Alaska. Home of rugged individualists. People who live off the land and know how to take care of themselves.
People who elected Sarah Palin, who doesn't want the federal government or any government handing out stuff for free.
But you may be surprised to learn that this is also the state where residents gets a check from the government every year just for living there, a state that gets by far more largesse from the federal government than any other state in the union (twice the national per capita average), and a state where even if you're one tiny bit Native American, as Todd Palin is, you get free health care.
That's right. Sarah and her family get free health care from the government. She can see Canada from her kitchen window.
And that check from the government? Yep, Sarah, Todd and the kids each get one. In fact, she got elected governor in part on the promise, which she delivered on, to increase the annual payment. Palin issued a record $3,200 per person in 2008 when the average has been between $600 and $1,500. This made her a popular governor. The payments are essentially the royalties from oil and the exploitation of other natural resources, through the Alaska Permanent Fund. Thanks to a forward-looking state constitution, all of the natural resources of the state belong to its people.
Free government health care. Huge infusions of cash from the national government. An annual payment to every citizen based on the socialization of natural resources. In other words, Alaska is the most socialist state in the union and Sarah Palin expanded at least one of its socialism-based policies. This is not the image she portrays.
I just got back from a few days in Alaska at the invitation of the state AFL-CIO, where I joined Wisconsin state Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) to speak at their annual picnic about the recent events in Wisconsin. (Here's a piece of advice: never follow Lena Taylor on a podium. I saw this coming. So, I insisted on going first. I like to think I calmed the crowd before Lena set them on fire. This kept everyone safe.)
Dianne and I spent some time with our friend Thomas Dewar. Now an Anchorage resident, Thomas is a former Madisonian who was a key strategist and communications director in my unlikely win in the 2003 mayoral election. (I wish I had had him around to help prevent my unlikely loss in the 2011 race.)
Thomas introduced us to his friend Jeanne Devoe, a fellow blogger and publisher of The Mudflats, except that she's one with a national following that includes the likes of Rachel Maddow. She's also coauthored a book on Alaska's former governor, titled Blind Allegiance to Sarah Palin: A Memoir of Our Tumultuous Years. See her photos from the Solidarity Picnic, where I met Alaska's Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Begich.
Jeanne and Thomas took us to see the Portage Glacier and showed us the sights of Anchorage, an interesting town in a gorgeous natural setting whose architecture can only be described as, well, not trying to compete with nature.
Nonetheless, the people were friendly, the seafood was great, and the natural scenery was stunning. We also got a chance to see Denali (Mount McKinley), which is a rare treat since less than one out of three visitors to Denali National Park actually gets to see the mountain, which is usually covered in clouds. We even stopped so I could get my picture taken in front of the Wasilla library where Sarah Palin tried to ban a book or two.
There's a lot more Alaska could do for its people. Norway is the gold standard for dealing with oil riches. But Alaska investing in its future, with a goal of making the state completely independent of fossil fuels by the time the oil runs out. But with a $14 billion reserve and only 700,000 residents, Alaska can't even bring itself to properly fund its schools or provide high-speed wi-fi access in a state with so many remote regions that could benefit from it. Still, there's that annual payment and all that free health care for at least a good portion of the population.
Alaskan politics and culture defy the easy definitions of the lower forty-eight. It's a state proud of its individualistic image yet with one of the most progressive constitutions anywhere. A state where pioneer-types happily cash their annual checks from the government. A state that doesn't want federal interference in its affairs but accepts enormous handouts from the national government. And a state of breath-taking natural beauty and breath-taking awful human structures. It's the home of Sarah Palin and Jeanne Devon and, for now anyway, Thomas Dewar.
If you ever get the chance, go there to see it all for yourself.