Did you know that Sandy Parnell had a job until her husband was appointed governor? Did you know that she has two daughters, one of whom is expecting her first child in 3 weeks? Did you know that she shops at Banana Republic, loves living in Juneau—though it can be a little lonely—that she’s kind, humble, authentically religious, and that she wells up when she talks about her experiences visiting domestic violence shelters?
I, for one, knew none of this, and don’t think I’m alone. That might be because like the rest of the media, I hadn’t thought to ask. After the Palins left office in 2009, the whole state, including the press corps, was burned out on politics intermingled with the personal. We didn’t want a governor’s office distorted by big personalities. We wanted people who put their heads down and got to work. And the new governor complied. You can agree or disagree with the policies that Gov. Sean Parnell has enacted, but you can’t argue that he’s been ineffective in implementing them. He oversaw a mammoth oil tax overhaul. He quietly got us out of the AGIA contract, and a natural gas pipeline is closer than it’s ever been.
And for the first time since I’ve lived in Alaska, there’s the beginnings of a frank and open dialogue about the scourge of sexual abuse in this state. (If Parnell does lose, it will be the height of cruel irony that he did so as a result of a sexual abuse scandal.)
It may be that the governor’s accomplishments will be deemed insufficient. Or it may be that we miss those days of high drama and headlines. At any rate, whatever the verdict, it can’t be said that the governor, a serious man, didn’t give it his best. And the same is true of his wife.
Sandy Parnell, who has spent six years as the state’s first lady, has been heavily involved in numerous initiatives and causes, among them Choose Respect. She regularly visits domestic violence shelters. She sits on boards. Has tons of meetings. But she does it quietly, with no PR amplification. Much like her husband, she’s been content to let her activities speak for themselves. This may suit her personality and that of her husband. But it’s lousy politics.
In a small state that likes to think that those who govern us are part of the family, the Parnells often seem like distant cousins, ones that when you do meet, you kick yourself for not knowing sooner. Part of that is the fault of an incompetent communications staff. But much of it rests on the shoulders of the Parnells themselves. They are intensely private people, who were either never taught, or refused to learn, that one vital part of politicking is to politic. It can be hell on families, but that’s part of the job. (So, too is taking the reins of your administration, acting quickly and decisively, and be willing to let people go. But that, as they say, is another story.)
Bill Walker understands politicking. His wife and his brood of children are everywhere: on the airwaves, on the internet, deeply imbedded in his campaign. He puts them in front of the camera every chance he gets. And that’s not a bad thing. It can go south really quickly, particularly if Walker wins and brings his tribe with him. But for now, it’s nice to see that big, smart family on TV, at campaign rallies, huddled around their parents.
In contrast, there’s only one small picture of Parnell’s kids that I could find on a webpage. Sandy said it was a conscious decision to keep them out of the spotlight after watching what happened with the Palins. “That was one thing that we were very concerned about,” she said. “We didn’t want anything of that sort going on, and the media was willing to do a start-over” she said, and give them their privacy.
They got all that privacy. And more. But now Parnell is in trouble—and it’s high time to get public and to pull out all the stops. Sandy’s the best stop that they have. And she’s surprisingly good at it. In recent days, Sandy’s spoken firmly and decisively on radio talk shows, she’s appearing strong and determined in ads, she’s speaking to groups, and to me. Most of her energy has been spent defending her husband against the way he handled the National Guard scandal, which at this point has gotten so distorted, so politicized, it’ll likely take years to figure out what happened when and what should have happened when.
But the interview I had with her, which lasted an hour and a half, did not focus so much on all of that. Nor on oil tax policy. Healthcare. The federal government. The pipeline. I suspected that on these issues, I wouldn’t get much more from her than I would from her husband.
I was more interested in the personal. Who is our governor’s wife. Who is Sandy Parnell herself? What makes her tick?
Here are some of the things I learned about her l during my interview.
- She was born in Albuquerque in 1962. Her father worked for Hewlett Packard, and was transferred frequently throughout the West when she growing up. She went to 7 or 8 different schools, which wasn’t easy on her. “Looking back, I think the moves were good for me. They developed in me flexibility and the ability to move with change. But in junior high, they were horrible,” she said. It was in the aftermath of one of those moves that she found God while visiting a cousin. It was not a good time in her family’s life. The house they moved into was a mess. Her parents were having problems. She was awkward, wore glasses, braces and head gear and was terribly lonely. Her family had always gone to church, but she didn’t realize what being touched by grace felt like until then, until she needed it.
- She met Sean in college at Pacific Lutheran University, where they both were studying business and had classes together She said that Sean was like a caring big brother to many of the girls she knew, and she never suspected that he had interest in her, until he showed up on her front porch and asked her to the “Cave,” a late-night hangout for college kids. Shortly thereafter, they were engaged.
- Until Sean was elected governor, even while he was lieutenant governor, she always had a job. When Sean was in law school in Washington, she says, “I put on my overalls” and sold boilers and furnaces for a natural gas company. When they moved to Alaska, she worked as an insurance underwriter, and then as a law assistant. She loved her jobs.
- One of the moments that had a dramatic impact on her life was when she visited Rome with her husband who was on a trade mission. She visited a home for women, run by nuns, who had been saved from sex trafficking. She watched as one woman, from Nigeria, who had just arrived, hugged one of the nuns, and asked her, “Why me? Why did you save me?” When Sandy got back to Alaska, she began asking questions about whether or not there was sex trafficking in Alaska. She discovered there was. It looks different here, but it is happening and it’s “huge,” she said. A task force was convened. She testified in front of Senate Finance for money for training law officers. It was a compromise, but she got some of what she wanted. She now thinks of that trip to Rome as a gift from God, or in her words, “providential.”
And of course, whatever happens next will also be providential. But no matter what gets decided and by what force, Choose Respect will be a legacy that this administration will have left, in no small part thanks to her. If Walker wins, he might undo much of what has been done on the pipeline. The tax policy will, at some point, change. But Choose Respect will stay.
But if Parnell wins, it would be wise for both he and his wife to remember that Alaskans tend not to like entrusting our lives and fortunes to distant cousins, no matter how well-meaning.
Contact Amanda Coyne at firstname.lastname@example.org