When John McCain introduced Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate Friday, her reputation as a tough-minded budget-cutter was front and center.
"I told Congress, thanks but no thanks on that bridge to nowhere," Palin told the cheering McCain crowd, referring to Ketchikan's Gravina Island bridge.
But Palin was for the Bridge to Nowhere before she was against it.
The Alaska governor campaigned in 2006 on a build-the-bridge platform, telling Ketchikan residents she felt their pain when politicians called them "nowhere." They're still feeling pain today in Ketchikan, over Palin's subsequent decision to use the bridge funds for other projects -- and over the timing of her announcement, which they say came in a pre-dawn press release that seemed aimed at national news deadlines.
"I think that's when the campaign for national office began," said Ketchikan Mayor Bob Weinstein on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Weinstein noted, the state is continuing to build a road on Gravina Island to an empty beach where the bridge would have gone -- because federal money for the access road, unlike the bridge money, would have otherwise been returned to the federal government.
It's a more complicated picture than the one drawn by McCain, a persistent critic of special-interest spending and congressional earmarks. He described Palin as "someone who's stopped government from wasting taxpayers' money on things they don't want or need."
McCain also claimed to have found, in Palin, "someone with an outstanding reputation for standing up to special interests and entrenched bureaucracies" and "someone who has fought against corruption and the failed policies of the past" and "someone who has reached across the aisle and asked Republicans, Democrats and independents to serve in government." On those scores, Palin can fairly claim credit, according to Alaska political leaders and others who have followed her career here.
She did fight corruption as a whistle-blower, even before an FBI investigation burst into public view. She also stood up to "party bosses," as McCain claimed, running against Republican incumbents as an outsider -- though she has yet to unseat her nemesis, Randy Ruedrich, as state party chairman.
Palin told the crowd she had signed a major ethics law -- an appropriately modest claim, because although she pushed for the ethics changes, the main impetus had come from state legislators, especially minority Democrats.
The trickiest defense of Palin in the national spotlight involves her reputation as a budget-cutting fiscal conservative.
Part of that reputation comes from her political rhetoric, beginning with her years as mayor of Wasilla. But while Palin made controversial cuts at the local museum in Wasilla and battled library expansion, she oversaw a fast-growing town with a fast-growing budget to match.
As with much of Palin's sun-kissed career, her timing was ideal: She was able to cut property taxes by three-fourths because sales tax revenues from the city's new big-box stores were soaring. She even pushed for a sales tax increase to build a pet project, a new sports complex for ice hockey.
Similarly, as governor, she has presided over a state flooded with new oil revenues, brought by high oil prices and a new tax regime she pushed over industry objections. She vetoed $268 million in state capital projects this year, but her cuts came out of an unusually swollen capital budget.
"It would be hard not to appear conservative with the huge budget approved by the majority," said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, the House minority leader.
Palin and the Legislature both were criticized by some conservatives for not making more effort to slow growth in the state's operating budget.
At the same time, Palin deserves credit for trying to impose some objective criteria on the capital budget, which is essentially a huge exercise in earmarking by individual legislators, said Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River.
"I thought she showed some guts in doing that and really irritated some folks," said Dyson, adding that he disagreed with some of her decisions.
BRIDGE TO NOWHERE
But it is the federally funded Bridge to Nowhere in Ketchikan that seems destined to make or break Palin's national reputation as a cost-cutting conservative.
The bridge was intended to provide access to Ketchikan's airport on lightly populated Gravina Island, opening up new territory for expansion at the same time. Alaska's congressional delegation endured withering criticism for earmarking $223 million for Ketchikan and a similar amount for a crossing of Knik Arm at Anchorage.
Congress eventually removed the earmark language but the money still went to Alaska, leaving it up to the administration of then-Gov. Frank Murkowski to decide whether to go ahead with the bridges or spend the money on something else.
In September, 2006, Palin showed up in Ketchikan on her gubernatorial campaign and said the bridge was essential for the town's prosperity.
She said she could feel the town's pain at being derided as a "nowhere" by prominent politicians, noting that her home town, Wasilla, had recently been insulted by the state Senate president, Ben Stevens.
"OK, you've got Valley trash standing here in the middle of nowhere," Palin said, according to an account in the Ketchikan Daily News. "I think we're going to make a good team as we progress that bridge project."
One year later, Ketchikan's Republican leaders said they were blindsided by Palin's decision to pull the plug.
Palin spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said Saturday that as projected costs for the Ketchikan bridge rose to nearly $400 million, administration officials were telling Ketchikan that the project looked less likely. Local leaders shouldn't have been surprised when Palin announced she was turning to less-costly alternatives, Leighow said. Indeed, Leighow produced a report quoting Palin, late in the governor's race, indicating she would also consider alternatives to a bridge.
CHANGE OF VIEW
Andrew Halcro, who ran against Palin in 2006, told The Associated Press on Saturday that Palin changed her views after she was elected to make a national splash.
Mayor Weinstein said many residents remain irked by Palin's failure to come to Ketchikan since that time to defend her decision -- despite promises that she would.
Weinstein may be especially sore -- he helped run the local campaign of Palin's 2006 Democratic rival, Tony Knowles. But comments this week from area Republicans show bitterness there too.
Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican who represents Ketchikan in the state Senate, told the Ketchikan Daily News he was proud to see Palin picked for the vice-president's role, but disheartened by her reference to the bridge.
"In the role of governor, she should be pursuing a transportation policy that benefits the state of Alaska, (rather than) pandering to the southern 48," he said.
Businessman Mike Elerding, who helped run Palin's local campaign for governor, told the paper he would have a hard time voting for the McCain ticket because of Palin's subsequent neglect of Ketchikan and her flip-flop on the "Ralph Bartholomew Veterans Memorial Bridge."
TIMING OF PRESS RELEASE
Palin's 2007 press release announcing her change of course came just a month after McCain himself slammed the Ketchikan bridge for taking money that could have been used to shore up dangerous bridges like one that collapsed in Minnesota.
Leighow said she had no record of what time she sent out the press release, but does not recall being told to send it out early for East Coast media.
Once Palin spiked the bridge project, the money wasn't available to Minnesota or other states, however. Congress, chastened by criticism of the Alaska funding, had removed the earmark but allowed the state to keep the money and direct it to other transportation projects.
Enhanced ferry access to Gravina Island is one option under consideration, the state said.
Meanwhile, work is under way on a three-mile road on Gravina Island, originally meant to connect the airport and the new bridge. State officials said last year they were going ahead with the $25 million road because the money would otherwise have to be returned to the federal government.
Leighow said the road project was already under way last year when Palin stopped the bridge, and she noted that it would provide benefits of opening up new territory for development -- one of the original arguments made for the bridge spending.
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