Anchorage attorney Bill Walker is dropping his Republican primary challenge to Gov. Sean Parnell and instead will run for governor in 2014 as an independent, he announced Thursday.
At a news conference at his downtown Anchorage law office attended mainly by supporters, including Democrats, Walker said he intends to remain a registered Republican even as he faces off against Parnell and a probable Democrat.
Best known for his so-far unsuccessful efforts to get a natural gas pipeline built from the North Slope to a proposed liquefaction plant in Valdez, Walker said he is running in the Alaska-first tradition of Jay Hammond and Wally Hickel. The two former Republican governors, now deceased, were political enemies for most of their lives but left distinct legacies of opposition to Alaska being run as a resource colony for outside interests.
Walker opposed Senate Bill 21, the measure passed by the 2013 Alaska Legislature to lower oil production taxes by billions of dollars over the coming years in expectation of more production. Parnell strongly supported the legislation, but voters will have a chance to repeal it in 2014 after opponents gathered far more than the required number of signatures to get a referendum on the ballot.
"Any time that we are giving away billions of dollars a year in Senate Bill 21 in hopes that the (oil company) leaseholders will abide by the terms of their (state) lease, and not asking them to do anything different, that's a crisis," Walker said. He also described the lack of progress of the TransCanada-led gas line team as a "crisis" because it wasn't fulfilling the terms of its original state license.
While Walker said he respected the industry and the progress it has brought to Alaska, he rejected the notion that a candidate for governor needed to have the "full faith and credits and support of the oil industry."
"When we've reached the point that you can't hold a public office in this state without their blessing, that's the time we need to make a change," he said.
Walker had initially announced in April that he would challenge Parnell in the Republican primary. He said Thursday he was more comfortable running as an independent appealing to all Alaskans, bypassing the Aug. 19 primary and going straight to the Nov. 4 general election.
In response to the switch, Parnell's campaign issued a one-sentence comment: "Governor Parnell's strong and steady leadership for all Alaskans will continue regardless of where Bill Walker finally lands."
Walker ran against Parnell in the 2010 Republican primary and said he was frustrated by Parnell's unwillingness to debate. With three major candidates in that race, Parnell won with 50 percent of the vote; Walker got 33 percent.
"His approach, and it certainly worked, was to lay back and sign bills, have picnics, and not really engage in the process. You can't do that in a general election -- we'll all be there together," Walker said.
Alaska has a rich tradition of independent and third-party campaigns in its governor races -- so much so that of the 13 general election ballots since Statehood, the winning governor took more than 50 percent of the vote only five times. In 1990, Wally Hickel, a traditional Republican running on the Alaskan Independence Party ticket, got 39 percent of the vote and beat the Democrat and the Republican. On three other occasions, well-known conservatives or former Republicans running as third-party candidates may have helped Democrats into office by drawing votes from the official Republican candidate.
Walker said he's not trying to be a spoiler.
"I'm looking at the bigger, longer picture -- the risk associated with four more years of Sean Parnell. That's a given if he's not beat," Walker said.
Sitting at the table in front of the room in support of Walker was Debbie Brown, the short-term chairwoman of the Alaska Republican Party, who took office and lost office this year in a fast-moving internecine battle for party control. She currently has no formal title in the party other than former chair.
Explaining her support of Walker's independent bid, Brown said, "Alaskans will use the tool of the political party system as long it's behaving appropriately." Her obvious implication was that she believed it wasn't.
At the other side of the table was Vince Beltrami, a Democrat and president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, the umbrella labor organization. So far, Beltrami said, Walker is the best candidate in his eyes, though he wouldn't commit to supporting Walker through election day.
No Democrats have emerged as gubernatorial candidates, though two senators and a representative, all from Anchorage, have said they're considering: Hollis French, Bill Wielechowski and Les Gara.
"We have supported Bill Walker in the past," Beltrami said, referring to the AFL-CIO. "Everything that Bill reflects is the best thing that's out there on the table right now to move Alaska in the direction we need to go."
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4345.