This morning I interviewed John Stein, the former Wasilla mayor who was defeated by Palin in 1996 by using "a quiet campaign by some Palin supporters raising emotional issues like abortion and gun control, which had no apparent tie to municipal politics" — and as Phil Munger notes, a whisper campaign that Stein was secretly Jewish (Stein is a Lutheran).
According to Stein, Palin’s main base of support in that election (and subsequent Wasilla campaigns) was derived from her fellow congregants at Wasilla Bible Church and the larger evangelical Christian community. But it also included some of the Mat-Su Valley’s biggest far-right nutcases — to the extent that she even attempted to reciprocate by appointing one of them to the city’s planning commission.
The connection revolves mostly around three men known to have far-right leanings in the community: a builder named Steven Stoll, a computer repairman named Mark Chryson, and a third man named Mike Christ. All three subscribed to a bellicose, "Patriot" movement brand of politics — far-right libertarianism with a John Birch streak.
According to Stein, Steven Stoll — whose local nickname, according to Phil Munger, is "Black Helicopter Steve" — was involved in militia organizing in Wasilla the 1990s, and subscribed to most of the movement’s paranoid conspiracy theories: "The rumor was that he had wrapped his guns in plastic and buried them in his yard so he could get them after the New World Order took over."
This wasn’t particularly unusual in the valley at the time. Like much of the rural Northwest, survivalist worldviews often led to Patriot organizing activity and its attendant paranoia: "There were other folks who also got all worked up about the supposed Y2K thing," Stein said, recalling a home he’d looked at with a full array of bunkers and stored food supplies.
But Stoll, Mike Christ, and Mark Chryson were a special case: "They would demonstrate in front of the Wasilla Council," recalled Stein, saying that the causes varied but invariably involved an animus to "socialist" government, such as planning and public education. "This same group [Stoll, Christ, and Chryson] also challenged me on whether my wife and I were married because she had kept her maiden name. So we literally had to produce a marriage certificate. And as I recall, they said, ‘Well, you could have forged that.’ "
And they were a vocal part of Sarah Palin’s base of support. "She got support from these guys. I think smart politicians never utter those kind of radical things, but they let other people do it for them. I never recall Sarah saying she supported the militia or taking a public stand like that. But these guys were definitely behind Sarah, thinking she was the more conservative choice."
They also played an important role in his defeat after three terms as Wasilla’s mayor: "They worked behind the scenes. I think they had a lot of influence in terms of helping with the backscatter negative campaigning.
"The guns and abortion issue was what was the big deal. That was very much in the mindset of the community and so that’s what they went with.
"But besides her church, that faction was involved in getting out the vote for her. Absolutely. In fact, Steven Stoll was one of her first appointments after she took office.
"She tried to appointing him to the planning commission. I just couldn’t believe – that was a real shock to me, I just couldn’t believe that they were that closely tied. That was an indication there was some strong support. Because Stoll was real big disturbance at the city level. He was the kind of guy who if he didn’t get his way he wanted everybody out in the parking lot to fight it out." [Stein was unsure whether Stoll actually made it onto the board; he thought the council may have blocked the appointment, but couldn't say for sure. We're looking into it and will report back.]
Stoll may have not made it to the planning board, but he did enjoy at least one bit of payback for his support: According to the New York Times, Palin fired the city’s museum director apparently at Stoll’s behest:
… The mayor quickly fired the museum director of the town, John Cooper, saying that she was eliminating that job. Later, she sent an aide to the museum to tell the three employees there that "they only wanted two," recalled Esther West, one of the three employees. "We had to pick who was going to be laid off," West said. The three women quit as one.
Days later, Cooper recalled, a vocal conservative, Steven Stoll, sidled up to him. Stoll had supported Palin and had a long-running feud with Cooper. "He said: ‘Gotcha, Cooper. And it only cost me a campaign contribution."’
Stoll said that he did not recall that conversation, although he did say that he contributed to Palin’s campaign and that he was pleased that she fired Cooper.
Chryson is also a noteworthy figure in this. At the time, he was heavily active in the Alaskan Independence Party, a Patriot-oriented "secessionist" movement with whom Palin has an established history; Chryson became the AIP’s vice chairman in 1996 and its chairman in 1997, a position he held until 2003.
When Palin was named John McCain’s choice as the vice-presidential nominee, Chryson posted the following testimonial about his friendship with Palin:
"I just wanted to let you know … Sarah Palin who McCain just picked as the next vice president is one of the most honest people I have known. I have known her for over 15 years, been in her house and have had numerous conversations with her, in person, on the phone both for personal issues as well as political issues.
"She is an excellent choice and this might have even saved McCain from going down in history as a loser in the presidential race. Sarah is one elected official that I can’t say anything negative about. And after 15 years of knowing her if there was something that was bad I would have known it.
Back in the day, Sarah Palin obviously had no problems carrying water for Wasilla’s far-right fringe. Of course, these days, she doesn’t want to have anything to do with these old friends (and Team McCain is intent on making sure you don’t know about them, either).
So it probably was not just a coincidence that Sarah Palin posed with that article from the John Birch Society’s house organ for that City Council portrait in 1995. After all, Palin’s base of support included the community’s far-right fringe element that likely sent the piece across her desk in the first place. And as we can see, she pandered to them in all kinds of ways.