Beyond the Headlines: Alaskans Say More to State Than Sarah Palin, Levi Johnston

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What comes to mind when you think of Alaska politics?

If one's been reading the news this week, dominating the headlines on the Alaska front is the alleged feud between GOP Senate candidate Joe Miller and Sarah Palin's husband Todd.

Then there's the mayor's race in Wasilla, a town of about 7,000 people that was first brought to national attention by Palin, and has been kept in the news by Levi Johnston, the out-of-wedlock father of her grandson.

Johnston, 20, announced in August his intention to run for mayor of Wasilla. His campaign is to be chronicled in a would-be reality show Johnston, who has also posed for Playgirl magazine, is still trying to sell.

"People questioned Jesus Christ, so I definitely don't care about these mere mortals questioning Levi Johnston," his manager, Tank Jones, told reporters when questioned about the seriousness of his candidacy.

In an interview with MSNBC last week, Johnston said he doesn't believe in abstinence, he doesn't read newspapers, watch TV that often, doesn't think global warming is man-made, and, well, he'll be more ready next year when asked these same questions. The mayoral election is in October, 2011.

"You're kinda getting over my head on these things here," Johnston said when Lawrence O'Donnell asked him for his views on evolution. "Next year I'll be ready."

To many watching the race from afar, it may look like something of a farce. But the people of Wasilla, where the unemployment race is just below the national average of 9.7 percent, are hoping the national spotlight will help bring attention to the issues they are facing.

Wasilla Mayor Verne Rupright, who will likely be Johnston's principal opponent next year, blames the federal government for hindering oil and gas exploration in a region that's heavily dependent on drilling.

"We need more help to get on more solid footing here, and one of the things was the oil extraction and the [Trans-Alaska pipeline], and now with the federal moratoriums and interference with it -- well, the only thing I can say is, 'Open up the purse strings man, because you won't let us do it ourselves, then where else are we going to look?'" Rupright said.

The 800-mile long Trans-Alaska pipeline, which opened in 1977, is one of the largest systems in the world. But production on the Alaska's North Slope, where the pipeline originates, has declined and is forecast to dwindle even more in the coming years.

In a state that has no income tax, a decline in oil production means far smaller revenues going into the state's coffers.

Alaska Politics Attract National Spotlight

Republicans like Rupright say the Obama administration is worsening the situation for them, with its tougher standards on drilling and a federal moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Alaska last month sued the federal government because of the moratorium, saying it is adversely affecting drilling off the coast of Alaska.

In Wasilla itself, there is a real need to ramp up the infrastructure, Rupright says, to make it easier for people to commute to and from Anchorage, the largest Alaskan city.

Before he was defeated in 2008, the late Sen. Ted Stevens -- the longest-serving Republican senator in history -- played a key role in diverting federal funds into Alaska. That's what many Alaskans are hoping Miller, a Tea Party favorite, will do once he takes office -- though with the Tea Party's stance on eliminating earmarks, that remains to be seen.

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