Monday, October 6, 2008

Palin Overstates Her Support for Darfur Divestment

In last week's Vice Presidential debate, one of the things that Gov. Palin spoke about that really caught my attention was her support for divestment from companies doing business in Sudan as a means of putting pressure on the Sudanese to stop the genocide in Darfur:

What I've done in my position to help, as the governor of a state that's pretty rich in natural resources, we have a $40 billion investment fund, a savings fund called the Alaska Permanent Fund.

When I and others in the legislature found out we had some millions of dollars in Sudan, we called for divestment through legislation of those dollars to make sure we weren't doing anything that would be seen as condoning the activities there in Darfur. That legislation hasn't passed yet but it needs to because all of us, as individuals, and as humanitarians and as elected officials should do all we can to end those atrocities in that region of the world.

Darfur is an issue that resonates with me. As I mentioned in a post back in February 2008, I've lobbied the Indiana General Assembly in favor of a bill that, when enacted into law, required Indiana's pension funds to divest from most companies doing business with Sudan (in particular, companies that do business with Sudanese oil interests). Thus, I was gratified to hear Gov. Palin speak so forcefully on this issue. It was one of the few points where I found myself to be in agreement with her during this election cycle.

Unfortunately, it turns out that her support for the divestiture movement was not so strong as she would like us to believe. According to Michael Dobbs, columnist for The Washington Post, in his column "The Fact Checker", Gov. Palin first opposed the divestment plan before deciding, after it had died in a legislative committee, to support the plan:

The Save Darfur Coaltion [sic] has been urging states to divest from companies that do business with Sudan for the last two years, arguing that the investments "help fund genocide." An Alaska saving fund, The Alaska Permanent Fund, has around $22 million invested in international trading companies such as China Petroleum and Alstom of France, that do business with Sudanese oil interests.

Alaska Permanent Fund officials made clear from the outset that they were opposed to any divestment effort. Executive director Mike Burns told a local Anchorage TV station, KTUU, on December 11 that they were looking for the "best return" on the investments, and never took into account "socially responsible investments ... whether it's tobacco or alcohol or hospitals that perform abortions or hospitals that don't perform abortions."

In January 2008, a bill known as HB 287 was introduced into the Alaska House of Representatives restricting investments in companies that do business with Sudan. During a committee hearing in February, a Palin administration representative, deputy revenue commissioner Brian Andrews, testified against the legislation on the grounds that it would do nothing to help "the afflicted in Sudan," and would add to the fund's administrative costs.

While acknowledging that the legislation was "well-intended" and "the desire to make a difference is noble," Andrews warned that "mixing moral and political agendas at the expense of our citizens' financial security is not a good combination."

A co-sponsor of the legislation, Anchorage Democrat Les Gara, said that Governor Palin apparently had a change of heart on the divestment issue in March. During a brief hallway conversation, she expressed sympathy for his bill. By that time, however, the bill had effectively died in committee.

The change in the Palin administration's position became official in early April when Revenue commissioner Pat Galvin announced that the administration supported a Senate bill on divestment, SB 227, as "a proactive action against genocide in Darfur ... The situation is an ongoing human tragedy and Alaska has an opportunity to take a stand against those activities." The Senate bill, like the House Bill, went nowhere as there was no time to take action on it before the legislature wrapped up its business in early April.


Sarah Palin is exaggerating her role in leading the Sudan divestment effort in Alaska. The legislative record shows that her administration was late in embracing the campaign to sell stock in companies that do business with Sudan, and initially opposed the divestment effort. The Alaska Permanent Fund still invests in companies blacklisted by the Save Darfur Coalition.

Thus, while applaud Gov. Palin's current support for divestiture from companies doing business with Sudan, I must take exception to her efforts to make voters think that she has been out in front of this issue pushing for its adoption. She could have told the truth; she could have said that at first she opposed the bill, but upon learning more about the situation, decided to support it. I would have been gratified with that kind of answer; in fact, I would have commended her for recognizing the importance of the issue and putting politics and finances aside. But, instead, she tried to take credit for something without even acknowledging that she had initially been opposed. I think that politicians don't give voters enough credit when it comes to changes in positions. Tell us that you changed your mind and explain why.

I know that there have been lots of instances very much like this throughout the campaign. I raise this issue, not specifically to criticize Gov. Palin; I wish all candidates would avoid these sorts of half-truths or claims of support that don't tell the full story. No, I raise this particular issue precisely because of the issue itself. Genocide is too important for mere politics. I don't really care who stops the genocide or which party they are affiliated with. I just want genocide stopped, wherever it is found and whomever it may be against.

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