ST.PAUL -- In her nationally televised speech accepting the job as John McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said she "championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress" and opposed federal funding for a controversial bridge to a sparsely populated island.
"I told Congress, 'Thanks, but no thanks,' on that bridge to nowhere," Palin said Friday in Ohio, using the critics' dismissive name of the project. "'If our state wanted a bridge,' I said, 'we'd build it ourselves.'"
While running for governor in 2006, though, Palin backed federal funding for the infamous bridge, which McCain helped make a symbol of pork barrel excess.
And as mayor of the small town of Wasilla from 1996 to 2002, Palin also hired a Washington lobbying firm that helped secure $8 million in congressionally directed spending projects, known as earmarks, according to public spending records compiled by the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste and lobbying documents.
Wasilla's lobbying firm was headed by Steven Silver — a former chief of staff to Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, a key proponent of the bridge project.
"We need to come to the defense of Southeast Alaska when proposals are on the table like the bridge, and not allow the spinmeisters to turn this project or any other into something that's so negative," Palin said in August 2006, according to the Ketchikan Daily News.
The Anchorage Daily News quoted her in October 2006 as saying she would continue state funding for the bridge. "The window is now, while our congressional delegation is in a strong position to assist," she said.
Asked why she supported the bridge, Palin's communications director Bill McAlister said, "It was never at the top of her priority list, and in fact the project isn't necessarily dead … there's still the potential for improved ferry service or even a bridge of a less costly design."
She changed her mind, he said, when "she saw that Alaska was being perceived as taking from the country and not giving, and that impression bothered her and she wants to change it. … I think that Sarah Palin is someone who has the courage to reevaluate situations as they developed."
Wasilla, which in 2007 had 9,780 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, hired a lobbyist in 2000, public records show, paying him about $36,000 per year. In 2001, Palin was quoted in a local newspaper crediting Silver with helping secure federal funding for Wasilla.
Congressional spending items for Wasilla during Palin's term included $1 million for a regional dispatch center and $1.5 million for water and sewer improvements, according to Citizens Against Government Waste.
McAlister said he was unaware of the details of Wasilla's earmarks. But, he added, "As mayor of the city, her charge was very different than it is now. She's obviously taking a much broader look at things as governor."
It is not unusual for municipalities to hire lobbyists and seek federal help. But of 149 incorporated places in Alaska, just six of them had paid registered lobbyists in 2002, including Wasilla, lobbying records show.
Alaska is regularly one of the biggest per-person beneficiaries of such spending, thanks to the clout of Stevens, who is under indictment, and Rep. Don Young, whose primary election is still in doubt as votes are being counted. Both men supported the so-called 'bridge to nowhere.'
The bridge was intended to provide access to Ketchikan's airport on Gravina Island, which had a population of 50 in the 2000 U.S. Census. After McCain and others railed against it, Congress dropped the specific earmark but kept the money in a transportation bill for Alaska.
In September 2007, Palin's office issued a new release saying the governor had "cancelled all state work on the Gravina Island bridge project, which gained national fame as a symbol of what critics said was wrong with federal budget earmarks."
"I think that's when the campaign for national office began," Ketchikan Mayor Bob Weinstein told the Anchorage Daily News on Saturday.
On Fox News Sunday, McCain touted Palin's opposition to the bridge.
"Yes, the pork barrel project, a $233 million bridge in Alaska to an island with 50 people on it," McCain said. "She, as governor, stood up and said, we don't need it, and if we need it, we'll pay for it ourselves. Now, that's guts. I saw that, and I said, this, this is what we need in Washington."
McCain has blamed spending for projects such as the 'bridge to nowhere' for the Republican defeat in the 2006 congressional elections.