JUNEAU, Alaska – Ever since Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin returned from the presidential campaign trail, many Alaskans felt her heart wasn’t in the job.
Lawmakers complained she didn’t take an interest in the state’s politics, and she limited her access to Alaska’s media. One lawmaker quipped after her state of the state address in January that the only eye contact she made in the legislative chamber was with the television camera.
In Alaska, Palin has become a polarizing figure, and the focus of multiple ethics complaints filed against her with the state personnel board. She has taken a beating from Senate Democrats over many of her recent appointments, including an attorney general candidate who became the first Cabinet appointment ever rejected by the Alaska Legislature.
And things weren’t likely to improve, if she stayed in office. She faces a potential veto override of nearly $29 million in federal stimulus funds for energy efficiency programs. She rejected the funds, fearing there were strings attached to the money that could bind the state to federal building mandates. Legislators said they could find no such strings.
It’s easier to govern in Alaska when oil prices are high, but they are down from last year’s historic highs and the budget is much tighter. And this year, Palin’s signature project, getting a natural gas pipeline, moves into a critical phase: whether North Slope leaseholders will commit to shipping gas in the pipeline, which is still at least a decade away.
Palin has said stepping down as governor was about doing the right thing for Alaska – not wanting to be a lame duck governor if she knew she wasn’t running for re-election in 2010. She also has hinted that her decision was a strategic move aimed at gearing up for a run for president.
But with all the thorny issues enveloping her in Alaska, Palin’s quitting may be more about something simpler: cutting her losses.
“The drumbeat of adverse news coverage from Alaska would likely have continued and intensified had she remained governor. It would have become an increasing liability to her national campaign,” said Juneau economist and longtime Alaska political watcher Gregg Erickson.
He added that while Palin has received an adulatory reception from social conservatives in the Lower 48, in Alaska she’s become a lightning rod for criticism and controversy.
Many political observers in Alaska say the governor was a disengaged presence around the state capitol since she returned from the presidential campaign trail, and it was obvious her heart wasn’t in the job.
Palin no longer delivered bagels to lawmakers. She limited her access to the media, and when she did hold news conferences, and she relied on notes and her commissioners for backup.
“She had a surprising amount of disinterest in state government after November,” said state Rep. Les Gara, a Democrat. “This state has a lot of problems, and she showed a complete lack of interest in solving them.”
State Sen. Gene Therriault, a Republican, says this is an unfair rap on Palin, one that was used by critics against her two predecessors.
“The detractors will always use that as a criticism because it’s hard to evaluate. It’s not surprising it’s being used against the governor,” he said.
“It an easy criticism to level because you’re never asked, ‘Where’s the proof?”‘
Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, who will be sworn into office July 26, said Palin had spoken to him about the toll the investigations had taken on her.
“I think what I heard from the governor really had to do with the weight on her, the concern she had for the cost of all the ethics investigations and the like, the way that that weighed on her with respect to her inability to just move forward Alaska’s agenda on behalf of Alaskans in the current context of the environment. So that’s what I saw,” he told Fox News Sunday.
Also in the last few months, Palin had laid the groundwork for a possible presidential run, establishing a political action committee.
And a day after abruptly announcing she would soon give up her job as governor, Palin indicated on a social networking site that she would take on a larger, national role, citing a “higher calling” to unite the country along conservative lines.
Palin has been staying out of the public eye since she made the announcement, popping up mainly online. In a Twitter update Sunday, she said she was looking forward to joining her family as they commercially fish in Bristol Bay.
Erickson, the Juneau political watcher, says the governor’s resignation makes sense.
“Politically, I see it as a smart move. With the complete breakdown of her alliance with Democrats that marked her first two years as governor, she has no ability to move her policies forward in legislation. Indeed, her Alaska agenda, the gas pipeline in particular, is likely to fare much better with her out of the picture,” Erickson said.
Palin has also faced growing criticism within the Republican party.
Last week, Vanity Fair magazine published a highly critical piece on Palin, with unnamed John McCain campaign aides questioning if Palin was ever really prepared for the presidency.