12:09pm

Sun May 1, 2011
The Spark

Years Ago, Sarah Palin Was Recruited As A Moderate

Originally published on Thu May 5, 2011 12:56 pm

NPR has been profiling some of the Republicans who are considering a presidential run in 2012, to find out what first sparked their interest in politics. Read more of those profiles.

Whether Sarah Palin will enter the 2012 presidential race is the political junkie's favorite guessing game — and Palin hasn't said much to end the speculation.

But how Palin entered politics in the first place may surprise you. It turns out, Palin was recruited into politics to help the cause of bigger government.

"We were looking for a moderate who was interested in community development, basically," says John Stein, one of those who recruited her.

In 1992, Stein was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. The city was growing fast, and he'd promoted new taxes to pay for big-city amenities like police and paved roads. As Stein recalls it, those taxes sparked a backlash — he calls it a "Libertarian revolution."

"We had experiences at the City Council table where the Libertarian activists would march around the room, passing out copies of the Constitution, singing, 'They'll remember in November' — I think that was the song," Stein recalls.

Mark Chryson — who at the time belonged to a group called SAGE or Standing Against Government Excess — says he remembers marching and singing.

"We didn't want to control the growth [of government]; we didn't want it to grow, period," Chryson says.

Palin's Ideology Shifted

Chryson is a fiscal conservative who also once chaired the Alaska Independence Party, so there's precious little he and Stein agree on.

But they do tell roughly the same story about what happened two decades ago, when the mayor was looking for new allies on the City Council.

"What we were after was to get people on the council who could make sensible decisions about roads, water, sewer, and those kinds of things," Stein says. "So Sarah came along — she was bright, energetic, attractive — she had all the attributes of really an excellent candidate."

Stein says it didn't take much to convince Palin to run, and she won, handily. And when she took her seat on the council, she seemed to be on the mayor's side. Chryson says Palin joined in the criticism of the anti-tax group — he says she went on local TV and said SAGE really stood for "Standing Against Government Everything." But after a couple of years on the council, Stein recalls, Palin's ideology shifted.

"Lo and behold, she really embraced a lot of the conservative, right-wing thinking," he says.

And, lo and behold, in 1996, Palin challenged Stein in the race for mayor. What turned her against him? In her memoir, Palin talks about policy differences. But Chryson thinks there was also a personal motive; he says the mayor and his allies sometimes condescended to Palin.

"That, I could see, torqued her," he says.

'Don't Piss The Lady Off'

Chryson says Stein's big mistake was taking Palin for granted.

"He thought that Sarah was going to be their rubber stamp. And he wound up getting snake-bit," he says.

Fifteen years later, Stein still seems shell-shocked by the intensity of the ensuing mayoral campaign. In Alaska, city races are officially nonpartisan, but Palin came after him on big ideological issues like abortion and gun rights.

"And there was such enthusiasm from the — I'm laughing now, [but] I'm crying on the inside — there was such enthusiasm in the community for this, you know — 'Yes, we're talking philosophy here now.' And here I am, down there, going, 'But I can fill potholes,' and, 'I understand how sewage treatment plants work.' But that really wasn't the point, anymore," Stein says.

She beat him — and then, in a rematch three years later, she clobbered him, 3-to-1. Chryson sees a clear lesson in Stein's experience.

"The one thing I can say about that is: Don't piss the lady off," he says.

Stein eventually moved back to southeast Alaska and used his degree in public management to get a job as a municipal administrator. During those same years, Palin kept climbing the political ladder to become governor, a vice-presidential candidate and a star commentator on Fox News.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

So will Sarah Palin enter the 2012 presidential race? Palin hasn't said anything to end the speculation. Here on NPR, we're running a series on possible candidates. It's called Spark, as in the spark that sent each of them into politics.

And as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, in Palin's case, that story is pretty surprising.

MARTIN KASTE: You may want to sit down for this. Sarah Palin, it turns out, was recruited into politics to help the cause of bigger government. John Stein was one of those who recruited her.

Mr. JOHN STEIN (Former Mayor, Wasilla, Alaska): We were looking for a moderate who was interested in community development, basically.

KASTE: In 1992, Stein was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. The city was growing fast, and he'd promoted new taxes to pay for big city amenities like police and paved roads. As Stein recalls it, those taxes sparked a backlash. He calls it a Libertarian revolution.

Mr. STEIN: We had experiences at the city council table where the Libertarian activists would, you know, march around the room, passing out copies of the Constitution, singing "They'll remember in November," I think that was the song.

Mr. MARK CHRYSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah, we did that. No denying that. We did it.

KASTE: This is Mark Chryson, who at the time belonged to a group called SAGE, Standing Against Government Excess.

Mr. CHRYSON: We didn't want to control the growth; we didn't want it to grow, period.

KASTE: Chryson is a fiscal conservative who also once chaired the Alaska Independence Party, so there's precious little that he and John Stein agree on. But they do tell roughly the same story about what happened two decades ago, when the mayor was looking for new allies on the city council.

Mr. STEIN: What we were after was to get people on the council who could make sensible decisions about roads, water, sewer, and those kinds of things. So Sarah came along. She was, you know, bright, energetic, attractive. You know, she had all the attributes of, really, of an excellent candidate.

KASTE: Stein says it didn't take much to convince Palin to run, and she won handily. When she took her seat on the council, she seemed at first to be on the mayor's side. Mark Chryson says Palin joined in the criticism of the anti-tax group. He says she went on local TV and said SAGE really stood for Standing Against Government Everything.

But after a couple of years on the council, Stein says Palin's ideology seemed to shift.

Mr. STEIN: And lo and behold, she really embraced a lot of the, you know, the conservative, right-wing thinking.

KASTE: And lo and behold, in 1996, Palin challenged Stein in the race for mayor. What turned her against him? In her memoir, Palin talks about policy differences. But Mark Chryson thinks there was also a personal motive. He says the mayor and his allies sometimes condescended to Palin.

Mr. CHRYSON: That, I could see, torqued her.

KASTE: Chryson says Stein's big mistake was taking Palin for granted.

Mr. CHRYSON: He thought that Sarah was going to be the rubber stamp. And he wound up getting snake-bit.

KASTE: In Alaska, city races are officially nonpartisan, but Palin came after Stein on big ideological issues like abortion and gun rights. Fifteen years later, Stein still seems a little shell-shocked by the intensity of that campaign.

Mr. STEIN: There was such enthusiasm from the - I'm laughing now. I'm crying on the inside. There was such enthusiasm in the community for this, you know, yes, we're talking philosophy here now. And then here I am, down there, going, but I can fill potholes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEIN: ...you know? I understand how sewage treatment plants work. But that really wasn't the point anymore.

KASTE: She beat him. And then, in a rematch three years later, she clobbered him three to one. Mark Chryson sees a clear lesson in Mayor Stein's experience.

Mr. CHRYSON: The one thing I can say about that is, don't piss the lady off.

KASTE: Stein eventually moved to Southeast Alaska and used his degree in public management to get a job as a municipal administrator. During those same years, Sarah Palin kept climbing the political ladder to become governor, vice-presidential candidate and, for now, star commentator on Fox.

Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.