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Palin Casts Herself As Reformist, Outsider

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When she took that bigger stage last night as her party's nominee for vice president, Sarah Palin emphasized her reputation as a reformer and an outsider.

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska; Republican Vice Presidential Candidate): When I stood up to the special interests and the lobbyists and the big oil companies and the good ole boys, suddenly, I realized that sudden and relentless reform never sits well with entrenched interests and power brokers. That's why true reform is so hard to achieve.

MONTAGNE: But a look at her record in Alaska shows that the reform spirit has sometimes been modulated to fit the situation, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: Over the years, Sarah Palin's running mate, John McCain, has spent hours upon hours declaiming on the Senate floor. His target is Congressional earmarks - the thousands of items that lawmakers slip into spending bills to send federal money to friends and neighborhoods.

Last Friday, Palin said she's onboard McCain's anti-earmark express. She brought up a controversial bridge project from 2005.

Gov. PALIN: I told Congress thanks but no thanks on that bridge to nowhere.

(Soundbite of applause)

Gov. PALIN: If our state wanted a bridge, I said we'd build it ourselves.

PETER OVERBY: We'll come back to the bridge to nowhere in a moment. But first, a quick look back at Palin's history with earmarks. Nearly a decade ago, she was mayor of the small city of Wasilla, population then about 5,000. She hired Wasilla's first Washington lobbyist specifically to get federal money. This isn't unusual in Alaska.

Ms. RYAN ALEXANDER (President of Taxpayers for Common Sense): It's the bread and butter of how they do business in Alaska, and I think she got very good at doing business with earmarks.

OVERBY: Ryan Alexander is president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. The non-profit group monitors federal spending, and lately has spent a lot of time on Alaska. Alexander says that this year, Alaskans will get about $500 per capita in Congressional earmarks, more than 10 times the national average. And when Palin was mayor of Wasilla, she did even better than that.

Ms. ALEXANDER: As mayor in 2002, now Governor Palin was able to get almost $1,000 per citizen of Wasilla.

OVERBY: And when Palin ran for governor in 2006, she lined up with the state's congressman and two senators in their quest for federal money. She spoke at the Alaska Professional Design Counsel Forum.

Gov. PALIN: And our Congressional delegation, God bless them, they do a great job for us. The strength of our delegation there in D.C. is the envy of all other states.

OVERBY: She singled out Congressman Don Young for praise. He's the original legislative author of the Bridge to Nowhere earmark.

Gov. PALIN: Representative Don Young, especially God bless him with transportation, Alaska did so well under the very basic provisions of the transportation act that he wrote just a couple of years ago, we had a nice bump there. We're very, very fortunate to receive the largess that Don Young was able to put together for Alaska.

OVERBY: So what about the Bridge to Nowhere - or, as residents of Ketchikan think of it, the bridge that would connect their city with its new airport across the sound? Ketchikan city mayor Bob Weinstein says that about 200,000 visitors a year use the airport and take a ferry to the city. Weinstein is a Democrat, although the city elections are non-partisan. He says Candidate Palin campaigned in Ketchikan in 2006 and told voters that she supported the bridge. She said she understood their resentment when it was ridiculed as a Bridge to Nowhere. Then, as governor, she cancelled the bridge with a press release, but not the money - $223 million stayed in Alaska. So Weinstein says Palin's claim the other day, as he put it, didn't reflect reality.

Mayor BOB WEINSTEIN (Ketchikan, Alaska): She did not ever tell Congress thanks, but no thanks. She knows the state got all the money.

OVERBY: And Alaska got 38 million from Congress to build an approach road to the bridge. Under Governor Palin, that road is now being built.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Will Evans of the Center for Investigative Reporting helped to report that piece. You can find out more about the collaboration between CIR and NPR, the Secret Money Project, at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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