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CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Leading by her instincts

Some say Palin's style is bold but lacking in follow-through -- and that she punishes those who dare say 'no.'

September 08, 2008|Tom Hamburger and Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writers

ANCHORAGE — Three years ago, when a Democratic state legislator tried to get bipartisan support for investigating charges of unethical conduct by a senior Republican official, only one member of the GOP answered the call: Sarah Palin.

Palin pursued the allegations -- as well as ethics charges against another top GOP official -- so vigorously that both had to leave office.

The public acclaim that followed helped propel her into the governor's office a year later with promises of reform and a more open, accountable government that would stand up to entrenched interests, including the big oil companies.

Yet a strange thing happened on the ethics issue once Palin became governor: She appeared to lose interest in completing the task of legislating comprehensive reform, some who supported the cleanup say.

The ethics bill she offered was so incomplete that its supporters had to undertake a significant rewrite. Moreover, when it came to building support for the bill, politicians in both parties say the new governor was often unaccountably absent from the fray.

And the seeming paradox of the ethics reform fight -- the combination of bold, even courageous readiness to take on a tough issue, coupled with a tendency to drift away from the nitty-gritty follow-through -- appears to be a recurrent theme of her record. Some lawmakers were so perplexed by her absence from a recent debate over sending oil rebate checks to Alaskans, for example, that they sported buttons at the state Capitol reading "Where's Sarah?"

A spokesman for the governor's office rejects such criticism. Bill McAllister, Palin's press secretary, said: "She has always been sufficiently informed and engaged. . . . In just two years in office, she accomplished more than most governors in their entire careers."

Even her critics credit Palin with a major role in pushing a state known for its relaxed approach to political ethics into a long-overdue housecleaning. And Palin has pushed hard to make oil companies pay more for access to the state's oil and gas reserves.

At the same time, she has fallen short of her proclaimed goals in other areas, especially concerning how she governs.

Her administration has not been marked by the transparency she promised: She invoked executive privilege in refusing to disclose information about one ethics case, and last week she moved to hobble a legislative inquiry into her role in the firing of a state public safety official.

Several legislators also say the governor's office is not a place for open debate: Palin does not tolerate much dissent, they say, sometimes cutting off relations with those deemed unhelpful or critical.

And she shows only marginal interest in crafting policy proposals and getting them passed, these critics say.

"Her ethics proposal had to be beefed up substantially with very basic additions," said state Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat who tried to get the governor's attention on ethics and other issues.

It lacked such long-needed provisions as language making legislators subject to prosecution for bribery if they exchanged votes for campaign contributions. To Gara and to some others, including Republicans who have often supported the governor, their experience on the ethics bill has proven disconcertingly similar to their experience with Palin on other issues.

"When it comes to the real work of crafting policy, she's often not there," Gara said. He acknowledged her broad accomplishments, but added: "I don't know if she's disinterested in details or not comfortable with them, but the bottom line is: She is not truly a hands-on governor."

During the recent debate over how much of the state's annual oil royalties to rebate to the state's citizens in the form of individual checks -- a highly sensitive issue in Alaska -- Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature said Palin took little part in the final stages of the discussion.

In interviews, more than a dozen Alaska politicians described Palin as a master at burnishing her image and building a popular base. She won statewide applause for selling the state jet, rejecting a big security entourage while driving herself, and firing the chef at the executive mansion.

No one questions her readiness to fight for cleaner government either. After she agreed in 2005 to help Democratic legislator Eric Croft get an independent investigation of state Atty. Gen. Gregg Renkes, she immediately incurred the wrath of the party establishment. The same thing had happened a year earlier, when she raised conflict-of-interest allegations against the state GOP chairman, Randy Ruedrich, who had sat with her on the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Palin was vindicated in both cases: Ruedrich resigned from the commission and paid a $12,000 ethics fine. The attorney general also resigned and received a reprimand.

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