Matt Zencey

Excerpt from “Unlikely Liberal: Sarah Palin’s Curious Record as Alaska Governor”

A review in the Philadelphia Inquirer says “For seekers of truth, Unlikely Liberal is a powerful book …. Some of Zencey’s findings make Palin look like a skilled, honest, maverick politician. Some of his findings make her look alternately dishonest and clueless. The book is not a hit job, that is for sure. It is a carefully researched examination of a governor who quite likely would have remained obscure except for McCain’s choice of her as a running mate.”


Before becoming governor, Sarah Palin was well known to Alaskans as a staunch social conservative: strongly antiabortion and anti–gay rights. She’d won her first term as mayor of Wasilla by injecting the emotional issues of abortion and gun rights into the race for an office that dealt with neither.

When Palin ran for lieutenant governor in 2002 in the Republican primary, she complained it was a “kick in the gut” that her exemplary pro-life record didn’t get her the endorsement of Alaska Right to Life. (A more experienced antiabortion state senator got the endorsement—and he won the general election.)

In the 2006 race for governor, Palin made no secret of her socially conservative views. On abortion, she was a pro-life fundamentalist. The only time abortion could be legal, she said, is to save the life of the mother: No exception for rape. No exception for incest. She said schools should teach both evolution and creationism. She opposed “explicit” sex education and praised the abstinence-until-marriage approach. She reminded Alaskans she’d supported the 1998 state constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage.

Yet one of Sarah Palin’s first acts as governor was to veto a bill denying benefits to same-sex partners of state employees. She appointed a pro-choice woman to the state supreme court. She repeatedly refused to put abortion-restriction bills onto a special session agenda for the legislature. She did nothing to promote the teaching of creationism or intelligent design in Alaska schools. She took no steps to change how Alaska schools teach sex education.

At the Anchorage Daily News, we said this in an editorial during her vice-presidential race: “Sarah Palin’s social views fall to the right of the American mainstream.” But, the paper noted, “As governor, her opinions on abortion, same-sex health benefits and the like have stayed in the background. . . . She may even be a disappointment to her conservative base.”


In October 2005, a year before Palin was elected governor, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that the state could not deny benefits to the gay partners of state employees.

Because the Alaska Constitution guarantees equal protection under the law, denying benefits that are available to heterosexual partners through marriage was illegal discrimination, the court said.

To Alaska’s social conservatives, the ruling was an outrage. They complained about judicial activism and said judges were destroying the sanctity of marriage. Technical questions about implementing the gay benefits ruling kept it tied up in court for another year. But as Sarah Palin’s rendezvous with voters in the November 2006 election approached, it was clear the court would require gay partner benefits to begin soon.

Just days before the November election, the man Palin beat in the Republican primary, Gov. Frank Murkowski, attacked the gay partner benefits ruling. He  announced he’d convene a postelection special session of the legislature, dominated by conservative Republicans, to overturn it. Bringing up the issue so close to the election was expected to help drive social conservatives to the polls to vote for Palin.

So after Palin won the governor’s race, expectations were high that she’d welcome legislative action to reverse the court’s gay rights ruling. By the time she took office in early December, the special session had produced a law blocking the state from offering benefits for gay partners of public employees.

Palin’s response surprised almost everybody. She vetoed the bill because it was unconstitutional—which it was. Under Alaska’s constitution, the only way to reverse a court’s interpretation of a constitutional question is by constitutional amendment. In Alaska, that requires a two-thirds vote in each house of the legislature, not the simple majority that passed the anti–gay benefits bill. An amendment also requires ratification by voters in a statewide election. Palin issued a statement saying, “Signing this bill would be in direct violation of my oath of office.”

Socially conservative legislators were not happy with her decision. Sponsor of the vetoed bill, state Rep. John Coghill, said, “I would have like to have seen her stand up to the courts.” State Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Fairbanks) was even more blunt: “I was floored when she caved in without a fight.”

Palin was artfully vague on what she thought should happen next. “It is the Governor’s intention to work with the legislature and to give the people of Alaska an opportunity to express their wishes and intentions whether these benefits should continue,” she said in a statement.

The special session had already passed a bill to hold an advisory vote, asking Alaskans if the legislature should approve a constitutional amendment to overturn the gay partner benefits ruling. The advisory vote would be held in a special statewide election that spring. Palin signed the bill.

But a constitutional amendment to overturn the gay benefits ruling outright was not going to happen. Palin, along with anti–gay rights legislators, knew it would not get the two-thirds majority required to win legislative approval. The state senate was ruled by a bipartisan coalition that had agreed in advance to avoid divisive issues, even though coalition members included several hard-line social conservatives.

In early April, Alaska voters gave their advice on the issue. By 52.8 to 47.2 percent, they said yes, do amend the state constitution to deny benefits to partners of gay public employees.

Palin’s reaction was strangely quiet. Media accounts of the election results did not include comments from her. The archive of her state emails sent while she was governor, released in June 2011, includes the period right after the advisory vote, but it has no emails discussing the results. Palin did not push the legislature to pursue the constitutional amendment. The effort would have been futile. Observers noted that if each individual legislator voted as advised by constituents in the special election, the amendment would not get the required two-thirds majority in the legislature.

Supporters of the anti–gay benefits amendment managed to bring it to a vote on the state house floor, but it fell well short of the two-thirds majority required to pass. The amendment would have faced even more difficulty in the state senate.

At the time, Palin was much more intent on pushing her top priority—legislation to promote the $40 billion Alaska natural gas pipeline. The idea of passing a constitutional amendment to overturn the gay benefits ruling—something Palin said she supported—just faded away. (Footnotes omitted. See published version. You can order the book here.)

Next samples: Alaska Notebooks

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