After the formation of the Unity Ticket, merging the Bill Walker and Byron Mallott campaigns, there was palpable skepticism from both sides of the aisle about how long that unity might last.
For Walker’s supporters on the political right, there was the fear that Walker might give too much power to Mallott, and weight political appointments with Democrats.
For the left, being asked to fore go running a Democrat for the first time ever was a stiff drink. Despite Walker’s decision to run as an independent (which likely was less altruistic and more attributable to the conservative concentrate that filters out moderates in the GOP primary), he had until this very recent point been a lifelong Republican. He enjoyed a cozy relationship with the Alaska Family Council when he ran as a Republican in 2010. The consolation prize of Byron Mallott’s presence on the ticket was obviously the critical factor enabling a two-way race that could unseat Parnell, but the governor also has complete control over how much power the lieutenant governor is afforded.
Quietly, and sometimes vocally, casual political observers voiced concerns; unsure how the administration they were voting for might actually govern.
Obviously, we still don’t know. But the recent announcements from Walker make a case that the incoming administration is not giving up on centrist governance. If anything, Walker seems to be doubling down.
A week ago, Walker and Mallott took turns introducing the co-chairs of the transition team. The first was Ana Hoffman, the president and CEO of Bethel Native Corporation (the first woman ever to hold that title) and co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives. She’s also a Democrat, who donated $1,000 to Mallott pre-merger. The second was Rick Halford, a longtime Republican legislator who has been most well known in recent years for his opposition to Pebble Mine.
And yesterday, Walker made two more announcements. Jim Whitaker will serve as his administration’s Chief of Staff. KTUU’s Grace Jang will serve as spokesperson.
Chief of Staff.
Jim Whitaker served in the Alaska State House between 1999 and 2003, before defeating Rhonda Boyles to become the 9th mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough. A popular mayor, who was reelected with 77 percent support in 2006, he filled that seat until 2009. Though a Republican, Whitaker endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 — the same year Governor Sarah Palin was running on the ticket with John McCain. That move drew both the ire and “Republican in name only” (RINO!) moniker from some in the Alaska GOP. He also would endorse Democrat Luke Hopkins to succeed him as mayor.
“I have known Jim for many years and regard him as a trusted advisor,” Walker said in a press release sent out Wednesday evening. “His previous experience as mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska state legislator, and Fairbanks businessman will serve my administration well. I have been in close contact with Jim in these days following the election. He is an integral part of the transition team and I welcome him to my cabinet.”
Walker had also been in close contact with Whitaker during the campaign. Before the National Guard scandal became a repeated headline in the media, two Guard chaplains contacted Walker, and explained that sexual assaults were happening, and nothing was being done about it.
In May, Amanda Coyne wrote that Walker went to Whitaker for counsel.
Whitaker, who confirmed Walker’s account, told him that he’d handle it and that he had a good relationship with a trusted reporter. Weeks later, the first story by McClatchy reporter Sean Cockerham appeared in the Anchorage Daily News about the abuses.
It’s inevitable that Walker will be on the receiving end of some anger over appointing a chief of staff who endorsed President Obama. But Whitaker’s resume is solid, and, for such a pivotal position in any administration, he’s earned something even more important: Walker’s trust.
Alaska has a proud tradition of journalists transitioning to political spokespersons. In 2011, KTVA news anchor Matt Felling signed on as Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s communications director. Julie Hasquet was a reporter and anchor for KTUU before she was hired for the same title under Mark Begich. Same goes for communications director under Palin, Meg Stapleton. So, seeing another mainstay on a local newscast switch career paths isn’t surprising.
Born in Busan, South Korea and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jang started a career in journalism as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She came to Alaska to work for KTVA in 2007, where she’s done investigative reporting on a wide range of topics, as well as enjoying time in the anchor’s chair. Jang spent a lot of time on the campaign trail in the late summer and fall, covering the senate, congressional, and gubernatorial races.
Jang was the 2006 winner of a New California Media award (now New America Media) for international affairs, writing for KoreAm Journal, and has won multiple awards from the Alaska Press Club and Alaska Broadcasters Association.
“She has been an impressive and steady voice in Alaska media since 2007,” Walker said of the selection. “I am confident she will represent the governor’s office well during the next four years.”
Walker and Mallott will be sworn in on Monday, December 1st.