ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Gov. Sarah Palin was for the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" before she was against it, a change of position the GOP vice presidential running mate ignored Saturday when she bragged about telling Congress "thanks but no thanks" to the pork barrel project.
Federal funds for the $398 million bridge were tacked into an appropriations bill as an earmark, the practice by which members of Congress get special funding for pet projects. Sen. John McCain opposes earmarks as an avenue for pork barrel and special interest spending.
After McCain introduced her as his choice for vice president on the Republican ticket, Palin talked about her reform credentials, and said she stopped the bridge project as part of an effort to end of earmarking in appropriations bills.
The Alaska bridge pushed by Sen. Ted Stevens became a symbol of congressional misuse of tax dollars. It would have connected the town of Ketchikan to an island with 50 residents and an airport on it. Ferries and water taxis serve the island now.
"I have championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress," Palin said in her vice presidential campaign debut in Dayton, Ohio. "In fact, I told Congress, I told Congress 'thanks but no thanks' on that Bridge to Nowhere."
"If our state wanted a bridge, I said we'd build it ourselves," she said.
She didn't talk that way when she was running for governor. The Anchorage Daily News quoted her on Oct. 22, 2006, as saying yes, she would continue state funding for the bridge because she wanted swift action on infrastructure projects. "The window is now while our congressional delegation is in a strong position to assist," she said.
McCain has used the Alaska bridge as a case study in what's wrong with the way Congress spends money. After the Ketchikan bridge became an issue and an object of ridicule, Congress dropped the earmark.
Andrew Halcro ran against Palin in the 2006 governor's race, receiving the third most voters, and remains a critic. In his blog and Web site, Halcro raised the bridge issue, saying Palin changed her position for political purposes.
Political flip-flops are a mainstay of presidential politics. One of the most famous examples is John Kerry's explanation for opposing and then favoring an $87 billion Iraq funding bill during the 2004 presidential campaign. "I actually did vote for the $87 billion," he said, "before I voted against it."
According to the Ketchikan Daily News, the bridge issue came up on Sept. 20, 2006, during an appearance the gubernatorial candidates made in Ketchikan.
"The money that's been appropriated for the project, it should remain available for a link, an access process as we continue to evaluate the scope and just how best to just get this done," the newspaper quoted Palin as saying. "This link is a commitment to help Ketchikan expand its access, to help this community prosper."
The newspaper also reported that she said "I think we're going to make a good team as we progress that bridge project."
The bridge issue dates back several years. Former Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski, who had been an Alaska senator, wanted it built. Stevens and Rep. Don Young, pushed the project through Congress, securing $452 million in a federal transportation bill for two bridges _ the one in Ketchikan and another in Anchorage.
With criticism over earmarks increasing, Congress stripped the provision from the bill, requiring instead that some of the money be used for an airport. Alaska eventually received about half the money. Murkowski and the Legislature redirected all of the money but $60 million in 2006, and Palin has left the remainder untouched to eventually be used to improve access to the island, Palin spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said Sunday.
Ketchikan Mayor Bob Weinstein, who campaigned for Palin's Democratic opponent, said he was there at the candidate forum when "she was asked about the bridge and she supported it."
Bill McAllister, Palin's press secretary, questioned how she could have used the scuttled bridge project to promote herself in national politics when she got there a week ago as McCain's unexpected choice for the ticket. "How could she have foreseen that she would be at this point now? Everybody is surprised by this development," McAllister said.
McAllister, who covered the 2006 campaign as a TV reporter, said Palin was lukewarm about the bridge as a candidate and cooled on it as governor.
"Of course when you become governor things come into much sharper focus than when you are a candidate," he said. "Then she is forced to pay very close attention to the fiscal realities of it."
On the Net:
Andrew Halcro: http://www.andrewhalcro.com