-million sports complex. The sports complex is popular and a minor league hockey team plays there now, but the city recently had to pay more than $1.3-million to settle a land ownership dispute over the site.

Palin also began annual trips to Washington to lobby for federal money for specific initiatives, including rail projects and a mental health center. Her running mate, McCain, has been an outspoken critic of these so-called earmarks, and as governor Palin has sounded more like him, vetoing tens of millions of dollars of local projects sought by state lawmakers.

Here in Wasilla, Palin is widely viewed as having had her hometown's best interests at heart when she pursued big projects or an overhaul of city taxes. By the time Palin ran for re-election three years later, most big wrinkles had been ironed out: She was returned to office by a bigger than 3 to 1 margin, 826 votes to 255.

Palin who had campaigned promising to cut her own salary, reduced it from about $68,000 to about $64,000, but she also hired a city administrator, John Cramer, adding a new salary to the payroll.

Critics said Republican leaders installed Cramer, who was closely tied to a powerful local state lawmaker, Lyda Green. Green, who is retiring this year as Senate president, later became one of Palin's biggest critics as governor. But tensions did ease eventually in Wasilla, and Cramer is given some of the credit, supporters and opponents of Palin said.

"When I first met Sarah I would say Sarah was a Republican, with the big R, and that's it," said Dave Chappel, Palin's deputy mayor for more than two years. "As she developed politically, she began to see beyond the R and look at the whole picture. She matured."

Just as Palin terminated employees on her way into office, she also let some go on the way out, including Cramer.

By the time Palin completed her second and final term, in 2002, her stepmother-in-law, Faye Palin, was running to succeed her. It seemed like a good idea, except that Faye Palin supported abortion rights and was registered as unaffiliated, not Republican, people who remember the race said. Sarah Palin sided instead with Dianne Keller, a religious conservative and an ally on the City Council. Keller won.

"That was interesting," Chappel said. "Faye lives up the street from me. I can't really say much about that."

As mayor, Palin used sharp elbows to transform small town 09/03/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 10, 2008 4:10pm]
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