ANCHORAGE — Gov. Sarah Palin stunned Alaska and the nation today by abruptly announcing her resignation from office. Palin will be governor only until July 26, when Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell will take over.
Palin made the announcement at a hastily called press conference held at her Wasilla home as the holiday weekend began.
Palin said she first decided not to run for re-election next fall when her term is up, then figured in that case she'd just quit now. Palin said she didn't want to be a "lame duck," a political phrase for an officeholder approaching the end of their term and losing clout to get their political agenda through.
"Many just accept that lame duck status and they hit the road, they draw a paycheck. They kind of milk it. And I'm not going to put Alaskans through that. I promised efficiencies and effectiveness," she said.
But Palin could have waited until next year to announce her plan not to run for re-election. Her explanation makes no sense, said state Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, a leading critic of her.
"That isn't a reason. Seated governors just don't resign in the last year of their term no matter how successful or for that matter unsuccessful they've been. Right now there are a lot more questions than answers. And until the governor chooses to reveal more of her motive here, it's just one of those questions we will never know the answer to," Hawker said.
Palin said the decision came after polling her children about whether they wanted her to "make a positive difference and fight for all our children's future from outside the governor's office." She said the response was four yes's and one "Hell yeah!"
"The 'hell yeah' sealed it -- and someday I'll talk about the details of that. ... I think much of it had to do with the kids seeing their baby brother Trig mocked by some pretty mean-spirited adults recently," Palin said.
An Alaska blogger recently photo shopped the head of a pro-Palin talk radio host on to a picture of Trig Palin being held by the governor, causing Palin and her allies to declare outrage.
Palin said people changed after John McCain picked her last year as the Republican nominee for vice president. She brought up all the ethics complaints against her, saying they get dismissed but end up costing the state and herself in legal bills.
"It's pretty insane -- my staff and I spend most of our day dealing with this instead of progressing our state now. I know I promised no more 'politics as usual,' but this isn't what anyone had in mind for Alaska," the governor said.
As for her future, Palin said: "I look forward to helping others -- to fight for our state and our country, and campaign for those who believe in smaller government, free enterprise, strong national security, support for our troops and energy independence."
During her press conference, Palin ran off a list of accomplishments during her two-and-a-half years as governor, from pushing forward on a North Slope natural gas pipeline to rewriting oil taxes to revising state ethics laws.
Parnell, who will take over as governor on July 26, said he found out Wednesday night when Palin called him and his wife, Sandy, into her office. "I was very surprised at first. But then as she began to articulate her reasons I began to understand better," he said.
Parnell said it will be hard for people to grasp why Palin is doing this unless they've been in her position and dealt with the kinds of things she's had to deal with. He said she "wants to be able to expand her work on behalf of us all and I could tell she felt frustrated where she was and unable to do that."
After Parnell is sworn in as governor, Craig Campbell, head of the state Department of Military Affairs and National Guard, will become lieutenant governor.
Anchorage Rep. Hawker noted that Palin's decision to quit "gives her unfettered ability to pursue her economic interests, whether it be a book deal or speeches, that type of thing, without being cluttered by state ethics law."
Even the member of Palin's Cabinet who is possibly closest to her, Department of Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt, said he didn't see this coming.
"All of Sarah's decisions have been very easy for me to support, and I will support this one. But this one took me aback a little bit," said Schmidt, who went to high school with Palin.
Palin's closest ally in the state Legislature, Senate Minority Leader Gene Therriault, was also taken by surprise.
"Not sure what the governor intends to do at this point. I suspect she's keeping her options open," Therriault said.
Republican Party of Alaska Chairman Randy Ruedrich reacted with "complete surprise" to Palin's decision to step down.
But he said it could free Palin up to spread her message. "For the governor to make any statement in person in the Lower 48 is at least a six-hour plane trip to the central U.S."
"She can become a much more functional spokesman for Alaska working from a more southerly location," Ruedrich said.
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, an Alaska Democrat, said Palin gave no indication of a resignation when he met with her for 45 minutes just two days ago.
State House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat, said it "was almost a relief" to have Palin out of office.
"But on another, deeper level, it is disturbing that she is leaving her post. On the eve of the 4th of July, in Alaska's 50th year of statehood, to have the governor stand down is a terrible statement about commitment to public service and our state," she said.
Many national Republicans were uncomplimentary of Palin's resignation -- and not impressed. It does nothing to shake what GOP pollster Whit Ayers called "the 'lightweight' monkey on her back."
"If you're a serous politician and you're seriously interested in higher office, the best thing you can do is as good a job as possible in the current office," Ayers said. "I suppose it frees her from the responsibility of a full-time job. It does nothing to enhance the image she has that she's not material for the president of the United States."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, considered a potential rival for Palin if she decides to run for president in 2012, put out a carefully worded statement.
"I wish Sarah Palin and her family well, and I know that she will continue to be a strong voice in the Republican Party," he said.
Those close to Palin's former running mate, Sen. John McCain, were less circumspect. One of McCain's closest friends and confidants, John Weaver, told the Washington Post that he was "not smart enough to see the strategy in this."
"We've seen a lot of nutty behavior from governors and Republican leaders in the last three months, but this one is at the top of that," Weaver told the Post.
It does free her to run for president "without playing the balancing act of keeping Alaskan voters happy," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. Although Palin has what he described as a "core following," Bonjean also said that the "constant drama" that surrounds her and her family, has become tiresome to many Republicans.
"To win over mainstream Republicans and independents, Palin will need to start talking about important ideas and solutions instead of creating or reacting to tabloid issues," he said.
Shedding the bad
Palin's staunchest supporters in the anti-abortion movement, however, said they felt Palin's entrance on the public stage had been a positive one, and said they hope her next step will have an "equal and profound impact."
"Sarah Palin has always been an intensely independent woman -- always true to her faith, her family and call to public service," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, who co-founded the Team Sarah social networking Web site popular with Palin supporters.
Larry Persily, a former aide to Palin in her Washington, D.C., office, said he thinks she is shedding all that is bad about her job as governor -- from the ethics complaints to her bruising fights with the Legislature -- "and she can just be a national star in front of adoring crowds."
"It's like the kid who leaves college early for the NBA draft and says, this is when I am at my height in the market and I'm going for it," said Persily, a former Anchorage Daily News opinion editor who is now an aide to Rep. Hawker.