Oct. 22, 2010 — -- The massive corruption case that was brewing in 2006 meant trouble for many of the Alaska's most entrenched politicians. But for one newcomer from Wasilla, the scandal presented an opportunity.
From the early days of her primary campaign for governor, Sarah Palin had cast herself as a reformer, a Republican who had challenged the state party chairman and a Republican state official over alleged ethics violations. When, just two months before the general election, the FBI raided the offices of lawmakers later accused of taking bribes, Palin found herself perfectly placed to win the governorship by a comfortable margin.
"She positioned herself as the fresh face untainted by past bargains and past compromises," said Cliff Groh, an Anchorage attorney who is writing a book about political corruption in Alaska.
Public corruption scandals have always had a flip side. High-profile indictments or simple fatigue with a perceived culture of cronyism have, in many states, been a springboard to the governor's mansion. This fall in the New Mexico governor's race, Republican Susana Martinez and Democrat Diane Denish are both donning the mantle of reform as they vie for their state's top seat.
Corruption scandals have wracked New Mexico in recent years, from the conviction of former state senate leader Manny Aragon and other officials for skimming millions off a courthouse contract, to the indictment on 50 counts of former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Girón. Vigil-Girón has pled not guilty and is awaiting trial.
Susana Martinez, a county district attorney, has tried to tie her opponent – the current Lieutenant Governor -- as closely as possible to Governor Bill Richardson. An investigation into Richardson's relations with a state contractor led him to withdraw as a candidate for President Obama's secretary of commerce, but he was never charged with any crimes.
Meanwhile, Denish has touted her fight to clean up New Mexico's housing authority and vowed to create a strong ethics commission upon taking office.
In ordinary years, a platform of ethics reform is not strong enough to win an election, said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois - Chicago and an expert on public corruption. But in the wake of a scandal, an ethics-focused campaign can open the doors for newcomers who did not rise through traditional party hierarchies, he said.
"When you've had a major corruption scandal," Simpson said, "someone who can convincingly say they will clean up the mess can get elected."
Sarah Palin "Take A Stand"
For Palin, her shot at Alaska's top office came with the public's desire to see a newcomer crack down on the perceived culture of cronyism in Juneau. Her timing could not have been better.
Frank Murkowski had been elected governor in 2002 after serving as U.S. Senator for 20 years. But he alienated the Alaskan public with one of his first acts as governor – appointing his daughter Lisa to take his place in the Senate. He also tried to ram an unpopular gas pipeline deal through the legislature and purchased an expensive jet with state money despite opposition from lawmakers and the public.
Before deciding to run for governor in 2006, Palin had made a name for herself during a short tenure on the state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, to which she was appointed by Murkowski in early 2003. Before she resigned a year later, she had filed private complaints against fellow commissioner Randy Ruedrich, the state GOP chairman, claiming he had done party business on state time and leaked information to oil company executives. Ruedrich was forced to resign. She then filed a public complaint, and Ruedrich had to pay a $12,000 fine and admit the violations Palin had alleged.
Palin also helped force Attorney General Gregg Renkes out of office because of an alleged conflict of interest. Renkes was later exonerated.
Palin made her opposition to corporate cronyism the centerpiece of her primary campaign in 2006, urging Alaskans to "Take A Stand" for clean government.
While Palin was on the stump, FBI agents were taping drunken meetings between Alaska lawmakers and oil services executives who wanted to slash the oil tax. One legislator took cash on camera; others asked for future jobs.
Palin won the August 22 GOP primary easily. Incumbent governor Murkowski came in a distant third. A little over a week after Palin's victory, the Alaska corruption scandal broke. FBI agents raided the offices of six Republican lawmakers. Twelve people were ultimately indicted and 11 convicted, including three lawmakers, though two of those legislators convicted are now out of prison because of prosecutorial misconduct.
In the run-up to the general election, Palin did not have to change her campaign theme. The "Take A Stand" motif was reused in new commercials that added the name of running mate Sean Parnell, and she repeated her promise to clean up Juneau. . According to her campaign commercials, the "Take A Stand" slogan meant "a clean, clear approach to government" and "saying no to contributions with strings attached."
Her victory in November famously catapulted her from the former mayor of small-town Wasilla to the state's top seat, and less than two years later to Republican candidate for vice president.
Sarah Palin and Troopergate
In New Jersey, one-time US Attorney Chris Christie built his successful gubernatorial bid on prosecuting dirty public officials. In New York, Andrew Cuomo is campaigning for governor on a promise to limit the influence of lobbyists and special interests in Albany.
Chris Christie, a former corporate lawyer, went straight to the top in his first bid for statewide office. He was appointed US Attorney in 2002, and when he left that post six years later to run for governor, he had burnished his reputation as a corruption-fighter, winning more 100 cases against New Jersey public officials.
New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo lists ethics reform as his number one issue in his gubernatorial bid. He is running in the wake former governor Elliot Spitzer's relationship with a call girl and current Governor David Paterson fines for accepting free baseball tickets.
Ethics investigations can be cyclical. When Palin accepted the vice-presidential nomination at the 2008 Republic National Convention, she touted her credentials.
"I came to office promising major ethics reform, to end the culture of self-dealing. And today, that ethics reform is the law," she said.
But her own ethics came under fire throughout the campaign, most notably in questions about ''Troopergate.' Palin had fired Alaska Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan in July. Monegan said he had been pushed out because he refused to fire Alaska state trooper Mike Wooten, Palin's ex-brother-in-law. By the time Palin got the nod from John McCain, the Alaska legislature was already investigating Monegan's termination. Ultimately, Palin was cleared of any ethical wrongdoing by an independent counsel.
Still, corruption scandals can have a silver lining not just for politicians, but for the people, said Kristina Fisher, Associate Director of Think New Mexico, a non-partisan think tank.
"Any state that has enacted substantial ethics reform has done so after a scandal," she said, citing Connecticut's strict limits on political donations. "In the wake of those, there's a window of opportunity to get some substantive reforms through."