Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has introduced her family to the nation as small-town common folk since she burst onto the scene as the surprise pick for the Republican vice-presidential nominee last month. A check of financial records, though, shows the Palins live anything but a common life when compared with their fellow residents of their hometown of Wasilla.
Their combined income of nearly a quarter-million dollars last year was five times the median household income for Wasilla’s 7,000 residents. They own a single-engine plane, two boats, two personal watercraft and a half-million-dollar, custom-built home on a lake that is worth three times the average of other homes in town.
For the future, they also have a 401(k) retirement account compliments of Todd Palin’s years as an engineer with oil giant BP.
“Gov. Palin’s story is emblematic of the American dream,” McCain campaign spokesman Ben Porritt said.
The Palins have been hugely successful by most standards in both their public and their private lives, according to the records.
“As a person, she’s consistent, honest and warm,” said Cheryl Metiva, executive director of the chamber of commerce in the Palins’ hometown of Wasilla. “As a politician, she’s focused, direct and clear. And she’s done a tremendous job of balancing her family life and with her public duties.
“You underestimate her at your peril,” she said.
The couple’s house was appraised this year at $552,100, which, according to Alaska magazine, was designed and built by Mr. Palin.
Mr. Palin, known in Alaska as the “First Dude,” is a longtime commercial fisherman who maintains a highly sought-after commercial-fishing permit that has been handed down in his family from generation to generation. A native of Dillingham, Alaska, his mother is one-quarter Yup’ik Eskimo and his maternal grandmother is a member of the Curyung tribe, which is the source of the permit.
“Hard work and principled convictions have allowed her to catapult to being the most popular governor in America,” Mr. Porritt said of the Republican candidate.
“As a mayor, governor and mother of five, she stuck to her principles and found success,” he said, adding that a McCain-Palin administration would establish policies and goals to “provide a transparent and efficient government that aids taxpayers to follow the same pathway of success.”
But it has also provided fodder for numerous public attacks on the Alaska governor, questioning her competence and experience, along with her family and lifestyle. She has faced rising criticism in the press, including conservative commentators who have expressed doubts about her ability to serve as vice president.
In a state known as “The Last Frontier,” where only about 1 percent of the land is privately owned and the rest is controlled by a distrusted federal bureaucracy, however, Mrs. Palin enjoys a near 90 percent approval rating and more property than nearly all her neighbors.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain’s running mate lives with her husband and their five children - Track, 19; Bristol, 17; Willow, 14; Piper, 7; and Trig, 4 months - in a two-story house built in 2002 and located on more than 2 acres overlooking Lucile Lake in Matanuska Susitna County, about 40 miles north of Anchorage.
The couple also own four lakeside parcels, described in county records as “recreation” sites. They encompass 35 acres of forest along Trapper Creek near Safari Lake, north of Wasilla, and were appraised this year at $102,700.
The total tax bill on the couple’s five properties, according to the records, was $7,662. The Palins reported no debts in disclosure documents filed by the governor other than the mortgage on their home.
State records also show that Mr. Palin has a pilot’s license, owns a 320-series Piper single-engine airplane and two boats, a 22-foot Pacific Skiff fishing boat and a 22-foot homemade aluminum fishing boat. He also owns two Bombardier personal watercraft, valued at about $7,000.
But as Alaska’s first female governor, who told Congress “thanks but no thanks” to the notorious “bridge to nowhere” project derided nationally as an example of pork-barrel spending, Mrs. Palin has shown she is capable of eschewing her success to connect with voters.
“Sarah Palin is a very goal-oriented person who has been very successful in all that she has tried,” Wasilla’s current mayor, Dianne Keller, told The Washington Times. “As the mayor here for six years and a member of the City Council before that, her constituents were her neighbors and she knew the buck stopped with her.
“She showed her ability to put together a strong, nonpartisan team of advisers to get the job done,” said Mrs. Keller, who first was appointed to the Wasilla City Council in 1996 and elected as mayor in 2002. “She learned, as did I, that you go to the grocery store, the school and to the post office with your constituents. She may have more executive experience than anybody else on the ticket.”
In keeping with the small-town theme, Mr. McCain and Mrs. Palin began their post-convention tour of battleground states on Friday in Cedarburg, Wis., a town of 11,056, and the Alaska governor promptly ordered a large scoop of moose tracks - vanilla ice cream with peanut-butter cups and fudge, served in a waffle cone.
It would come as no surprise that during her recent gubernatorial race, Mrs. Palin - a proud member of the National Rifle Association - announced during a debate that her favorite meal was “moose stew, after a day of snow machining.”
After Mrs. Palin’s election as governor in 2006, Mr. Palin took a cut in his $120,000 annual pay as an engineer at BP in Prudhoe Bay to be to be an oil production operator at $46,790 a year. The move was part of an effort to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest with big oil and to spend more time with his children as his wife went about the business of being governor.
Mrs. Palin had been a chairwoman of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Mr. Palin, according to his wife’s state financial disclosure forms, also has participated for several years in a 401(k) plan with BP and a pre-1996 SARSEP IRA pension plan through Smith Barney in his fishing business, both of which permit contributions to be made through employee salary reductions. He relies mainly on mutual funds and exchange traded funds to guarantee his returns, the records show, and maintains a diversified portfolio.
Last year, Mrs. Palin received $125,000 as governor and Mr. Palin, an oil production operator and commercial fisherman, earned $93,000, along with $22,500 as a professional snow-machine racer.
Mrs. Palin was elected to the Wasilla City Council in 1992 and won the major’s job in 1996, serving six years before being term-limited.
In addition to being a mayor and raising four children at the time, Mrs. Palin and her husband found time in 2004 to help start a business venture in Wasilla - part-owners of a car wash.
According to the Alaska Division of Corporations, Business and Professional Licensing, the Palins were partners in the Anchorage Car Wash, each holding a 20 percent share of the business - although Mrs. Palin failed to report their involvement in disclosure forms required in Alaska for gubernatorial candidates and it was later dissolved.
In February 2007, state licensing officials said in a letter to the Palins’ business partners, Ray and Carolin Wells of Anchorage, that the business had “not filed its biennial report and/or paid its biennial fees,” which were more than a year overdue. The warning came on State of Alaska letterhead, which carried Mrs. Palin’s name at the top, next to the state seal.
Two months later, the state issued a “certificate of involuntary dissolution” because of the car wash’s failure to file its report and pay state licensing fees.
One of the coupe’s lakeside properties, according to the county records, was jointly owned by the Palins and Scott and Debbie Richter, who also were business partners.
Mrs. Richter served as treasurer of Mrs. Palin’s gubernatorial campaign and her inaugural committee and later was named to head the Permanent Fund Dividend Division at the Alaska Department of Revenue, which allocates oil revenues to Alaska residents.
The Richters have since divorced and the property is now jointly owned by the Palins and Mr. Richter, according to the record.
Mr. Palin finished fourth in February in the 2,000-mile “Tesoro Iron Dog” race - the world’s longest and most grueling snow-machine competition - despite breaking his arm after a 60-miles-per-hour crash 400 miles short of the finish line. The four-time race champion was thrown 70 feet from his Arctic Cat machine and had to be hospitalized, but only after crossing the finish line.
“These are big boys; they make their own decisions,” Mrs. Palin said as she waited for her husband to cross the finish line. “They’re hard-core Alaskans doing hard-core adventures. I totally support him, and I totally support the race. I love it. Going 400 miles with a broken arm, now that’s impressive.
“If there’s any way he can finish the race,” she said, “he’s going to finish it.”
The Iron Dog race wasn’t the first time Mr. Palin tested his abilities or his work ethic. The quarter Yup’ik Eskimo has spent more than 20 years working the oil fields on Alaska’s North Slope, along with duty as a commercial fisherman at the Bristol Bay Salmon Fishery on the Nushagak River in his hometown of Dillingham - two of the state’s most physically demanding industries.
But the governor also is no stranger to adversity and determination. She helped her high school basketball team win the state’s small school championship in 1982 by sinking a critical free throw in the final seconds of a game despite an ankle stress fracture.
Mrs. Palin, a marathon runner whose intensity and tough play earned her the high school nickname “Sarah Barracuda,” sometimes went moose hunting with her father before school and found time in 1984 to finish second in the Miss Alaska beauty pageant, where she won a college scholarship and the “Miss Congeniality” contest.
The couple met at Wasilla High School and eloped in 1988 because they had no money for a wedding.