State Sen. Hollis French, a West Anchorage Democrat and one of the most vocal critics of Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, announced Wednesday that he has filed the paperwork and is taking steps toward a possible run at the state's top job.
As French stepped forward, another Senate Democrat from Anchorage, Bill Wielechowski, said he is considering a bid for lieutenant governor on an independent ticket with Republican Bill Walker. Wielechowski had been mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate for governor himself.
Parnell, who slipped into the governor's office in 2009 after Sarah Palin quit the job, is seeking his second full term. French would have to give up his Senate seat to run. Rep. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, already has indicated she intends to try for his Senate seat.
"This is a do-or-die for him," if he takes on Parnell, political consultant Marc Hellenthal said.
French said he decided to file a letter of intent with the state Division of Elections during a recent family reunion vacation in Colorado. His two sisters, brother and father were all there.
"I got great support from them, great support from the inner circle sort of folks," French said. That, combined with Walker's decision to run as an independent candidate, convinced him to file the preliminary paperwork, which allows him to begin raising and spending money.
He said he intends to travel to Fairbanks and Juneau, and on to other cities, to start "a broader conversation about is this winnable and would I be the best candidate."
ALL OPTIONS ON TABLE
French, 54, is a former state prosecutor and oil-field worker first elected to the Senate in 2002.
He said the governor is vulnerable on three key issues: the massive oil-tax cuts Parnell pushed through this year, Parnell's decision not to raise the level of per-student funding for K-12 classrooms, and Parnell's refusal to expand the pool of Alaskans eligible for Medicaid.
Parnell campaign manager Jerry Gallagher immediately linked French to President Obama, part of the national Republican strategy.
"Gov. Parnell remains focused on growing economic opportunity for Alaskans through lower taxes, fighting federal overreach, and increasing educational opportunity," Gallagher said in a written statement. "So far, the other candidates for governor, including Hollis French, mirror President Obama's policies of higher taxes and bigger government. The voters will have a clear choice in November 2014."
With French's announcement, Walker, an attorney who has been pushing an in-state natural gas pipeline for years, said he intends to remain focused on the general election. He said Alaskans are ready to step away from partisan politics.
Walker, like French and Wielechowski, a big critic of Senate Bill 21, the oil-tax cuts, had announced in April that he was going to challenge Parnell in the primary but on Aug. 1 said he instead intended to run as an independent.
Political consultant Ivan Moore has called for Wielechowski, a lawyer who has been considering a run for governor, to pair up with Walker as an independent lieutenant governor candidate. Otherwise, Walker and the prospective Democratic candidate would split the anti-Parnell vote, both Moore and consultant Hellenthal say.
Asked about that Wednesday, both Walker and Wielechowski said they have been talking about running together. Walker said he would be the top of the ticket but if elected, they would work as a team. They would need to collect about 3,000 signatures to get on the ballot, Walker said.
"Let's just say all options are on the table," Wielechowski said. "I would never compromise my political values. So there's a lot of discussion that is going on."
French is a good friend and close colleague who would make a great governor, Wielechowski said. But the central question, he said, is "what's the best possible way we can have a change in the executive branch. I genuinely believe we cannot afford four more years of Sean Parnell."
The race isn't about him, Wielechowski said. "It's about what is the best combination you can put together to win this race so we can get some rational thinking back in our government."
Walker said he and Wielechowski have had lengthy discussions about what kind of administration they would lead. A decision on whether to team up should be made sometime after Labor Day, Wielechowski said.
Walker is anti-abortion but said he wouldn't set out to restrict access to abortion or otherwise push for change on social issues. He's not opposed to gay marriage, for instance, but wouldn't seek to undo the constitutional amendment defining marriage in Alaska as between a man and a woman. Like French, he said he would have allowed an expansion of the Medicaid program and is against proposed school vouchers that would allow public money to be spent on private schooling.
French said he didn't consider teaming up with Walker.
Earlier in the day, another Anchorage Democrat who had considered a run, Rep. Les Gara, said he was hoping that French or Wielechowski would come forward.
"It's the happiest day in the world for me that Hollis going to run," Gara said.
French made a bid for governor four years ago but lost in the Democratic primary to former Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, who in turn was defeated by Parnell. French said he learned a lot in that first statewide race.
When a bipartisan coalition ruled the state Senate through the 2012 Legislature, French chaired the Judiciary Committee and was able to block or control key legislation, including efforts to restrict abortion. He managed the Legislature's Troopergate investigation into whether Palin abused her powers in firing her public safety commissioner. He took heat for it at the time. "I was asked to do a very difficult job, and I did it," French said.
A referendum to wipe out the new law cutting oil taxes is headed for the August 2014 primary ballot. How voters decide that may well foretell his chances three months later in the general election, French said. Hellenthal said it will be challenging to keep the tax issue front and center once voters have their say.
Public Policy Polling, a national polling firm based in Raleigh, N.C., that works for Democratic and progressive candidates, matched up Democrats against Parnell in a July poll. The poll of 890 likely voters found that all the Democrats were behind the incumbent.
Asked who they would pick in a contest between Parnell and French, 54 percent of the voters picked the governor and 33 percent picked the senator. The numbers fluctuated slightly for other possible match-ups, with Berkowitz faring the best.
While Republicans far outnumber Democrats in Alaska, most voters are either nonpartisan or don't declare a party when registering.
This early in the election cycle, French said, he expected to be behind in the polls. He said he hasn't done his own polling yet. Having Walker in the race should help him, French said.
"It's not going to take me long to make a decision. I just need to test the waters and talk to folks around the state and hold some get-togethers," French said.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.