It started with an editorial in the Anchorage Daily News on June 18, penned by lieutenant governor hopeful Craig Fleener, running with Independent candidate Bill Walker. Fleener was none too happy with Governor Sean Parnell’s “failure to deliver opening remarks to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI),” which he called “an embarrassing and hurtful snub to all Alaskans.”
Fleener was presumably trying to politically capitalize quickly on his superior’s (Walker) complaint that Parnell does his best to avoid public appearances. Walker, who unsuccessfully ran against Parnell in 2010, has persistently claimed that Parnell dodges debates. Mostly because, for all intents and purposes, he does.
But when Fleener publicly and loudly criticized Parnell for not delivering the opening address to the NCAI in the ADN, he incorrectly characterized the NCAI conference as a duck and cover mission. Parnell had informed NCAI a month in advance that he would be unable to attend. He was celebrating his wife’s parents’ 60th wedding anniversary.
Rather than double-check what Fleener claimed his staffers told him — that Parnell was “stuck in traffic” — he decided to jump to the attack-via-editorial stage.
Parnell responded a day later, via a press release from the Governor’s Office:
“Why Craig went to such great lengths to make up a tall tale is troubling,” Governor Parnell said. “To deliberately spread falsehoods to disparage someone in this way is certainly beneath him. He is better than that, and Alaskans deserve a correction.”
Before the deserved correction from Fleener that would come later, Bill Walker stepped in the next day. He sidestepped the part his running mate made up, and instead reiterated his gripes from his previous run against Parnell:
Regardless of his unavailability, it is disappointing – especially given the Governor’s advance notice of the event – that he neglected to address the crowd by video message or prepared statement as he has done for other important and dignified audiences in the past.
All valid points. Parnell did find time to pre-record a video message for this past weekend’s “God and Country Day” at the Anchorage Baptist Temple (Fleener, a member of ABT, attended in person).
But that doesn’t account for Fleener’s decision to run to the press with unsubstantiated (and incorrect) claims that Parnell ducked the NCAI for political expediency to embarrass and snub all Alaskans — a charge the Walker campaign rejects, saying that it was a mix-up by the NCAI at the national level. Walker did the honorable thing: he stood by his man. But, first, he should have made sure his guy was right. Instead, he defended Fleener and doubled-down on the attack against Parnell, all of which was done completely off-topic.
Furthermore, he claimed that Parnell’s defense — sent out as an official press release from the governor’s office — violated ethics law. Walker asserted that such a press release, sent in Parnell’s capacity as Governor of Alaska, was a “politically motivated press release to take personal digs at another candidate[.]”
The state statute invoked by Walker prohibits public officers from misusing an official position to “benefit or harm a… candidate for elective office” but does not include an elected official who has “the intent to benefit the public interest at large through the normal performance of official duties.”
One might logically conclude that when Fleener chastised Parnell by saying “our governor could not welcome our guests and fellow Alaskans,” he was not only disparaging Sean Parnell in his capacity as a candidate, but also the office of the governor. Parnell was entitled to respond as the governor.
But the 2014 gubernatorial race is not a two-way race between Sean Parnell and Bill Walker. Democratic challenger, Byron Mallott, is still in the race. When Walker broached a possible ethics violation, the state Democratic Party couldn’t resist.
“Just after Alaska was named the 7th most corrupt state, Sean Parnell is using state resources for political purposes,” Chair of the Alaska Democratic Party, Michael Wenstrup, said in a press release on June 20.
Former Democratic candidate for State House, Lynda Zaugg, filed an ethics complaint.
And, Monday night, Sean Parnell (the candidate) took to Facebook, the land of his predecessor, to trade his legitimate objection for an ugly campaign post attacking Walker and Fleener in the least tactful way — with an unflattering photo of his opponents. Meme politics. More commonly known as the thing parents shake their heads at their teenage kids for injecting into the public sphere.
Not mad, just disappointed. The cheapest of political roads to go down.
As internet culture tightens the grip on how our politics work, I keep hoping for a counterbalance. Someone to stop and point out that, just maybe, the quick and surgical momentary gains from two-bit political attacks might be a bad thing. That soundbite politics, as translated through social media, might offer a more corrosive long term effect worth some reflection before clicking “post” or “publish.”
If this week is any indicator, nobody running for the executive position in Alaska seems particularly interested in bothering with any of that. Win the day’s narrative, ignore the rest. That seems troublesome when there are so many days left to must-win before anyone gets to vote on the matter.
The incumbent governor was readily willing to sacrifice integrity for a couple dozen “likes” on facebook. The Independent candidate for lieutenant governor didn’t bother to check his facts before penning an editorial in the state’s largest newspaper — and the guy he’s running with double-down before checking his running mate’s work. Meanwhile, Mallott didn’t urge caution when his party opted to implicate him in an easy-to-recognize, impending train wreck. Surely the “coordinated campaign” gave him a heads up to their strategy of getting involved. One would have hoped that, at that point, someone in the campaign would propose sitting this one out and claiming the high road after everyone and everything else derailed.
Parnell could have sat back and enjoyed Walker, Fleener, and the Democratic Party fulminate objections based on the false premise that he ducked out of the NCIA Convention. But he couldn’t. That was shortsighted and petty. That perception has begun to haunt his poll numbers.
As far as poorly vetted, knee jerk reactions go, no stone was left unturned.