When Sarah Palin compared herself to a pit bull last week at the Republican National Convention, most delegates laughed. Not Alaskans.
Mrs. Palin may be a newcomer to the national scene, but in her not-quite two years as governor, she’s built a reputation as a tough negotiator who’s willing to butt heads and make a few enemies in order to push through her agenda.
And her agenda is ambitious. Last month, she notched a win of historic proportions when the Alaska Legislature gave the go-ahead to a massive natural-gas pipeline project over the objections of the state’s leading oil companies and the Senate Republican leadership.
During the final two-hour debate on Aug. 1, Senate leaders described the vote as one of the biggest in the Legislature’s history. The 1,715-mile pipeline is estimated to cost as much as $30 billion.
“People who underestimate her are making a huge mistake,” said Ken Minesinger, a lawyer who has worked with the governor on oil and gas issues. “She’s really stood up to Big Oil in a way that her Republican predecessors had not, and as a result, real progress is being made for the first time on the natural-gas pipeline project, which will be the largest infrastructure project in North American history.”
The pipeline would transport natural gas from Alaska’s North Slope to Canadian and U.S. markets, a longtime dream of Alaskans. The question was whether the pipeline would be built by TransCanada and funded in part by the state — a plan favored by Mrs. Palin — or by the state’s leading oil producers, who already operate the oil pipeline.
During her 2006 campaign, Mrs. Palin ran on three major issues: bringing ethics reform, reducing spending, and getting a natural-gas pipeline approved. The ethics reform piece was the easiest, given that voters were already disgusted with a tax-relief package for oil producers approved by former Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski.
To win pipeline approval, however, she was going to need some Democrats on her side. She showed political savvy early on by appointing several Democrats to her Cabinet, notably Pat Galvin, whom she named the state’s commissioner of revenue, an influential post.
“She said when she was hiring for Cabinet positions that political party didn’t enter into it,” said Mr. Galvin, a lawyer and former official in the state’s Department of Natural Resources. “She said she wanted the most qualified person for the job. It was a reflection of her willingness to work with both sides and not let partisanship get in the way of running the state.”
At the same time, the newly minted governor prompted an outcry in the Legislature by vetoing dozens of local projects with little warning to local lawmakers.
“She had a rocky start with the Legislature in her first term because she vetoed about $300 million in projects for roads, airports, harbors,” said Dave Dittman, an Alaska pollster and head of Dittman Research who did polling for her gubernatorial campaign. “They complained that she didn’t give them any guidance before enacting the vetoes.”
Mrs. Palin soothed the ruffled feathers by meeting with legislators and apologizing. The next year, she made it a point to meet with lawmakers to discuss their projects by asking them to meet her, but one at a time, in her office, two floors above the Legislature.
The specter of being summoned to speak with Mrs. Palin rankled some legislators. At the same time, say politicos, her display of executive oblige showed she was willing to cooperate while also reminding everyone that she was still in charge. It didn’t hurt that her approval ratings continued to hover between 75 percent and 85 percent.
“It’s caused some friction in the Legislature because when she’s as popular as she is, people don’t want to cross her,” said Mr. Dittman.
Mrs. Palin continued to build good will with the voters by increasing the per-person allotment from the state’s Permanent Fund Dividend. Every man, woman and child in Alaska was slated to receive $2,000, but with funding from last year’s energy rebate, she increased the amount by $1,200 per person.
As a result, Mrs. Palin was well-positioned to battle for the TransCanada pipeline. Her foes argued that the state’s oil giants - BP, Conoco Phillips and Exxon Mobil - were more suited to build the pipeline than the smaller Canadian company.
But Mrs. Palin wanted to retain some state control over the pipeline to make sure the project was completed without foot-dragging. Her proposal called for a $500 million state subsidy for TransCanada.
Leading the opposition was Lyda Green, the Senate president, a 14-year legislative veteran, and by coincidence, a resident of Wasilla, the governor’s hometown. Republicans held the majority, but Mrs. Green had cobbled together a bipartisan governing coalition that resulted in a de facto Republican minority.
In the spring, however, Mrs. Palin recruited a longtime colleague and friend, former school board member Linda Menard, to run against Mrs. Green in the Republican primary.
Mrs. Menard, buoyed by the governor’s backing, proved a popular choice. In June, Mrs. Green dropped out of the race, saying she couldn’t win, and her Senate coalition soon crumbled.
Mrs. Green has since become a vocal Palin critic. Soon after the McCain campaign announced its selection, Mrs. Green blasted the choice, saying she first thought the news was a joke.
“She’s not prepared to be governor. How can she be prepared to be vice president or president?” Mrs. Green told the Anchorage Daily News. “Look at what she’s done to this state. What would she do to the nation?”
A Green spokesman said she would have no further comment. Mrs. Palin’s supporters say the remarks reflected the existing animosity between the two.
“The relationship the governor’s had with Lyda Green is probably more of a factor in her comments than a true assessment of her abilities,” said Mr. Galvin.
Throughout her first term, say her supporters, Mrs. Palin showed the kind of confidence that should serve her well in the grueling presidential campaign ahead, even when stacked against Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic vice-presidential nominee.
“All I can say is, Senator Biden has got his hands full,” said Mr. Dittman.
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