WASILLA, Alaska — Sarah Palin kneels in the snow, cheerfully posing beside her bundled-up daughter, behind the caribou the mom just shot.
Maybe not your typical family photo. But that’s Alaska’s governor, who is not afraid to carry firearms or use them.
Republican nominee John McCain introduced the country to Palin as very much the woman in that photo: tough and loving, the ethics-protecting, belt-tightening mom who juggles family and her government job.
A visitor to her office can see Palin, a 44-year-old mother of five, as she coos to baby Trig and changes his diapers. Daughters Piper, Willow and Bristol stroll in and out, and crayon drawings are tucked beneath her glass desktop.
She switches back and forth between mother and governor without a blink. But details of her life emerging under the glare of national attention show she’s a complicated politician. She’s disarming and accessible for some, vindictive and hard toward others. She has many loyal friends, tremendous hometown support, and a few fierce enemies.
Her lawyer is scrambling to sidetrack an ethics investigation into whether she abused her power as governor to pressure officials to fire her sister’s ex-husband, a state trooper who had been disciplined for drinking beer in his patrol car, illegally shooting a moose and firing a Taser at his 11-year-old stepson.
McCain’s campaign boasts of her pork-cutting. But in her two years as governor, Alaska has requested nearly $750 million in special federal spending, by far the largest per-capita request in the nation.
Palin boasts of rejecting plans to build the “Bridge to Nowhere,” a $389 million bridge to an island with 50 residents. But she rejected the locally popular project only after it was ridiculed and Congress cut some of the funds. She hung onto $27 million to build the bridge’s approach road.
She is an opponent of government financing of sex-education programs in Alaska. When she announced last week that her 17-year-old unwed daughter, Bristol, was five months pregnant, she said having a baby would make her daughter “grow up faster than we had ever planned.”
Palin was born Sarah Louise Heath in Sandpoint, Idaho, and moved to Wasilla as an infant with her parents, Chuck Heath, a school teacher, and Sally Heath, a school secretary. Raised in a Pentecostal church, she has called herself “as pro-life as any candidate can be.”
Like many Alaskans and other rural Americans, Palin was raised hunting and fishing. She played flute in the junior high band and years later in a beauty pageant. In high school, Palin played basketball and ran cross country while leading a chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
She switched from junior colleges, private institutions and public schools first in Hawaii and later in Alaska and Idaho. At 20, Palin won Miss Wasilla and came in second at the 1984 Miss Alaska pageant, taking home the Miss Congeniality award.
Yes, she smoked pot. And yes, she inhaled. No, she does not support legalization.
After graduating from the University of Idaho with a degree in journalism, she covered hockey matches and basketball games for two Anchorage television stations.
She married her high school sweetheart, Todd, a North Slope oil field worker, and gave birth to their son, Track, less than eight months later. She worked for the Palin family’s fishing business.
Palin entered politics in 1992, running for City Council in Wasilla, population around 7,000. A dusty airstrip ran through the town, which had no police department.
Ten years later, after two terms on the council and two as mayor, Palin the sports fan had left her mark. The airstrip is a park, complete with skateboard ramps, BMX track, playground and an Armed Forces memorial. There’s a new hockey rink and sports center, and roads are lined with standard strip mall stores.
When Palin was elected mayor in 1996, she received 651 votes; the nine-year incumbent received 413.
She told the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman newspaper at the time, “I knew people agreed with my message of conservatism, but I didn’t know if that message would reach them.”
Palin promised to cut government. In office, part of her refashioning included a loyalty test in which she asked the city’s managers to resign unless they would work with her new administration.
Police Chief Irl Stambaugh, who supported Palin’s opponent, lasted several months before he was fired.
A federal judge in 2000 dismissed his wrongful termination lawsuit, saying the former police chief served at the mayor’s discretion.
Palin is a self-described “hockey mom,” a role other moms at the Wasilla rink say is like a soccer mom but more rugged. She needs that trait: Her baby has Down syndrome, and her oldest son heads to Iraq in a week as a soldier.
Her salary as governor is $125,000 a year. Her husband twice registered for the Alaskan Independence Party, a states’ rights group that wants to turn all federal lands in Alaska back to the state. He got about $40,000 last year for winning a 1,900-mile snowmachine race.
Last week when Palin was introduced to the nation, she was described as a straight shooter. But some of her positions and actions are more complex than they’ve been described, such as getting rid of the governor’s jet.
“That luxury jet was over the top. I put it on eBay,” she told cheering Republican delegates last week.
True, but she never sold it on eBay. State staffers had to broker a deal with a buyer.
Alaskans like Palin’s enthusiasm for more drilling for oil, and especially the $3,269 investment rebate and resource refund checks they’re going to receive from the state this month. Just about every Alaskan, including Palin, wants a natural gas pipeline built through the state.