Politics & Policy

Scrutiny on the Trail

Who talks about change? Who implements it?

St. Paul – The media is now applying an appropriate level of scrutiny to the political career of Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee. It remains an open question why they have not done the same thing to Barack Obama, who is, after all, a candidate for president.

Much of Palin’s record, as outlined in a 2006 opposition-research document from the campaign of her Democratic opponent for governor (obtained by Politico), is positive and impressive. As mayor, she fought against laws to shorten bar hours in Wasilla, and against unnecessary and arbitrary statewide laws limiting the hours of alcohol sales. She called for spending reductions and a hiring freeze in state government. She helped keep crisis-pregnancy centers — which provide support for women who might otherwise feel forced into having abortions — open by providing very modest city funding.

Conservatives should not overlook Sarah Palin’s faults. As mayor of Wasilla, Palin went to her state’s senators, congressmen, and state legislators with hat in hand. She asked for earmarks to build sewers and shelters in her town. As governor, she originally supported Alaska’s controversial Bridge to Nowhere. She would finally scrap the bridge when conservatives nationally highlighted it in their indictment of congressional earmarking. It is highly unusual for mayors and governors to turn down federal money on principle when congressmen and senators are willing to provide it. But Palin’s late conversion to the cause might still disappoint some fiscal conservatives.

Palin was also once accused of receiving two faxes in her city-hall office from the designer of a logo for her unsuccessful 2002 bid for lieutenant governor (of course, it is not really possible to block a fax). She was also accused of arranging a campaign trip from her city office, and of having an assistant take care of printing up her campaign Thank You notes while on the city clock.

But the most impressive part of Palin’s resumé, and the sharpest contrast with Obama’s, is how she has taken on Alaska Republicans, fighting against political corruption in her own party and taking on some of the biggest names in the state. She may not have as much time in elected office as Obama, but Palin at least has a reform resumé, something that Obama cannot legitimately claim.

Facing an environment much like Chicago — corrupt, one-party rule, dominated by long-entrenched incumbents and special interests — Palin has rocked the boat. This year, the powerful 18-term Republican congressman Don Young has been under investigation for gifts he may have taken from VECO, a corrupt and now-defunct oil services firm whose CEO had bribed several state legislators. Palin did not just endorse Young’s primary challenger, but she actually surprised and delighted attendees of the state party convention by announcing the challenge there for the first time.

This alone is more than anyone can say about Obama, who has never challenged the corruption of his city and has frequently backed its perpetrators. He has demonstrated a craven willingness to endorse anyone favored by Mayor Richard M. Daley, no matter how crooked or damaging to the city. Obama’s record has frequently placed him in opposition to the bipartisan reformers who have tried to clean up Chicago’s massive and systemic corruption problem. He endorsed Daley last year and in 2006 he endorsed Todd Stroger, whose cronyism and machine politics are well-documented in the Chicago press. In the 2006 primary, Obama endorsed Dorothy Tillman, an Alderman who pulled a gun on her colleagues during a redistricting hearing, and who (as was explained to me only recently) had in fact become a Daley ally out of necessity after opposing him earlier in her career.

Palin, in contrast, has fought Republicans when necessary. In 2004, she stuck her neck out when she backed Mike Miller in his primary challenge to Republican senator Lisa Murkowski. The moderate Murkowski’s appointment by her own father, Gov. Frank Murkowski, had broken the latter’s trust with voters, which he never regained. Conservatives cried nepotism. Miller lost that race, but two years later, Palin would challenge and defeat Gov. Murkowski by a 30-point margin. His administration was by then scarred with scandal — his chief of staff was forced to plead guilty for $69,000 in illegal in-kind help from VECO in the governor’s campaign.

Palin also clashed with Randy Ruedrich, chairman of the state Republican party, and forced him off the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, where she served as ethics chair. She also tried, unsuccessfully, to have him replaced in his party position. Palin accused Ruedrich of seeking reimbursement from the state for partisan political activity. He had also colluded with energy companies that he was supposed to be regulating on the commission, leaking a confidential commission memo to them and at times acting like their unofficial spokesman in interviews and meetings with communities.

The Anchorage Daily News later reported how the issue was resolved: “[W]hen Ruedrich settled state ethics charges June 22 [2004] by paying a record $12,000 civil fine and admitting wrongdoing, Palin said she finally felt some measure of vindication for bucking Ruedrich and members of her party.”

The Democrats’ 63-page document on Palin’s experience as an executive contains none of the self-dealing that characterizes Sen. Barack Obama’s legislative career. Both in Illinois and in Washington, Obama has used his position to cosponsor legislation that rained millions of dollars upon Tony Rezko and his other major donors in the slum-development business, to obtain state grants for his private law clients, and to earmark funds for government contractors who donated money to his campaigns and even to his wife’s employer, which had just given her an annual $200,000 raise.

By way of contrast, Mayor Palin once tried to get the Wasilla city council to cut her own pay, because she had opposed and voted against a $4,000 mayoral pay raise when she served on the council.

Palin has a record. She has sided with reformers and even taken on her own former allies if they turn out to deserve it (Gov. Murkowski, for example, had once given her an appointment). It is certainly possible that she has done such things from ulterior motives. And she could have gone further, too — say, by finding and championing a serious candidate (if one exists) to run against the recently exposed and indicted Senate Republican Ted Stevens, who was until recently the biggest and most popular politician in the state aside from Palin.

But at least Palin did something about the corruption in her state and in her party. That’s a lot more than Barack Obama can say of his career in Chicago.

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