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Ready for Her Close-Up

Why Alaska lawmakers, including some very upset Republicans, soured on Sarah Palin.

When Sarah Palin abruptly announced that she was planning to leave office, it was clear whom she blamed for her early exit. “I wish you'd hear MORE from the media of your state’s progress and how we tackle Outside interests--daily--SPECIAL interests that would stymie our state,” she said in her July 3 resignation speech, which she later posted on her website. Blasting her adversaries for paralyzing the Alaska governor’s office with charges of “frivolous ethics violations,” Palin and her representatives accused these unnamed “Outside interests” of harming her ability to govern after returning from the presidential campaign. “There were some complaints that were filed under pseudonyms that we believe came from down in the lower 48,” Palin’s lawyer, Thomas Van Flein, told Fox News. “There is a connection to the Democratic Party in the lower 48.”

There’s no doubt that Alaska’s state government has been paralyzed since Palin’s return, with anger and frustration emanating from both the governor’s office and the state legislature. All of Palin’s major bills failed to pass this year’s first 90-day session. But conversations with both Republican and Democratic legislators reveal that Palin’s inability to get anything done has little to do with the media attacks the Alaska governor claims drove her from office. The lawmakers say it has more to do with how national exposure changed her, moving her much further to the right than she had been and making her nearly impossible to work with. And state Republicans seem just as incensed about it as the Democrats.

Before Palin left the state to become John McCain’s running partner, she cultivated a good, if not exactly chummy, working relationship with Alaskan Democrats by pushing for an oil-tax increase and ethics reform. And state Republicans embraced Palin as the new face of a party that had been tarnished by scandal-ridden politicians like Ted Stevens. But upon returning to Juneau last fall, “she managed to alienate most of the 60 members of [the Alaska] House and Senate,” says Larry Persily, an aide to state Republican Representative Mike Hawker. “It wasn’t a matter of burning bridges--she blew them up.”

Palin made it clear that she wasn’t going to back away from the hard-line conservative ideology that had propelled her to national prominence--and her first high-profile target was the federal stimulus bill. Rehashing Republican talking points, she called it “an unsustainable, debt-ridden package” and threatened to veto a third of the $930 million in funds, including money for energy efficiency and social services. The move drew criticism from Palin’s Democratic opponents and her closest Republican allies in the state, but seemed to fit into her quest for national prominence. “The little bit of time she spent on policy, she devoted … to issues of national merit,” says Republican Representative Jay Ramras. “It wasn’t when but how she was going to throw Alaska under the bus.” But even as Palin grandstanded on her opposition to the funds and her willingness to withstand what she called “the slings and arrows” from both parties, she failed to communicate the specifics of her positions and dismissed lawmakers. When it came to legislative matters of any substance, “we got very little information from the state,” says Republican House Speaker Mike Chenault. “All I wanted was to know what her response was…. There were many times we couldn’t get a clear answer.” “We couldn’t get any decisions out of the governor,” says Persily, who spent two years working in the Alaska governor’s Washington office. “It had nothing to do with critics harping at her--it was a lack of attention to governing.”

Rather than hash things out with lawmakers, Palin repeatedly rebuffed their engagement efforts, most notably canceling a key April meeting with legislators. When she changed her mind at the last minute, the frustrated legislators declined to meet with her. Palin issued a press release blaming them for the meeting’s failure, prompting both the Senate president and the Republican House speaker to denounce her claims as completely false. “You don’t see that often--the Senate president calling the governor a liar,” says Persily. Then, instead of trying to repair fraying relations with the lawmakers, Palin left town to give a speech at an anti-abortion rally in Indiana. When Tom Wright, an aide to the Republican House speaker, informed her that leaving the state within the last days of the legislative session flouted standard practice, she marched into his office and berated him. “There was no malice on his part to take a dig at the governor,” says Chenault. “I take it very seriously for anyone to chew on one of my staff for any reason.” “It violated all common decency, all protocol,” says Ramras. “It just showed such disrespect.”

It wasn’t the only instance in which Palin ran roughshod over the legislature. In March, Democratic State Senator Kim Elton announced that he would be leaving to work for the Obama administration, and Democratic lawmakers nominated state Senator Beth Kerttula for the seat. Palin dithered for a month before striking down the appointment, claiming that the Democrats should have followed protocol by picking three candidates for the post. Then, she pushed forward two candidates who had only registered as Democrats weeks earlier--including one neophyte married to another legislator. When Senate Democrats struck down her second nominee, Palin declared that Democratic lawmakers were violating the state constitution by voting behind closed doors. “The arguments by Palin that [the vote] was somehow a secret cabal didn’t hold much water,” says Gregg Erickson, a longtime Alaska political analyst. “A lot of people speculate that she was punishing Juneau for the fact that Juneau didn’t vote for her.” The House Republicans could do little to help resolve the political deadlock. “It was an issue I had no control over--I didn’t wanted to be dragged into the melee,” says Chenault. By the time the governor and the Democrats compromised on a nominee, the Juneau district had been without representation for half the legislative session.

In another controversial move, and in the midst of the deadlock over the stimulus and the state Senate seat, Palin nominated Wayne Anthony Ross for attorney general. A board member of the National Rifle Association infamous for calling gays “degenerates” and accused of making derogatory remarks toward women, Ross was seen as someone who would--in Erickson’s words--“alienate a significant segment of the population” in the state, but “would clearly open pocketbooks of NRA folks around the country.” Palin, for her part, seemed to be more interested in the kind of credibility Ross could give her among national Republicans than in actually getting him confirmed. In picking such a controversial nominee, Palin should have stepped up to defend him, says Ramras, who had supported Ross’s candidacy. But by mid-April, Palin had little will to do so, and the legislature rejected the appointment--the first time in Alaska’s history that a head of state failed confirmation. “He was voted down, and she blamed all of us,” says Ramras. “She’s perfected victim psychology.”

Of course, the barrage of ethics complaints filed against the governor exacerbated in-house tensions and probably served as a distraction. But Juneau's state of utter dysfunction wasn’t due to nefarious Democratic operatives who had crept up from the lower 48 to sabotage Palin; it was Palin’s national ambitions that were primarily responsible for her undoing.

Traveling to Fairbanks to sign a gun-rights bill a week after she announced her resignation, Palin didn’t bother contacting local officials, “but she did contact a conservative talk-radio host,” says Ramras. Surrounded by photographers, Palin defended her resignation on the radio show, “Firearms Friday.” “I’m not cut out to play that game that a lot of politicians are,” the governor told listeners. She couldn’t have been more on target.

Suzy Khimm is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.