Monday's news that Bristol Palin is five months pregnant came just as the media began to question whether her mother, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, had been vetted before Sen. John McCain chose the small-town Alaskan Republican as his vice presidential running mate. AlaskaDispatch.com probed the question during interviews with Palin's current and former pastors and an attempt to contact the father of Bristol's baby.
Levi Johnston, the baby's father, lives in a modest ranch home on a dirt road outside of the strip-mall-lined downtown of Wasilla, Alaska-the home of the Palin family when they aren't in Juneau, Alaska's state capital. While driving to Johnston's home Monday afternoon, boys on four-wheelers kicked up dust, weaving in out of the road. When we walked up to Johnston's home, we were met at the front door by a young woman who said her name was Kristi Tanner.
Tanner first told us that she was a friend of the Johnston family. She said she couldn't comment and referred us to Michelle Toohey, providing an Anchorage phone number. When we asked Tanner for her number, she gave one with a 928 area code. That's Arizona-home of Sen. McCain.
We asked her why she had an Arizona area code. She told us she goes to college there and is visiting. We asked if she worked for McCain. She said no. We asked if she was from Wasilla and she didn't answer us. We asked how long she had been at the Johnston's home.
"One day? Two days?" we asked.
"I can't remember," Tanner told us.
On Monday morning, we spoke with Ashley Brown, executive pastor of Wasilla Bible Church, the Palin family's evangelical Christian church. He said that McCain's campaign had called him just before us and asked that he be respectful of the Palin family. He declined to elaborate. He did say that this was the first time he'd been contacted by anyone in the campaign.
Senior pastor Larry Kroon confirmed that he had been contacted Monday morning by "Palin's people." He also declined to elaborate: "All I'll say is that Bristol's a young lady. We care about her and want to support her and the family."
We also contacted Palin's former church, Wasilla Assembly of God, where she attended from her teenage years until 2002. Pastor Ed Kalnins told us at noon Monday that he had never been contacted by the McCain camp.
Wev Shea is a Republican, an Anchorage lawyer and a former U.S. Attorney for Alaska. He has known Palin for 15 years, has been an adviser to her and Palin's husband, Todd, and believes she would make a great vice president.
On Monday, Shea told us that he was first contacted March 5 by a member of McCain's campaign (a friend of his for more than two decades). The staffer wanted his thoughts on Palin as a potential vice presidential candidate. He gave her a ringing endorsement. Shea declined to give the name of the staffer.
Shea was again a couple months later contacted about Palin as a possible Veep. Shea told the staffer about a particular concern of his: The McCain campaign should not ask anybody in the leadership of the Alaska Republican Party or senior congressional delegation about Palin because the party is tainted with corruption. Randy Ruedrich is the party chairman. Palin exposed him for doing party business on state time in 2004, when both were serving as political appointees under Gov. Frank Murkowski on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
"The contact I had with the McCain campaign was to tell them not to deal with the Republican leadership in Alaska because of the taint that surrounds them and their failure to address corruption in Alaska," Shea said.
Shea said that the old-guard of the Republican Party has been against Palin because she's a reformer. He provided an example of the animosity that some Alaska Republicans have toward Palin. When she was running for governor in 2006, Shea said he was told by Palin's brother, Chuck Heath Jr., that she had been harassed by U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens's son, Ben Stevens. Ben was then Alaska State Senate president. Palin was at the time running against incumbent Frank Murkowski in the Republican primary.
"Chuck Heath told me that Ben Stevens contacted Sarah Palin directly," Shea said. "He was screaming at her and she had to hold the phone away from her ear." According to Shea, Ben told Palin something to the effect of, "You're not only running against Frank Murkowski, you're running against the Republican machine and my Dad [Ted Stevens]."
As somebody who was vetted himself when he was considered and accepted as U.S. Attorney for Alaska, serving 1990 to 1993, Shea said he wouldn't expect McCain's campaign to ask personal questions about Palin's daughter. "It would not matter in the decision," Shea said.