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Sarah's Way--or the Highway | The Nation

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Sarah's Way--or the Highway

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The idea that Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is experienced, ethical and wise would be laughable if it weren't so alarming, and millions have fallen for the fable. In truth, the pretty woman's story is not so pretty.

About the Author

Barbara Koeppel
Barbara Koeppel is a Washington-based investigative reporter.

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While a majority of Alaskans are thrilled their local beauty queen is center stage, some are horrified.

Her populist persona--the "just plain hockey mom"--is preposterous, her notion of decency defective, her ambition unbridled, her compassion counterfeit, her actions extreme, her intelligence limited and her judgment flawed.

Fearing retribution, only one of the more than twenty elected state and city officials, lawyers, doctors, health administrators, librarians, clergy and just plain residents I interviewed while in Alaska and over the phone agreed to be named.

"It's Sarah's way or the highway," claim many who've worked with her. As one state representative confided to me, "the public doesn't know the real Sarah Palin."

After elected mayor of Wasilla in 1996, one of Palin's first victims was Irl Stambaugh, the longtime police chief who opposed her NRA-backed plan to allow concealed guns. Then, too, he wanted to close the bars at 2 am, instead of 5 am, due to the high number of alcohol-related road accidents. But as the bar owners and NRA were among her base, Palin axed him. She then installed her own chief, who, besides following her line on bars and guns, slapped a charge of $300 to $1,200 on rape victims for medical tests for injuries and sexually transmitted diseases--fees previously covered by the city. Since medical staff at the same time also offered morning-after pills to rape victims, this was anathema to Palin's anti-abortion agenda. Outraged, then-Democratic Governor Tony Knowles pushed through a bill banning her tactics, and the tests were once again free.

Other victims are now well known, like Mary Ellen Baker, the librarian who wouldn't ban the books that offended Palin. Originally fired along with other city department heads who backed Palin's mayoral opponent, Baker (also president of Alaska's Library Association), was reinstated because several hundred residents protested the sacking. But, according to a librarian who knows Baker, Palin met with her several times, pressuring her to remove books from the shelves--among which was Pastor, I Am Gay by Howard Bess, an American Baptist minister in Wasilla. Baker finally resigned in 1999 and moved away. The librarian friend says Baker is keeping silent: "Why wouldn't she? The period was so painful that after she left her job, she had a breakdown."

Then there's Dr. Susan Lamagie, an obstetrician who practices in Wasilla and delivered Palin's first two children. She also performed abortions at what was then called Valley Hospital. While Palin was on Wasilla's City Council, members of her church, the Wasilla Assembly of God, and its minister, picketed Lamagie's office. Because the doctor held her ground, the group ousted the hospital board and installed a new one, whose first act was to ban abortions. Lamagie and Howard Bess organized a group that sued the hospital in a case that went to Alaska's Supreme Court, which ruled the hospital had to allow abortions, as before.

Palin's claims that she's a cost-cutter and corruption cop are equally crazy, since she hiked the state budget by 20 percent in the less than two years since becoming governor.

But it's not all smoke and mirrors: Palin did slash some funds. She vetoed $150,000 for the Fairbanks Catholic Community Counseling and Adoption Services, $3.5 million to build a daycare facility and student housing for unemployed Alaska Natives, $500,000 for the Safe Harbor Muldoon Housing for Homeless Families and People with Disabilities, and eliminated funds for the Fairbanks Community Food Bank.

And in a state with one of the highest drug and alcohol rates in the United States, she killed funds for a substance abuse facility and an education and prevention program for youths in a northwest Alaska village, as well as for addiction rehabilitation services.

Then there's her record on health, another alleged Palin priority. State Senator Bill Wielechowski says, "We sponsored a bill to improve children's health care, since we're forty-seventh in the US in terms of the services we offer. Had Palin supported it, the Republican-controlled House would have approved it. But she refused and the bill died."

Flip-flops are another Palin specialty, though you'll hear zip from GOP fans who dissed candidate John Kerry for similar misdemeanors in 2004. There's the now well-known story of the "bridge to nowhere" (from the city of Ketchikan to the island of Gravina), that she promised Ketchikans she would back when she ran for governor in 2005. In the same year, Congress earmarked hundreds of millions for two Alaskan bridges to nowhere, but reversed itself in 2006, when the deals became a national poster for pork. However, the cash still landed in Alaska, and Palin, now wearing the maverick's mantle, says she abhors earmarks and has shunned the money. In fact, she kept the roughly $230 million and, according to officials, used it for other transport projects. Only about $50 million remains unspent.

What also remains of the affair is a 3.2-mile, $25 million access road to nowhere (which would have connected to the bridge), on which construction continues.

Critics also point to her unfettered drive. Until she was mayor, Wasilla and the nearby town of Palmer successfully shared a regional dispatch center located in Palmer for state troopers and emergency services in the region. Unknown to Palmer officials, she lobbied Washington for funds to build a second center in Wasilla. The Palmer "partners" learned of the move only when she announced it in the press. "It was completely redundant, said one Palmer official, "just a notch in Palin's belt."

Then there's her environmental myopia. A Palmer borough assemblyman told me Palin courted development in any form, with no city planning or zoning, mainly by removing business property taxes. Thus, big box stores flocked to Wasilla and Park Highway, which runs through the town (population 4,600 when Palin became mayor), is one long strip mall; through the sales tax the stores collected, Wasilla pocketed the huge revenues Palin lusted after. Although Wasilla's city council introduced the tax before she was mayor, she raised it--and it applies to most everything except medicine.

The new growth spells problems. The city's sanitation capacity is stretched since the sewage system, faulty even when built, is overwhelmed, says a former Palmer city official. Effluent is piped to the sewage plant from which it is pumped into a large field, and many residents worry the liquid is leaching into the groundwater. Thus candidate Palin's promise of a waste treatment plant evaporated in favor of a sports complex. "Sewage treatment plants aren't sexy, but hockey rinks are," said the Palmer official.

As for her pipeline--the one that, if actually built, will "make the US energy-independent"--the midwest may never get the gas she promised in her acceptance speech. One state oil and gas expert in Anchorage told me that, since the 1,200 mile structure will end in Canada's oil-rich Alberta province, the oil and gas industry there could use the gas for the energy it needs to extract its 170 billion barrels of oil--which it will sell it to the highest bidder anywhere in the world.

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