Sarah Palin (center) stands with the Wasilla, Alaska, City Council for a portrait in 1998. In 1992, then-Mayor John Stein recruited Palin as a moderate counterweight to the growing anti-government, anti-tax movement. By 1996, Palin challenged Stein in the race for mayor — and won.
NPR has been profiling some of the Republicans who are considering a presidential run in 2012, to find out what first sparked their interest in politics. Read more of those profiles.
Whether Sarah Palin will enter the 2012 presidential race is the political junkie's favorite guessing game — and Palin hasn't said much to end the speculation.
But how Palin entered politics in the first place may surprise you. It turns out, Palin was recruited into politics to help the cause of bigger government.
"We were looking for a moderate who was interested in community development, basically," says John Stein, one of those who recruited her.
In 1992, Stein was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. The city was growing fast, and he'd promoted new taxes to pay for big-city amenities like police and paved roads. As Stein recalls it, those taxes sparked a backlash — he calls it a "Libertarian revolution."
"We had experiences at the City Council table where the Libertarian activists would march around the room, passing out copies of the Constitution, singing, 'They'll remember in November' — I think that was the song," Stein recalls.
Mark Chryson — who at the time belonged to a group called SAGE or Standing Against Government Excess — says he remembers marching and singing.
"We didn't want to control the growth [of government]; we didn't want it to grow, period," Chryson says.
Palin's Ideology Shifted
Chryson is a fiscal conservative who also once chaired the Alaska Independence Party, so there's precious little he and Stein agree on.
Sarah Palin sits at her Wasilla City Council desk in this undated photograph.
But they do tell roughly the same story about what happened two decades ago, when the mayor was looking for new allies on the City Council.
"What we were after was to get people on the council who could make sensible decisions about roads, water, sewer, and those kinds of things," Stein says. "So Sarah came along — she was bright, energetic, attractive — she had all the attributes of really an excellent candidate."
Stein says it didn't take much to convince Palin to run, and she won, handily. And when she took her seat on the council, she seemed to be on the mayor's side. Chryson says Palin joined in the criticism of the anti-tax group — he says she went on local TV and said SAGE really stood for "Standing Against Government Everything." But after a couple of years on the council, Stein recalls, Palin's ideology shifted.
"Lo and behold, she really embraced a lot of the conservative, right-wing thinking," he says.
And, lo and behold, in 1996, Palin challenged Stein in the race for mayor. What turned her against him? In her memoir, Palin talks about policy differences. But Chryson thinks there was also a personal motive; he says the mayor and his allies sometimes condescended to Palin.
"That, I could see, torqued her," he says.
'Don't Piss The Lady Off'
Chryson says Stein's big mistake was taking Palin for granted.
"He thought that Sarah was going to be their rubber stamp. And he wound up getting snake-bit," he says.
Sarah Palin stands in the rain in Anchorage, Alaska, with Robert Robl (left) and other supporters as she campaigns for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in the primary election Aug. 22, 2006.
Fifteen years later, Stein still seems shell-shocked by the intensity of the ensuing mayoral campaign. In Alaska, city races are officially nonpartisan, but Palin came after him on big ideological issues like abortion and gun rights.
"And there was such enthusiasm from the — I'm laughing now, [but] I'm crying on the inside — there was such enthusiasm in the community for this, you know — 'Yes, we're talking philosophy here now.' And here I am, down there, going, 'But I can fill potholes,' and, 'I understand how sewage treatment plants work.' But that really wasn't the point, anymore," Stein says.
She beat him — and then, in a rematch three years later, she clobbered him, 3-to-1. Chryson sees a clear lesson in Stein's experience.
"The one thing I can say about that is: Don't piss the lady off," he says.
Stein eventually moved back to southeast Alaska and used his degree in public management to get a job as a municipal administrator. During those same years, Palin kept climbing the political ladder to become governor, a vice-presidential candidate and a star commentator on Fox News.