ANCHORAGE — Up here in Alaska, wildlife metaphors tend to be as abundant as their flesh-and-blood counterparts, and Gov. Sarah Palin has helped herself to them generously in explaining why she's stepping down today, barely halfway through her term.
She didn't want the state to be stuck with a "lame duck" chief executive, she said. She could hang around the Statehouse and go with the flow, she allowed, but "only dead fish go with the flow."
Palin's departure -- she's officially handing over power to Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell at a community picnic in Fairbanks -- has left many Alaskans largely confused. And state legislators are scrambling to convene a special session to recover $28.6 million in federal energy funds that Palin rejected as one of her parting salutes to independence from Washington.
Only a year ago she was Alaska's youngest-ever governor, riding a nearly unprecedented wave of popularity. But Palin has weathered stinging criticism across the state since her July 3 resignation announcement.
"In a democracy, politicians ask for the voters' trust. To violate that trust by quitting in midstream suggests that for Palin, the voters -- and more broadly, the citizens of Alaska -- simply don't count," University of Alaska history professor Steve Haycox wrote Friday in the Anchorage Daily News.
Supporters are struggling to improve on Palin's explanations: frustration over unfounded ethics complaints and a desire to "effect change" from outside government were among those she cited in her somewhat disjointed announcement -- along with the desire not to be a lame duck or dead fish. Critics see her early departure as a bid to marshal money and connections for a run for higher office.
"I think it's 100% clear that the governor's interested in national politics," said Democratic state Rep. Les Gara. "Half the press releases she issued this year had to do with federal issues, not state issues, and I'm assuming if she thinks she has a chance to run for president, that's what she's hoping for."
That ambition, suggested one of Palin's allies, made her a target in Alaska after her failed 2008 vice presidential bid, especially among those who opposed the governor's moves to increase oil production taxes and champion a gas pipeline independent of two of the North Slope's major producers.
"There was certainly a significant group of people who saw her as a potential threat in the future and wanted to do what they could to topple her, lest she become a major player, not necessarily in running for national office, but locally," Republican state Sen. Fred Dyson said.
"And then I think there were some people who were jealous," Dyson said. "Maybe the Cinderella and the ugly stepsisters syndrome, where they think, 'Here I've been working on public policy for years, and [Palin] shows up from the bushes and gets to run for national office.' "
The governor has had an unhappy reunion with the Alaska Legislature since her return from the campaign trail in November.
Her nominee for attorney general, National Rifle Assn. board member Wayne Anthony Ross, in April became the first in state history to be rejected by the Legislature. And lawmakers complained that Palin was making national trips -- addressing an antiabortion group in Indiana in April, flying to New York to commemorate Alaska's 50th year of statehood in June -- while showing little enthusiasm for state business.
"When she came back, she had a very limited interest in the day-to-day state problems we were all working on," Gara said. "Issues like healthcare, education reform, that require you to roll up your sleeves and pay attention to details and aren't very sexy -- she never seemed very interested."
Legislators on both sides of the aisle were outraged when Palin threatened to veto about a third of the $900 million in federal stimulus money offered to Alaska. She wound up backing down, but declined $28.6 million offered for energy conservation and weatherization.
Palin said that taking the money would require Alaskan communities that never have wanted building codes to adopt them. Republican state Rep. Mike Hawker countered that most mortgage lenders already required the kind of energy standard sought in the federal stimulus package.
"She was looking for something to save face with, and found something she could veto and at least lay a claim as to why she vetoed it," he said.
"I found her very disengaged from the entire [legislative] process," Hawker said. "Clearly, she just did not seem to have any interest in the daily business of government. It's kind of like that World War I ditty: 'How do you get 'em down on the farm once they've seen the lights of gay Paris?' "