Sean Parnell: 'Action, not words'

October 21, 2010 

In the lobby of a health clinic earlier this month, Gov. Sean Parnell told a big crowd about his latest initiative to protect vulnerable Alaskans.

"Together let's keep our eyes on the goal: safe and strong Alaska families," Parnell said to loud applause from the standing-room-only audience of advocates, health professionals, law enforcement members and politicians.

The announcement -- about a roundup of sex offenders and proposed tougher laws on child pornography and elder abuse and exploitation -- wasn't a campaign event. But the initiative, unveiled less than a month before Election Day, fit right into one of Parnell's campaign themes: attacking a state epidemic of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Parnell told the audience the effort is about "protecting Alaska's children from sexual exploitation and protecting our elderly from abuse and fraud. Both of these are increasing threats to the wellness of Alaska's families."

The Republican from Anchorage is trying to win outright the seat he inherited in July 2009 when Sarah Palin abruptly resigned.

So far, he's much more visible as governor than as candidate. Until mid-October, the campaign was whisper-quiet. That's a classic incumbent strategy: Lay low, don't make waves, don't make mistakes.

Parnell, 47, says voters should pick him, not Democratic challenger Ethan Berkowitz, because he is charting the right course for the state's economy and for the well-being of families. "Action, not words" is his campaign slogan and he slips the phrase in during the first moments of a strictly timed 30-minute campaign interview.

"There's nobody else pushing to transform our education system through Alaska performance scholarships," the governor said, referring to scholarship legislation he secured this year. "There's nobody out there right now, except for this governor, who is leading the way in trying to get more oil in the pipeline, in trying to get companies together on a more competitive tax regime."

Parnell, a lawyer and former state legislator, is a conservative in every sense of the word: on social issues, on economic issues and in his cautious approach to governing, observers say. When his campaign staff was asked about Parnell's top accomplishments, the first item on the list was $100 million he secured from the Legislature this year to pay for "deferred maintenance."

While he's kept most of Palin's top appointees and is mainly sticking with her approach on a natural gas pipeline and oil taxes, Parnell offers none of her superstar flash or drama. According to both his critics and supporters, that may be one of his biggest selling points.

"I always say don't mistake quiet respect for a lack of resolve. That's a truism for me," Parnell said.

A CAUTIOUS MAN

Parnell has lived almost his whole life in Alaska. His father, Pat, owned an office supply company and served on the Anchorage Assembly and in the state House -- as a Democrat.

"I like to say, when I was growing up, my mom was a Republican, my Dad was a Democrat, and I chose right," Parnell joked. He said his parents now live in Everett, Wash., where his father is a hospital chaplain. Both now are Republicans, he said.

Parnell graduated from East High School, then majored in business at Pacific Lutheran University. He got his law degree from Seattle University.

He was always a sort of straight-arrow guy, said political consultant Jim Lottsfeldt, who was a year behind Parnell at East and competed with him on the debate team. They were friends back then and stayed in touch over the years.

"He is ... a really, really nice man, who is generally cautious about everything in life and dotes on his wife and two daughters," Lottsfeldt said. "I wouldn't describe him as particularly creative. I wouldn't describe him as bold. But I would say he's confident. He's competent." Lottsfeldt worked for Democrat Hollis French in the primary race for governor.

Much as Berkowitz is pitching himself as a pro-development Democrat, Parnell is casting himself as a conservative who cares about people.

Parnell spent eight years in the Legislature and rose to become co-chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. When he didn't run again in 2000, he said it was because of the strain on his young family from the moves back and forth between Anchorage and Juneau.

He became an oil company lobbyist, then served in the Murkowski administration as deputy director of the Division of Oil and Gas.

Four years ago, he won the GOP primary for lieutenant governor and joined with Palin on the winning ticket in the general election.

Midway through, Parnell tried to unseat U.S. Rep. Don Young at a time the congressman was under criminal investigation. But he lost in the primary, just as Berkowitz lost to Young that year in the general election. Young didn't return calls to discuss his views on the two men. Parnell remained lieutenant governor until Palin's exit.

Parnell's wife, Sandy, worked last year as a part-time legal assistant. They have two children.

Parnell makes $115,000 as governor. He doesn't list any business interests or investments on his state financial disclosure other than retirement and college savings accounts.

NOT PALIN

Parnell said he hasn't talked to Palin in a long time, though she co-sponsored a fundraiser for his campaign in August.

During her 2 1/2 years as governor, Palin had a rocky relationship with the Legislature, especially in 2009, after her vice presidential run. Parnell has tried to mend fences, said House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski.

"He probably just stabilized the relationships between the governor and the administration. I think that they were pretty frayed at the end of Gov. Palin's term. I think that he kind of calmed down a lot of the issues that were out there."

Juneau legislators in particular were distressed by Palin's hostility to the capital city, said Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat. Palin didn't spend much time there, didn't live in the governor's house and at least appeared to be shifting state government operations to Anchorage.

"My community was so abused by her," Kerttula said. "It was quite a relief to see a change."

Parnell moved to Juneau with his family and yellow Lab, Annie. And he reached out early on to talk to legislators one-on-one, Kerttula said.

But much of the goodwill eroded in June when Parnell unexpectedly vetoed an expansion of the Denali KidCare program that provides health insurance to children and pregnant women in low-income, working families, Kerttula said.

Parnell had supported the expansion that would have covered about 1,300 more children and more than 200 pregnant women, only to veto it after it passed. He said he didn't realize Denali KidCare services included abortions. Parnell has said he's against all abortion except to save the life of the mother.

"It was really a deep blow. And it just seemed so horribly political and so anti-woman," Kerttula said.

After the veto, Parnell said, "If your governor doesn't stand for life and liberty, as he understands it in his conscience, then you don't have a governor."

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE CONTROVERSY

Opponents have accused Parnell of misusing his position as governor to put himself front and center on the domestic violence issue during the campaign. One of his Republican primary challengers, Ralph Samuels, criticized his appearance in a private group's television ads against domestic violence, saying it could be considered an improper campaign donation.

Parnell responded that the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault asked him to appear in one of its ads. The group had received some state funding and $15,000 from Parnell, money left over from his race for Congress. Parnell said he gave the money to the network just as he gave leftover legislative campaign funds to a women's shelter many years earlier.

State elections regulators said an ad campaign that doesn't call for supporting or opposing a candidate would not fall under state reporting requirements.

More recently, Berkowitz said Parnell was using the governor's office for political purposes when he launched the recent initiative to round up sex offenders and strengthen laws against predators -- the event at the Anchorage health clinic earlier this month.

Nonsense, Parnell responded. He's not going to stop being governor just because he's running for the office. He's worked to curb domestic violence and sexual abuse since the 1990s.

'GREATEST LEGACY'

Parnell said it's not his style to grab headlines. He mentioned a trip last year to the flooded Kuskokwim River village of Akiak that the public probably never heard about.

"I went to Akiak and got in a boat to cross the flood zone to get to the high school where 100 people had found shelter. Circled up the leadership in the room around the table and helped them make a list of things they needed. Empowered them by giving them the satellite phone to call our emergency services people and read the list to them of supplies."

The supplies reached the village in eight hours, he said.

"That's perhaps the greatest legacy I have. The heart demonstrated for our people and my willingness and desire to clear a path of opportunity for them, so they can grab their future, not so I can create it for them."

Parnell said he has many achievements to show for his nearly dozen years in office, starting with legislation he sponsored in 1996 to ensure domestic violence cases receive an appropriate response statewide.

He also was one of the legislators who sponsored the bill creating a DNA registry.

"Today a number of people are behind bars, including Bonnie Craig's killer, because of that DNA registry," Parnell said.

He presided over the Legislature's budget writing at a time when oil prices bottomed out at $9 a barrel and Democrat Tony Knowles was governor. He said his ability to negotiate a budget with a "hostile governor's office and 59 other legislators" shows he has the ability to see the state through tough financial times. He was part of a Republican majority that cut $250 million in state spending over five years.

Some moderate Republicans who served in the Legislature with both Parnell and Berkowitz say Parnell's budget cutting mainly shifted money around and didn't solve the state's long-term budget problems.

Early this year, Parnell proposed adjusting the controversial oil tax passed under Palin, known as ACES for Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share. But he couldn't get his idea to spur more oil exploration through tax credits past the state Senate, where Democrats share control. Chenault, the House Speaker, said the law is stifling oil development and needs more than the tweak Parnell proposed.

Berkowitz has bucked his party by criticizing ACES, calling it the biggest tax increase in state history, and he criticizes Parnell's connection to ACES.

In an interview, Parnell hesitated when asked whether ACES was a mistake. The Palin administration felt compelled to replace the tax system passed in the corruption-tainted 2006 legislative session, he said. But the proposal "was then jacked up by the Democrats who required an extra billion dollars in taxes to get it through."

He said Berkowitz's biggest weakness is that "he doesn't know who he is. He still is changing his stripes every day as we speak."

Berkowitz shot back: "That's ridiculous. I've always been a fiscal hawk."

In a mid-October speech to a pro-development group, Parnell proposed more substantial changes to ACES, but he's not abandoning the tax structure, aides said.

DEMANDS ON HIGH SCHOOLERS

Parnell said one of the biggest measures of his success ultimately might be a bill he pushed through the Legislature this year to give scholarships to Alaska students who complete a rigorous course of study in high school.

"That will change the face of our economy for 30 to 50 years if we have young people who are better educated and in the work force," Parnell said.

Critics question whether the academic standards are so high that most students will fail to qualify.

The program will provide up to $4,755 a year for the highest-achieving high school graduates to go to college or technical school in Alaska. They must take four years of math, science, language and social studies -- or three years of math and science and two years of a foreign language. To get the full amount, they'd have to graduate with a 3.5 GPA.

That's the right direction, said state Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, chairman of a task force trying to figure out how to pay for the scholarships.

But state Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, said students who take such challenging courses often attend college out of state or already qualify for University of Alaska scholarships. And those who don't take these courses are ineligible.

"The governor completely misdirected his effort," Guttenberg said.

Parnell said he deliberately set requirements high.

"I'm tired of our school system accepting mediocrity. I'm calling our kids to excellence and I'm calling our school districts to excellence."


Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

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