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Postman on Politics

Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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September 2, 2008 1:06 PM

America gettting close-up view of Alaska politics

Posted by David Postman

There is a lot of chatter in the trans-continental Internet Tubes this morning about the Alaskan Independence Party and what role Gov. Sarah Palin has played with the group. The party is described as an Alaskan secessionist movement and sure comes off in most reports as a fringe group with right-wing tendencies.

Brendan Kiley - doing a bang-up job in Minneapolis - writes:

Coming from a family of southerners, I learned early on that “state’s rights” is code for opposition of integration and abortion.

But there’s no code in Alaska. The AIP is for state’s rights as in they want the state to secede from the nation. Well, they’re quick to say they really don’t want it to secede, but want a vote on that issue. And they want the federal government to give the state all the millions of acres of federal land in Alaska. And the party’s motto is “Alaska First - Alaska Always.” (John McCain’s motto is “Country First.”) AIPers may not like abortion or integration either. But that’s not what this party is about.

The former Alaskan in me was at first defensive about all the attention given the AIP and the view that it was some sort of frozen, northern nut roll. I was covering politics in Alaska in 1986 when AIP founder Joe Vogler ran for governor on the AIP ticket.

Vogler was colorful like Alaskans are meant to be. (Not angry and greedy as some of you may think.) Vogler was a gold miner who talked about his love of bulldozers like jockeys talk about race horses. His face was as craggily as a slice of the Brooks Range. He wore a Stetson fedora and kept a pistol tucked into the waist of his pants.

Vogler hated America. He said it had colonized Alaska and allowed environmentalists to destroy the Last Frontier. He always said he didn’t want to be buried in America so after he was murdered in 1993 his body was taken across the border to Yukon Territory and buried.

When Vogler ran for governor in ’86, though, his credentials as a colorful character were trumped by his running mate, lieutenant governor candidate Al Rowe. Rowe was as big as a bear; and as scary. He campaigned as a Bufurd Pusser-type with a 2-by-4 over one shoulder and a promise to use it to ensure that “miners go mine, loggers go log,” etc.

I remember Rowe coming into the Capitol press room one day with his trademark piece of lumber. He leaned it up against the wall while he was interviewed. Well, interviewed is too strong a word. Some questions were asked. Reporters would get a sort of gravelly grumbling in response that sounded like a threat even if the words couldn’t be understood.

It all makes for a political party that seems more to be laughed at than condemned. But here’s the thing about Alaska: The Alaskan Independence Party mattered. It even elected a governor once.

That was in 1990. Former Republican Gov. Wally Hickel quit the GOP and joined the AIP for a third party run for governor. He and his old coot running mate won.

But Hickel wasn’t a true believer. It was a party of convenience for him. He just needed a ticket to the general election for his self-financed run.

Hickel was a controversial governor. His administration was beset by bumbling executives he brought in. Hickel also talked about things you don’t normally hear from a governor, including the little man in his head who talked to him and his plan to mine asteroids.

It does seem Palin has history with the AIP.

Lynette Clark, the chairman of the AIP, tells ABC News that Palin and her husband Todd were members in 1994, even attending the 1994 statewide convention in Wasilla.

She was seen at least as remaining sympathetic to the cause even after being elected governor. In this video, an AIP official is briefing party members about Palin:

She’s a pretty good looking gal. There’s a joke goes around that we’re the coldest state with the hottest governor. And there’s a lot of talk about her moving up.

She was an AIP member before she got the job as a mayor of a small town. That was a non-partisan job. But to get along to go along, she eventually joined the Republican Party where she had all kinds of problems with their ethics. And I won’t go into that. So she also has about an 80 percent approval rating and is pretty well sympathetic ‘cuz of her former membership.

(UPDATE: From TPM, via, The Slog, McCain campaign says Palin was not registered with the AIP but her husband was.)

Palin also recorded a video to welcome AIP members to their 2008 convention in Fairbanks. She says she likes competition, including in politics, and that she shared the “party’s vision of upholding the constitution of our great state.”

None of this will raise an eyebrow in Alaska. Folks there won’t find it strange or controversial if Palin was a member of the AIP or issued a video taped welcome to them this year.

Let me give you a quick rundown of the governors in office while I was in Alaska. I got there at the tail end of Republican Jay Hammond’s term. He was a bush pilot and a poetic sort. He was immensely popular and served two terms.

He was replaced by Democrat Bill Sheffield, a former Sears salesman who got rich in the hotel business. He faced impeachment proceeding before the Legislature. He was not removed from office and ran for re-election. Voters had had enough, though, and he was defeated in the primary by Steve Cowper.

Cowper was a former Democratic legislator who at that time had a couple of bucks to his name. I recall his car was his most valuable asset when he first filed to run. He was governor when the Exxon Valdez cracked up in Prince William Sound. He was a pretty good governor, I think, but had little patience for the process of governing. He served just the one term and left the state.

Hickel came next. (See above.)

So the fact that Sarah Palin’s daughter is pregnant, and that the information was released to refute rumors that Palin had faked her own recent pregnancy, probably didn’t shock Alaskans.

Keep in mind, when a group of legislators were referred to as the “Corrupt Bastards Club” a few of the bright bulbs in the crowd began wearing baseball hats with the name emblazoned on them. (That may have made it easier for the FBI to find the bad guys.)

This is the place that allowed Congressman Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens to flourish in Washington, D.C. Stevens is under indictment. And while one McCain backer said on CNN last week that Palin stood up to Stevens - (which, I kid you not, he said qualified her to take on the Russians) - she actually has supported the very senior senator and was expected to soon endorse his re-election.

I can’t be too hard on Palin, though. The same thing that allowed her to become governor cleared the way for me to become a political reporter. Alaska is a place where doing something is often the only credential needed.

Alaska state Rep. Mike Doogan, an old friend and boss of mine, told me Friday he couldn’t say what Palin’s IQ was. But, as he said, that hadn’t been important. Stevens and Young are indicator species that show that being colorful isn’t enough to keep a politician out of trouble.

Sometimes I think Alaska politicians forget that lack of experience is not in of itself a qualification for public office.

As the Anchorage Daily News reported this morning:

The state has hired a private lawyer to represent Gov. Sarah Palin's office in the Legislature's investigation into the firing of former Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan. The lawyer already has challenged whether lawmakers even have authority to oversee the inquiry.

What’s important about this is that Palin’s new attorney seems to be saying something different than the governor had about cooperating fully with the investigation.

That sparked an exchange between the attorney, Thomas Van Flein, and Anchorage Sen. Hollis French, a Democrat overseeing investigator Steve Branchflower.

The Legislature has its own power of investigation, French wrote to Van Flein on Monday.

"Governor Palin has repeatedly stated that she has nothing to hide and that she and her administration will cooperate fully with this investigation. Is your client aware that you seem to be challenging the Legislature's jurisdiction?" French wrote.

As to witness statements, French said he had instructed Branchflower not to provide them. Colberg conducted a separate inquiry for the governor, and the governor can get statements from him, French noted.

"I think you will agree that it would be highly unusual for an investigator to share information with one of the targets of the investigation," French wrote. "I am unaware of any precedent for such an arrangement."

The back-and-forth quickly escalated.

"Our concern is that Hollis French turns into Ken Starr and uses public money to pursue a political vendetta rather than truly pursue an honest inquiry into an alleged ethics issue," Van Flein said in an interview

The appointment of Palin to the Republican ticket is giving the rest of America a big dose of Alaskana. And a lot of what people will see will be much more Northern Exposure than what the convention bureau up there would have us all believe.

I doubt that 18-year-old boys up there are all that different from here. But it’s up there where reporters are descending so they turn up stuff like the MySpace page for Palin’s soon-to-be son-in-law.

At least one local from Palin’s hometown thinks that running for vice president when your young daughter is pregnant is wrong; for would-be mother, grandmother and all of Alaska. The Daily News had this from Sherry Whitstine, a conservative blogger:

What kind of woman knowing all of this, knowing this is happening, would put her children in the position where the whole world, the whole nation, is going to see the uglies? It's just putting our dirty laundry out there.

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