Native ‘first dude’ holds power

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WASHINGTON – Some Alaskan politicos say that Todd Palin, the husband of Gov. Sarah Palin, has held unprecedented power over her decision-making process during her two years in the state’s highest office. Since he’s Alaska Native, some Indians can’t help but wonder if his spousal sway could result in more tribal influence in the White House if Sen. McCain were elected.

As a result of Freedom of Information Act requests, several of Gov. Palin’s political foes, as well as ethically-minded individuals, have discovered that it hasn’t been all that unusual for Alaska’s first gentleman to be included on the governor’s office e-mails.

At least three separate public information requests centering on Todd Palin’s role in his wife’s administration have been made in recent months by political activist Andree McLeod of Anchorage; Zane Henning, on behalf of the Last Frontier Foundation; and former state legislator Andrew Halcro, a Palin critic who lost to her in the 2006 race for governor.

Information garnered from the requests indicates that Todd Palin exchanged dozens of e-mails with members of the governor’s staff during his wife’s short time in office. The e-mails contained an array of subject lines, including “re: PSEA (Public Safety Employees of Alaska) Ads,” “re: PR campaign” and “re: Parental consent abortion bill.”

Some of Gov. Palin’s critics have questioned why Todd Palin is involved in the governor’s official correspondence. After all, he’s not a politician, nor does he have government credentials of any sort. Rather, he’s an award-winning snowmobiler, fisherman and an oil-field production operator on Alaska’s North Slope.

Of special note to Indian country, Alaska’s first gentleman is also of Yup’ik Eskimo descent, and Gov. Palin has cited her husband’s and children’s Alaska Native heritage as signs that she is committed to and well-versed on Native issues. The governor commonly refers to her husband as Alaska’s “first dude.”

Given his closeness to the governor, not all Indians view Todd Palin’s fingerprints in the governor’s dealings as such a bad thing. Some said it would be especially helpful if he could help the general public understand more about tribal issues, especially those surrounding Alaska Native Corporations.

The corporations were established in 1971 after Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which settled land and financial claims made by Alaska Natives and provided for the establishment of 13 regional corporations to administer those claims. Many non-Indians have had grievances about the corporations and some have argued that economic benefits have not been widely dispersed throughout the state, although studies have found otherwise.

“There’s always a need to spread more knowledge about our issues, and Todd Palin is an excellent resource—I’m sure he will be involved in some way in her campaign for vice president,” said Jana McKeag, a co-chair of American Indians for McCain Coalition.

“It’s all about access, whether it’s through a spouse, or not—the more important fact is that [McCain and Palin] care and have proactive records on Indian issues.”

There is precedent for positive developments happening for Indian country at times when powerful federal officials have had Native spouses.

It’s well-known that non-Indian former Democratic Sen. Fred Harris from Oklahoma placed strong emphasis on issues affecting American Indians during his terms in office. His wife is LaDonna Harris, of Comanche descent; she and her daughter, Laura Harris, continue to have strong voices in the Democratic Party.

“There’s no doubt Frank made Indian issues a priority because he had a tough Comanche wife,” said former Republican Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a leader with the Northern Cheyenne Indian Tribe.

Nighthorse Campbell expects that Todd Palin, too, would have an influence on his wife’s policies and beliefs involving Indian country issues, especially if she were elected to higher office.

“If you’re not listening to your spouse, you’re not being a very good spouse yourself,” said Nighthorse Campbell.

It’s hard to determine specific Native issues with which Todd Palin has involved himself to date. Most of the contents of e-mails obtained via the public information requests have been blackened out by state officials on the basis of “deliberative process” or “privacy/personnel.”

Based solely on their subject lines, few of the e-mails appear on the surface to talk specifically about Indian country issues. Still, the ones focused on Public Safety Employees may deal with Gov. Palin’s firing of Walt Monegan, the first Alaska Native public safety commissioner in the state.

Some of Gov. Palin’s political foes have asserted that Monegan was fired because he refused to take action against state trooper Mike Wooten, who was recently divorced from Palin’s younger sister.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that Todd Palin allegedly was directly involved in an effort to get Wooten fired after the trooper reportedly threatened Gov. Palin’s family. The governor and Todd Palin could not be reached for comment on this matter.

Palin spokeswoman Sharon Leighow has said in the past that she couldn’t speak about specific e-mails to Todd Palin from members of the governor’s staff, since the state found them not to be public record.

But Leighow told local media in July that Gov. Palin is “inundated with phone calls and e-mails to their personal accounts, and Todd does pass that information on to the governor. And vice versa. The governor works with a BlackBerry and she forwards e-mails to Todd to print off because she likes to have a hard copy in front of her.”

“It sounds like a pretty good team to me,” said Nighthorse Campbell. “And don’t be surprised if Indians end up benefiting.”