This year’s gubernatorial race is going to be a referendum on the Parnell administration. While challengers Bill Walker and Byron Mallott have inspiring personal stories, loaded resumes, and unique personalities that make them fascinating leaders on their own, the coming months are going to involve much less of a focus on them, and much more of an emphasis on the record the incumbent is defending. It’s a referendum vote — and Governor Sean Parnell knows it.
For one, he’s bothered to show up. 2010 saw very little involvement from him, on the campaign trail, while a full field of candidates worked to critique him from afar. This year, with strong support for Parnell remaining — but with indications of waning — he’s agreed to ten debates. Monday’s Anchorage Chamber of Commerce Candidate Forum was the first, and he jumped at the chance to tout his record, full spin ahead.
In four minutes, he zoomed through what he described as his first-term accomplishments, side-stepping criticisms and controversy while tethering everything to his reelection campaign slogan: “My focus as governor is to grow opportunity for Alaska. It’s to clear those paths of opportunity. It’s about Alaska jobs and Alaska families. And clearly, we’re on the right path.”
(The four minute opening deserves an article in itself. Consider that a teaser.)
Democratic challenger Byron Mallott followed the Governor by talking about his experience as Yakutat mayor at the young age of 22, and detailed how everyday decisions kept him up at night. Mallott spoke with the cadence of a Chevelle song; slow and deliberate, with a Shatner-esque intensity.
The methodical pattern sounded very deliberate, yet often came out as if no planning whatsoever went into the messaging. But he was clear about why he was running. “We passionately care about this place. About our Alaska,” he told the crowd. “We [make these decisions] because we know, ultimately, that Alaska must prosper. That every community, every individual, must have a sense that their lives are important. And every decision that we make as public policy makers, we do these things because we care for Alaska.”
Next up was Bill Walker, making a second stab at the governorship after an unsuccessful bid in 2010. This year, he’s skipping the primary and running as an independent — though, admittedly, as a Republican independent. (Because the GOP primary has gotten a bit weird as of late.)
Walker started off by introducing his family. Then, he let the Chamber audience know that his running mate, Craig Fleener, would not be attending next week’s lieutenant governor candidate forum. Fleener, he said, will be out of state serving in the National Guard. Thanking him for his service, Walker said he was glad to be there. He had recently taken part in a much different forum, and found the “Make it Monday” forum a nice change of venue. “That’s how I got convinced to ski at Arctic Man this year — that there was going to be a forum,” Walker said. “I tell you, if you haven’t skied Arctic Man… Don’t. 7,000 feet, 72 degree slope, I’m telling you what, that’s nervous.”
When the laughter subsided, he offered his background: “I’m a Christian. I’m a husband of 37 years, I’m a father of four, and a grandfather of two. I was born in the territory of Alaska in Fairbanks, my father was in the Alaska Scouts in the Aleutians, my mother worked on building the Al-Can Highway.
He said he remembered the fight for statehood, and thought we were fighting another one now.
“I’m running for governor because Governor Parnell’s declaration in the State of the State [address] saying we’ve never been stronger is absolutely not correct,” Walker said, warning of a decade of deficit spending on the horizon.
Andrew Halcro, the Anchorage Chamber President and moderator-in-chief, started the event with a question on education:
This past legislative session was labeled the education session, however no relevant data was used to determine actual student performance or benchmarks. What benchmarks should be used to get Alaska’s students career and college ready at a ninety-percent graduation rate by 2020?
Walker said that he thought solely looking at the graduation rate as a benchmark was a mistake. “Looking at it from a business stand point, in some of the schools we don’t have the right items on the menu.” He pointed toward Hutchinson School in Fairbanks and Mat-Su Career and Technical School, pointing to more vocational training and career academies as good options to pursue.
“Let’s take those schools that are having excess of 90 percent graduation rates and let’s incorporate that into the mainstream education, so that there’s plenty of things on the menu. We assume everybody’s going to go to college, and that’s not necessarily the case.”
Walker also voiced concern over the disparity in graduation rates between urban and rural schools.
Investment in education isn’t really the issue, when in the last four years we’ve invested in education from $1 billion to over $1.3 billion,” Parnell responded, mentioning that graduation rates had improved over his tenure and adding that the state already supported vocational training.
“First of all, it is not an education session of the Alaska legislature when you pass the education funding bill in the ninety-fourth or fifth day of a ninety-day session,” Mallott fired back. He said we needed more consistent education funding and repeatedly insisted upon investing in early childhood education.
Walker also supported pre-K education, but added a note of hesitation. “We’re in a $2 billion-a-year deficit.” He said he couldn’t commit to increased funding until the state started dealing with that fiscal crisis.
When the candidates were asked about this August’s referendum on the Parnell-backed oil tax reforms, dubbed a “giveaway” by SB21 opponents, Governor Parnell was quick to defend his proposal:
If we turn back the clock to guaranteed decline, we have made a bed for ourselves as a state that we do not want to be in. It’s time for Alaskans to have resources unlocked for our benefit. It’s not time to leave those in the ground.
Walker had other ideas, referencing Norway, where oil tax rates are higher than in Alaska by double digits. He said that, while Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Shares Act (ACES) needed some changes, SB21 went to far. “If it hadn’t been for ACES, we would be Detroit today. Because ACES built up a savings account that we’re living off of today.”
“The reality is that we will have continuing revenue shortfalls,” Mallott agreed. “They are growing. They will be significant. Ten years out, we do not have more oil in the pipeline, under the state’s own forecasts.”
Asked further about mega-projects, including the gasline, Walker stood up to speak. “We need a gasline that is controlled by Alaskans…. And when we sit back and put the control in companies’ hands that have competing projects elsewhere,” he paused to shake his head and think aloud: “And what the world is TransCanada still involved in this thing for? I thought they should have been sent home long ago.”
Walker threw down the gauntlet, telling attendees that we needed to stop with the studies, stop with the incentives to oil companies, “become Alaskans again” and build the gasline ourselves. The crowd responded with the healthiest applause of the morning. Parnell was not amused.
“There’s only one candidate at the table who has actually been working to build a gasline,” Parnell fired back from the lectern. “The other one, who was just up here, has been speaking about it for 30 and 40 years, but has not shown results for it.”
Parnell said the state is currently benefiting from a convergence, with the state and oil companies aligning. He opined that the current opportunities were unrivaled in state history, and bipartisan in support — he referenced Representative Les Gara’s vote in favor of the pipeline deal in the final hours of the session (though the vote was hardly cast with a vote of confidence). “TransCanada,” Parnell rebutted. “What are they doing in this deal? They actually know how to build a pipeline. The state does not do that as a business.”
There was one single time where audible groans poured out from the Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Dena’ina Center. This was that moment.
Halcro followed up by asking what percentage the candidates would give the new legislation to actually create a natural gas pipeline.
“Zero,” Walker said flatly.
The Problematic Three-Way Parnell v. Not-Parnell Match-Up.
Each of the three gubernatorial candidates have just begun to confront their unique uphill battles in pursuit of the keys to the governor’s mansion. Parnell is facing waning support, for the first time while in office. That’s neither something he’s accustomed to or, evidently, ready to deal with. He is sticking to the vagueries of stump speech politics, where the candidate who says “opportunities” the most wins. But he also has to account for an inescapably checkered record, with many more lingering question marks than definitive hi-fives. In this debate, the only moments where he deviated from that lone strategy were to strike Walker below the belt very awkwardly, and ask Andrew Halcro to repeat the question — so many times, I was waiting for him to ask for a question to be used in a sentence.
Somewhere along the line, Walker hit his stride. That’s largely due to the fact that he’s played the quiet, calculated prophet predicting the devolving fiscal mess the state finds itself in for years, while masquerading as a television host of a show no one watches in between election cycles. But even amidst the backdrop of the clear win during Monday’s debate — zingers, laugh lines, and crowd cheers aside — he has a more immediate problem in Byron Mallott. This election is going to eventually whittle down to two factions: supporters of the Parnell campaign and supporters of the Not-Parnell campaign. As long as there are two of the latter, that’s a tough sell.
Mallott, who’s introducing himself to his Democratic base for the first time, has a tougher challenge still. He needs a lot of independent and Republican swing votes, and he’s not likely to get them given the three-way struggle that includes a moderate, pro-labor Republican. His performance on Monday did not award him any needed traction.
My money is on the prospect of more chips that have yet to fall. Otherwise, the race has a likely outcome, with Governor Parnell returning to Juneau.