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Matt Zencey

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It's a Mystery Why the Tea Party Loves Sarah Palin

Posted: 01/07/11 05:30 PM ET

Rightfully or not, Sarah Palin is claiming major credit for helping Republicans take over the US House and almost grab the Senate. She is the presumptive favorite among Tea Party conservatives as the candidate to beat for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

To those of us who witnessed Palin's short-lived career as Alaska's governor, the passionate Tea Party enthusiasm for her is one of the great mysteries of the universe.

Apparently few of the Tea Party faithful are familiar with her record back in Alaska. As governor, she ran the kind of big government they despise and showed a slick politician's slippery regard for ethical propriety and truth.

While governor, Sarah Palin supported and signed the largest tax increase in Alaska's history. That change in oil taxes, which she dubbed ACES ("Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share"), cost the state's largest industry an extra $4 billion.

In 2007, the first full year of her term, she and the Legislature added $1.4 billion to the previously passed budget. For that year, Alaska state government spent 50 percent more, per resident, than the next highest spending state.

As governor, Palin vetoed some pork barrel items state legislators stuffed into the budget, but she did not reverse the steady growth of state government spending. In fact, she pushed through the kind of expensive government handout a Democrat might love. As oil prices spiked to $140, and oil money poured into the treasury, she persuaded the Legislature to give each Alaskan - man, woman and child -- an extra $1,200 of state money as an "energy rebate."

A liberal columnist for the state's largest newspaper, Elstun Lauesen, said Palin was "a pretty good socialist governor." Alaska's most prominent conservative commentator, Dan Fagan, repeatedly blasted her for being too liberal, especially on oil taxes.

Like many of the career politicians who enrage the Tea Party, Palin took advantage of lax financial rules for her own gain. She charged the state for "travel" expenses -- a per diem allowance for meals -- while living at her home in Wasilla and commuting to the governor's office in Anchorage.

Palin repeatedly billed the state for bringing her children along on state trips. Facing an ethics complaint on the matter, Palin agreed to repay the state for ten trips her children took. On one of the state-paid trips, Palin took her daughter to New York City and stayed in a $700 a night hotel room.

Palin also had use of a state car for her commute to the office from Wasilla. When the media started asking if she'd paid federal income taxes on this benefit from her employer, she abruptly turned the car in and never answered the question.

In one ethics case against her, involving a legal defense fund set up for her benefit, the state ethics investigator found "probable cause to believe that Governor Palin used, or attempted to use, her official position for personal gain in violation of Alaska statute."

Palin ran for governor on the promise to run an open and transparent administration. But she had a private email network set up so she and her aides could conduct state business without having it show up in official state records. Those private emails may have contained important evidence about whether Palin was telling the truth in the Troopergate scandal, but investigators never recovered them.

A governor who set high ethics standards would have fired the aide who was caught on tape in the Troopergate scandal, trying to get Palin's ex-brother-in-law fired from the state troopers. Palin kept the aide on her staff.

Like many politicians, Sarah Palin knows how to stretch the truth. She was for the Bridge to Nowhere before she was against it. She astonished Alaskans by claiming the Legislature's investigation into the Troopergate scandal "vindicated" her -- when in fact it found probable cause she had violated state law.

Sarah Palin's appeal to politically-alienated anti-government conservatives in the Lower 48 dumbfounds those of us who witnessed her career in Alaska. She criticizes big government, but she ran a big government in Alaska and gave it more money. She ran as an ethics crusader, but she took advantage of loopholes in ethics laws. She routinely defended herself with the classic politician's excuse -- what I did wasn't against the law.

If Tea Partiers would think for a moment before lapping up Palin's anti-government platitudes, they'd see Sarah Palin for what she is: one more ambitious, angle-playing politician who will do or say whatever it takes to further her career.

Matthew Zencey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He is working on a book, "Sarah Palin: Why Liberals Used to Love Her and Conservatives Should Be Wary."