Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Palin's rural vantage point

Jeff Edwards wrote last week about Sarah Palin's rural credentials, but we've learned more since then that provides yet another dimension to Palin's "rurality." While she has prepared position papers on issues of importance to rural communities -- particularly those in Alaska, e.g., indigenous populations, subsistence hunting and fishing -- her connection to the rural runs deeper than that. I found of particular interest her long personal history with Wasilla, Alaska, as it went from a community of 400 when she was a child to a booming exurb/suburb of Anchorage, population about 9,800. (It is part of the Anchorage MSA). Reports suggest that the population of Wasilla roughly doubled during Palin's service on the City Council and later as mayor. (Hear an NPR interview with Palin's biographer, Kaylene Johnson, here ;it describes Wasilla's growth over the years) .

An early report from the New York Times detailed Palins's rural roots, including her birth in Sandpoint, Idaho, and her family's move to Skagway, Alaska when she was infant. The family later moved to Wasilla, essentially an exurb of Anchorage. Palin was elected to the Wasilla City Council in 1992, and she was mayor from 1996-2002. At that time, the Wasilla Police Department had 25 officers. A borough government oversaw the schools and fire department. The story includes this quote from the deputy city clerk who characterized Wasilla as "really rural America," and said "everyone is in shock" over the possibility that Palin might become Vice President. Another official interviewed for the story recounted Palin's mayoral achievements:
She cut property taxes, increased the city sales tax by half a percent to support construction of an indoor ice rink and sports complex, and put more money into public safety, winning a grant to build a police dispatch center in town.
So, this report indicates that she dealt with some issues that are increasingly important to communities the size of Wasilla: (1) how to keep youth busy and (2) rising crime rates.

The growth that Palin oversaw was apparently not always pretty, as if often the case with sprawl. A man interviewed for this NYT story about Alakans' attitude toward Palin noted that many think Wasilla is "as ugly as sin." Still, residents there are apparently happy to be getting a Target next month, one of three opening in the chain's Alaska debut.

Wednesday's NYT included a story with the headline, "Palin's Start in Alaska: Not Politics as Usual," which gave us yet more information about Palin's mayoral management style in Wasilla. As the headline suggests, she did not shrink from controversy. Among her early small-town gaffes: suggesting that some books should be removed from the local library. The story suggests that Palin brought "wedge politics" to town. Here's an excerpt that characterizes Wasilla's political landscape, both pre- and post-Palin:
The traditional turning points that had decided municipal elections in this town of less than 7,000 people — Should we pave the dirt roads? Put in sewers? Which candidate is your hunting buddy? — seemed all but obsolete the year Ms. Palin, then 32, challenged the three-term incumbent, John C. Stein.

Anti-abortion fliers circulated. Ms. Palin played up her church work and her membership in the National Rifle Association.

The pre-Palin part sounds like a lot of rural places, where political patronage plays a significant role and "all politics is local," to quote Tip O'Neill. The post-Palin phase sounds like the mix of national with local issues that we increasingly see everywhere. But the post-Palin phase also featured patronage politics, as many who backed her opponent or otherwise crossed her lost their jobs.

A story in Thursday's NYT takes us back to her experience governing a state which, while quite distinctive among the 50, features many challenges shared by other largely rural states. These include the challenge of spatial isolation and the reliance on extractive industries. Here's an excerpt:
Alaska is harder to govern than a smaller, more settled realm in the Lower 48. With vast distances, large numbers of indigenous peoples and a narrowly based extraction economy — with a handful of giant multinational oil corporations dominating the game — some economists say a country like Nigeria might be an apter comparison.
The story quotes University of Alaska professor Stephen Haycox, who characterized Alaska as a "colonial place." He explained that a third "of the economic base is oil; another third is federal spending. * * * It’s not to say that Alaska is a beggar state, but it certainly is true that Alaska is dependent on decisions made outside it, and over which Alaskans don’t have great control.”

A critical difference between Alaska and other states, as journalist Kirk Johnson points out in Thursday's story, is that Alaska is fiscally flush because of its major extractive industry--oil and gas--and the high prices currently commanded by a barrel of oil. Unlike other rural places, then, Alaska under Palin has not faced the challenges of economic restructuring that have devastated so many other rural places that were previously reliant on extractive industries. That makes Palin's experience rather less applicable to the greatest concerns facing other rural economies. It also helps explain why she doesn't flinch at opening up ANWAR to drilling. Prosperity based largely on Alaska's oil and gas reserves is all she has known, but it's hardly a model that translates well to other states, let alone the nation.

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