11/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Contrast Of Small-Town Mayors: Sarah & Mary

When John McCain introduced Sarah Palin, my husband said, "She sounds just like you!"

Well, Sarah and I were both reform mayors who ran into controversy -- although talk of my recall wasn't over employee firings but my vote on garbage.

Jeff and I live in city of 8,000 people. The paper mill steams on the west bank of the Wisconsin River. The climate is warm in summer and cold in winter. Rhinelander is best known for the Hodag, a legendary toothy green beast that lives in the surrounding forests and whose diet consists of white bulldogs.

Mayor Sarah's policies interested me and I offer this essay from the perspective of someone who's walked in her snowshoes. Also, I wanted to see how I might stack-up as a VP candidate. I was Hillary's Oneida County Chairperson after all.

When I was elected mayor in 2000, Rhinelander's property taxes were in the Top Ten statewide whereas Rhinelander's household income was nowhere near the Top Ten.

My finest hour was casting a tough (I was booed), tie-breaking council vote to adopt volume-based garbage pick-up. In the first year our sky-high solid waste costs were cut in half and recycling tonnage rose 20%. (To quote Mayor Sarah, "It's not rocket science.") Through this and other cost-saving measures, Rhinelander's property taxes fell for the first time in many years.

Then, I found myself in a fight with the governor.

Mayor Sarah proposed an impressive new sports center and voters approved paying for it through a sales-tax increase and a bond issuance.

The city, however, never acquired title to the land it was built on. With the ownership issue still being disputed in the courts, the Wall Street Journal recently called the sports center "a financial mess."

Mayors, when reading news like this, feel badly -- or as my farmer grandfather Kasperi used to say, "Measure twice, cut once."

Despite the troubled finances, Wasilla now boasts that sports center with a running track, basketball courts and hockey rink.

Rhinelander has an ice arena though ours is owned and operated not by the city but by a not-for-profit association. What we didn't have when I took office as an alderman in 1998, was a BMX track. I worked with the BMX families to get one approved by council then, through generous efforts of volunteers, a soggy city softball field was transformed into a nice bike-racing facility. Oh, there was controversy, with some citizens fearing noise and vandalism -- saying West Park wasn't the right location. But, hey, I know West Park -- I can see it from my house!

Foreign Policy
Never in a million years would I have imagined that being able to see a country from one's home turf would count as foreign policy experience. If that line of thinking is true then my foreign policy experience is indeed vast:

• It began when I was very young, listening to my family speaking the Finnish language. All those vowels gave me a feel for my ancestral country.

• In college in the late 70's I briefly dated a man from France, spent quite a bit of time with a man from Greece, and developed a close friendship with a Palestinian-American whose father had been a schoolmate of Yasser Arafat. I learned that French wine is good, Greek backgammon is nasty, and Palestinian Christians are really f*****d .

• For a year, 1992-93, I saw China from every window of my house. Well, it was from the dan wei my family was living in while Jeff taught at a university in Chengdu, Sichuan, PRC. Hen hao!

• On the flight home from China we had a layover in Japan's Narita Airport where we watched sumo wrestling on TV. Those are some big dudes.

• Ten years later, my mother, Sylvia, and I spent a couple of weeks in Finland, with a day trip to Estonia, which used to be part of the Soviet Union.

• A couple of years after that Mother and I heard Tarja Halonen, president of Finland, give the Finlandia University (Hancock, MI) commencement address. After the ceremony we met her at a reception and I kept thinking, now here's a person with unusual presidential credentials -- social justice!

• I've traveled to Ste. Sault Marie, Ontario, Canada, from which you can see Ste. Sault Marie, Michigan, USA, and vice-versa; and to Key West, Florida, from which you can almost see the communist island of Cuba, whose health care was made famous in a Michael Moore movie that I did see.

• I can call my step-daughter, Megan, a graduate student in German Studies, for insight into the culture of Europe's largest economy.

• There were classes on countries foreign and domestic that I sat through at the University of Michigan while earning my political science degree. I would go on to keep a copy of required-reading Thomas Paine's Common Sense on my mayoral desk.

• Our family dog is a Sheltie. The breed originated in our War-on-Terror ally -- formerly our red-coated foe -- the United Kingdom.

Mayor Palin used taxpayer money to hire a Washington lobbyist to deliver a bundle of earmarks for her city. Whoa! I never would have thought of that! Still, I had some modest success in landing federal and state funds, aka earmarks or "pork" for the Highway 17 relocation project. I joined other Hodags in testifying before the State Transportation Commission and I met with state and federal officials in my office. Now regional traffic moves more efficiently, downtown Rhinelander is no longer a bottleneck, and residential streets are quieter.

Earmarks -- such as the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" -- account for about 1% of federal expenditures. We need to keep those federal dollars coming back to our communities, but with a light shining on each and every one of them -- a Shame Test -- to staunch the earmark waste.

You may remember this Sarah Palin statement: "I told the Congress, Thanks, but no thanks, on that Bridge to Nowhere. If our state wanted to build a bridge, we were going to build it ourselves."

It turns out that statement is like claiming dinosaurs and humans walked the earth together -- it just isn't accurate.

Yet, looking forward, Sarah Palin's newly adopted anti-earmark stance begs two questions: If she and her running mate don't win the election, will she, as governor, refuse all earmarks for the State of Alaska? Or, if elected, will the new administration forbid earmarks -- from crab mating studies to firefighting gear -- going to cities, counties, villages, towns and states? Will the federal government then redirect that money toward, for example, a "Pray Away the Gay" pamphlet drop over Key West during Fantasy Fest?

One day I met with Senator Russ Feingold's Northern Coordinator, Karen Graff, who was in town on business unrelated to the city. We got together to talk about civil liberties and the Patriot Act (Russ was the only senator to vote against it), and skiing. When lunch ended I asked the waitress for the tab.

"Oh no," said Karen as she snatched her bill from my hand.

"It's just soup and sandwiches," I replied. And I would, of course, be paying out of my own pocket.

"Not even lunch," she said while digging her wallet from her purse.

In fact, the Russ Feingold crew won't even let you buy them a cup of coffee. I left that lunch more impressed with my senator than ever.

As mayor with the goal of reducing city spending, I knew winning over the city employees would be tough and some department heads made it very clear they had no interest in getting on board.

Did it ever occur to me to instruct department heads to not speak to the press, as had Mayor Palin?


Did I expect department heads' "loyalty" as had Mayor Palin? How strange!

And, No!

My only expectation was competence and professionalism since everybody in Wisconsin knows cheeseheads' loyalty is with the Packers anyway.

One summer night, Jeff was out of town and teenage daughter Ellie was staying at a friend's house. I'd been fast asleep when I realized Ellie was standing over my bed: "Mom. There's a cop downstairs who wants to talk to you."

The long and short of it is she ended up in juvy court for breaking curfew after walking back from a late evening of coffee and pie at Country Kitchen. After her court appearance I wanted to make her walk home. It was really embarrassing both as a mother and as mayor! But, with this seemingly remorseful child at my side, my motherly instincts kicked in and I told her I just hoped she'd learned something.

Sarah Palin, I'm sure, also hopes her children learn from their screw-ups.

Good Old Boys
Criticizing the fabled GOBs is a double-edged sword because, once elected, you need to work with whoever else got elected, which invariably includes GOBs. I worked with city council, which included some good GOBs, and we got some good things done for our city. As mayor, my biggest challenge (besides garbage) was taking on Governor Scott McCallum, a young GOP GOB who called a Rhinelander reporter the long version of "dumb SOB" over a live mic.

With a governor vs. mayor budget battle raging at the time, McCallum's and my little dustup over shared revenues made headlines around the state.

Mayor Palin worked the earmark/lobbying system very well and now, as governor, she takes pride in taking on the GOBs. Meanwhile, the Alaska Daily News is wondering why the McCain campaign is running the governor's office.

Although it's not recorded in minutes, Mayor Palin is reported to have wondered aloud how one might go about censoring books in the Wasilla Public Library.

As for me, one of my best afternoons as mayor was slicing the Bill of Rights Cake on Bill of Rights Day in the district library's Children's Department. The discussion of those rights took place between me, some kids and parents, staff, and the kooky and wonderful Libertarians who brought the cake.

As for 2nd Amendment rights, I think the framers would appreciate how today's population needs to be armed to protect the library from some two-bit, self-appointed hack Literature Czar, who may also be armed.

But really, it shouldn't have to go that far. It's simple: if you don't want to read a book, don't check it out. And keep your paws off it so the reading choice is there for the rest of the library patrons.

The Constitution
In a prime time interview, Charles Gibson asked Sarah Palin what it was like getting the phone call from John McCain asking her to be his running mate. She replied, and I'm paraphrasing, "I didn't blink."

When Rhinelander's elected officials take the Oath of Office, they swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America. Heady stuff and the two times I had the honor of swearing it, I raised my right hand, took a deep breath, and maybe blinked, just a little.

Go Pack!