Alaskans are well aware of how their state works in comparison with the rest of the country. “When you go to visit people in the Lower 48, you can see they’re hurting. You can even feel guilty about it,” says one longtime resident.
Nonetheless, for better or worse, many Wasillans see themselves inextricably bound to Palin’s exploding celebrity. “Forever and ever, whenever anyone says Wasilla, people will think Sarah. We’re tied at the hip, one in the same,” says Verne Rupright, a rumple-faced Vietnam veteran currently walking door-to-door, which is the way Sarah Palin did it, trying to convince people to vote for him for Wasilla mayor.
This Sarah-hometown connection comes into high relief in light of the fact Main Street Wasilla is widely regarded as the ugliest stretch of road in the entire state. I mean, Alaska is the most beautiful country in the world. You ride inspired through the mountains and hay flats outside Palmer, then there you are: in Wasilla, where the Parks Highway is lined with almost every fast-food franchise and big-box store known to man. Pizza Hut, Carl’s Jr., Arby’s, Burger King, Subway, Taco Bell, Mickey D’s—they’re all here, neon etched against the foothills, this awesome array of American corporate cuisine, right beside Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Fred Meyer.
Back in the pre-progress eighties, noted Wasillan Wild Bill Nelson used to ride up and down the Parks Highway, his car festooned with signs lambasting lawyers. He welded a toilet to the top of the vehicle, where he’d sometimes sit reading a newspaper to demonstrate contempt for what he considered the onrushing sins of the modern world. “If Wild Bill drove down Parks now, it would wilt his pecker,” said one observer.
The strip-malling is affecting the Wasilla brand. The town has registered the phrase “Home of the Iditarod,” but the race’s starting line has been moved up the valley to Willow. Asked why at a Rotary Club meeting, race official Chas St. George said, “Two reasons: not enough snow and too much development.”
With Sarah out of town, it was as if McCain operatives were running the state.
“Sarah didn’t single-handedly make this town. But it couldn’t have been done without her. It is Wasilla’s great honor to share Sarah Palin with the world,” says the relentlessly upbeat Marty Metiva, who is running against Rupright for the right to step into Palin’s peek-toe pumps. Being mayor of Wasilla is a good gig; the job pays in excess of $70,000.
“If she wins, it’ll be worth a lot to this town,” adds Metiva, who isn’t proposing changing the name of the place “to Palinville or anything like that.” However, should McCain drop dead and Sarah move into the top job, that would be different. “We would absolutely want her presidential papers in the library,” says one not-so-convinced Rotary Club attendee. “We’d have to build a new museum. Maybe two, for Todd’s snow machines.”
This is the big question: How does something like this happen, how can Sarah have blown up so big? Many say it is just Alaska’s skimpy gene pool. Here, the determined can claw their way to the top. The openings are there, you just need the smarts, the opportunism, and sheer luck.
“Being Wasilla mayor is another one those Alaskan jobs you just can’t screw up in,” says one resident. Everyone agrees Palin caught a huge break when the imposition of a local sales tax enabled the town’s remarkable growth. To wit: Back in the nineties, when John Stein, Palin’s predecessor, was mayor, Wasilla had no police force. The town was patrolled by state troopers, who, sick of making dope and domestic-abuse arrests, told the city to get their own cops. To this end, Stein, against much opposition, instituted a 2 percent sales tax on goods sold within the Wasilla city limits. This financed a police department, but then Stein was defeated by the upstart Palin (the vote: 617–413), who reputedly ran an unprecedented partisan campaign in a municipality where few candidates had ever bothered to declare party affiliation.
The sales tax might have been Stein’s idea, but it was Palin who got the credit, This rankles many in the area, since they are technically not Wasilla residents and so receive no benefit from the tax. Since people come from far and wide in the Mat-Su to shop, it makes Wasilla a rich town. “Palin is calling herself some kind of fiscal conservative?” says one local who’s disgruntled about the sales tax. “You think it takes a financial wizard to balance that kind of budget? It is a joke.”
Keeping this in mind, I wondered if Sarah Palin, who shot her first rabbit right off her back porch when she was 10, had any regrets about her role in the strip-malling of her hometown.