Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sarah Palin is not such a small-town girl after all

By James Bennett
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 09/09/2008

It is clear that few in America, let alone Britain, have any idea what to make of Sarah Palin. The Republicans' vice-presidential candidate confounds the commentators because they don't understand the forces that shaped her in the remote state of Alaska.

John McCain and Sarah Palin
Thus, most coverage dwells on exotica - the moose shooting, her Eskimo husband - combined with befuddlement at how a woman can go from being mayor of a town of 9,000, to governor, to prospective VP within the space of a few years.
But, having worked with Alaskans, I know something of the challenge she has faced, and why - contrary to what Democrats think - it could make her a powerful figure in the White House.
The first myth to slay is that she is a political neophyte who has come from nowhere. In fact, she and her husband have, for decades, run a company in the highly politicised commercial fishing industry, where holding on to a licence requires considerable nous and networking skills.
Her rise from parent-teacher association to city council gave her a natural political base in her home town of Wasilla. Going on to become mayor was a natural progression. Wasilla's population of 9,000 would be a small town in Britain, and even in most American states.
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But Wasilla is the fifth-largest city in Alaska, which meant that Palin was an important player in state politics.
Her husband's status in the Yup'ik Eskimo tribe, of which he is a full, or "enrolled" member, connected her to another influential faction: the large and wealthy (because of their right to oil revenues) native tribes.
All of this gave her a base from which to launch her 2002 campaign for lieutenant (deputy) governor of Alaska.
She lost that, but collected a powerful enough following to be placated with a seat on, and subsequently the chairmanship of, the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which launched her into the politics of Alaska's energy industry.
Palin quickly realised that Alaska had the potential to become a much bigger player in global energy politics, a conviction that grew as the price of oil rose. Alaska had been in hock to oil companies since major production began in the mid-1970s.
As with most poor, distant places that suddenly receive great natural-resource wealth, the first generation of politicians were mesmerised by the magnificence of the crumbs falling from the table. Palin was the first of the next generation to realise that Alaska should have a place at that table.
Her first target was an absurd bureaucratic tangle that for 30 years had kept the state from exporting its gas to the other 48 states. She set an agenda that centred on three mutually supportive objectives: cleaning up state politics, building a new gas pipeline, and increasing the state's share of energy revenues.
This agenda, pursued throughout Palin's commission tenure, culminated in her run for governor in 2006. By this time, she had already begun rooting out corruption and making enemies, but also establishing her bona fides as a reformer.
With this base, she surprised many by steamrollering first the Republican incumbent governor, and second, the Democratic former governor, in the election.
Far from being a reprise of Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Palin was a clear-eyed politician who, from the day she took office, knew exactly what she had to do and whose toes she would step on to do it.
The surprise is not that she has been in office for such a short time but that she has succeeded in each of her objectives. She has exposed corruption; given the state a bigger share in Alaska's energy wealth; and negotiated a deal involving big corporate players, the US and Canadian governments, Canadian provincial governments, and native tribes - the result of which was a £13 billion deal to launch the pipeline and increase the amount of domestic energy available to consumers. This deal makes the charge of having "no international experience" particularly absurd.
In short, far from being a small-town mayor concerned with little more than traffic signs, she has been a major player in state politics for a decade, one who formulated an ambitious agenda and deftly implemented it against great odds.
Her sudden elevation to the vice-presidential slot on the Republican ticket shocked no one more than her enemies in Alaska, who have broken out into a cold sweat at the thought of Palin in Washington, guiding the Justice Department's anti-corruption teams through the labyrinths of Alaska's old-boy network.
It is no surprise that many of the charges laid against her have come from Alaska, as her enemies become more and more desperate to bring her down. John McCain was familiar with this track record and it is no doubt the principal reason that he chose her.
Focusing on the exotic trappings of Alaskan culture may make Palin seem a quaint and inexplicable choice. But understanding the real background of her steady rise in politics suggests that Barack Obama and Joe Biden are underestimating her badly. In this, they join two former Alaskan governors, a large number of cronies, and a trail of enemies extending back over a decade.
James Bennett is the author of 'The Anglosphere Challenge'
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