ANCHORAGE – With a summer sun shining at midnight and reindeer meat on most every breakfast menu, Alaska isn’t exactly the microcosm of America Sarah Palin claimed it was last year.
But the Last Frontier is unmistakably similar to the Lower 48 in one way – Alaskans are as sharply divided in their view of their polarizing governor as the rest of the country.
As Palin prepares to resign at a picnic in Fairbanks Sunday, the debate over why she decided to quit and just what she plans on doing next is growing louder.
And much like in the rest of the country, what many people here just call “Outside,” views are split less along partisan lines than along the question of whether individuals just plain liked Palin in the first place.
That goes for Alaskans who work in politics and know the governor, and the everyday folks who only know her from what they watch and read.
In a state with so few people, she’s been a very big story—and it seems like most everybody here has a strong opinion about her.
“The situation was toxic for her and her family,” explained Michelle Morris, a lifelong Alaskan, speaking over the din of a “Blister in the Sun” cover at a weeknight Anchorage street fair. “Staying governor with all the bull—— and crap she had to put up with.”
“The media has been really rough on her,” interjected Greg Morris, Michelle’s husband, before steering the conversation onto less awkward ground. (“Do you fish? Go to Kenai”).
But inside the Snow City Café, where people had ducked in with plates of grilled burgers and beans, Steve Carroll gleefully held up a bumper sticker being passed out at the festival that featured the McCain-Palin logo but read: “Sarah Palin for President, 2012-2014 1/2.”
“I think she quit because she couldn’t handle the negatives, people not telling her how great she was,” Carroll said, citing Palin’s reaction to David Letterman’s joke about the governor’s daughter.
Carroll scoffed at Palin’s contention that she’s stepping down for the good of Alaska: “That’s just ridiculous – I don’t think anybody believes that,” he said.
A few blocks down West 4th Street, Anchorage’s main drag, a man who like other Alaskans doesn’t want to disclose his identity had a quick and clipped response when asked about Palin’s motivation.
“She’s got a book,” said the Anchorage resident, alluding to the governor’s lucrative contract, as he stopped to let people pet his massive St. Bernard.
In the political community, the views are just as diffuse.
Dave Dittman, a GOP pollster who worked for Palin’s gubernatorial campaign in 2006, said, “I would just take her at face value.”
“I think she does feel that she has a purpose and has accomplished what she could accomplish at this point [in Alaska],” Dittman said, who is no longer in regular touch with the governor.
As for the divergent views, Dittman suggested that was in keeping in character with the state’s split political personality.
Last year saw a pair of competitive federal races, for the state’s at-large House seat and a Senate seat, but even before that, the governor’s mansion and legislature has cycled between the two parties.
“I think people’s politics really jade their view of the governor,” said state Rep. Les Gara, a Democrat who represents parts of Anchorage, by far the largest city in the state and where many of the legislators work in a downtown office building while not in session in far-off Juneau.
Chatting in an office that reflected his New York past (a black-and-white photo of the Twin Towers) and his Alaska present (many renderings of salmon), Gara lamented that “there is no consensus viewpoint.”
“The folks who are still loyal supporters of the governor, they believe she was driven out of politics by ethics complaints, the media, and just bad people,” Gara explained. “The people who never liked the governor or dislike the governor, they give the governor no slack for leaving. They believe that she’s a quitter with a national agenda.”
As for Gara, he said: “I think she just lost interest in state politics.”
He recalled a meeting in January when he tried to talk to her about foster care issues.
“The only thing she seemed interested in at that point was talking about she was dealt with unfairly in the press,” Gara said.
State Rep. Jay Ramras, a Republican and chairman of the state House Judiciary Committee, put it simply: “Governing is hard.”
He said it was actually a misnomer that Palin had returned from her stint on the GOP ticket last fall as a changed person.
“She didn’t like the job when she had it here. She didn’t enjoy governing. She just enjoyed the ceremonial aspects of job.”
As for the reaction of his constituents, Ramras, who hails from Fairbanks minces no words: “In my neighborhood, people think she’s a quitter.”
Not all Alaskans are pure “Palinbots,” as her loyalists are derided here, or unadulterated haters.
Kathy Hansen, an Anchorage attorney and self-described conservative who joined friends for after-work drinks at a bar with stunning views of Cook’s Inlet, lamented what she called the “barrage of frivolous ethical complaints” as well as the media attention directed toward the governor’s children.
“How will America attract competent candidates for government office, whatever their party, knowing that may be devastated socially and financially as a result?” Hansen wrote in a subsequent email.
But Hansen, a Palin voter in 2006 and 2008, indicated she was turned off by the governor’s decision to quit.
“[O]nce Palin made the decision to leave office before her term ended, I would not vote for her to take another public office in the future,” she said.
What all Alaskans can agree on is the outsized impact Palin has had with regard to generating interest in their remote state .
In Palin’s office here, the guest book is filled with the signatures and well-wishes of out-of-town guests who, as part of their visit to the scenic state, apparently were inspired enough by its governor to take time away from fishing and hiking to find their way to the 17th floor of a downtown office tower.
“She looked good on the cover of TIME, did ya see that?” asked Michelle Morris, the Anchorage resident at the street fair.
Palin, Morris exclaimed, “has been our biggest celebrity, ever, ever, ever.”
Art Hackney, a longtime GOP political consultant who has worked for Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) and former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), made plain his disregard for Palin and noted approvingly of Levi Johnston’s assessment that the governor was likely quitting for the cash.
But in a state that is heavily dependent on the generosity of outsiders, be it through federal earmarks or service industry spending, Hackney found a bright side when asked about Palin’s legacy.
“She’s been good for tourism,” he said. “Just having all you guys fly up here.”