Democrat Byron Mallott kicked off his campaign for governor with a noisy indoor rally in Anchorage Wednesday, vowing to be a uniter in a divided state.
Among the hundred or so supporters in attendance was a potential rival, Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage. French had been exploring a second run for governor after his failed bid in 2010, but on Wednesday said he would support Mallott and run for lieutenant governor instead. He said he believed that playing for a team that could win was more important than a divisive primary fight for the party's nomination.
Mallott, 70, is a Tlingit from Yakutat who has held high-level positions in government, business and nonprofits but has not sought elective office since he was elected mayor of Juneau in 1994 (he was elected mayor of his home town, Yakutat, at age 22). He has been telling reporters for weeks that he was considering a run for governor, and on Tuesday he filed -- in Yakutat. The downtown Anchorage rally, with speeches by French, former Anchorage Assembly chairwoman Jane Angvik and Mallott himself, was his first official campaign event.
Wearing a white cotton button-down shirt, blue jeans and black shoes, Mallott spoke quietly and modestly, saying he was uncomfortable with the recitation by Angvik of his past accomplishments: executive director of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp., director for Alaska Airlines and Alaska Communications Systems, Sealaska Corp. chief executive, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives and chairman of the Nature Conservancy of Alaska among them.
Mallott introduced his wife, Toni, and one of adult children, son Ben, but then, perhaps demonstrating his inexperience in politics, forgot the names of two elders he intended to introduce as examples of regular people who "made Alaska better for all of us." He had to walk off the podium to ask one her name, and the other shouted out a correction of her last name from her wheelchair after Mallott gave the wrong one.
But he also articulated the themes of his campaign: Alaska as a place of beauty and opportunity, with a creative self-government that looks out for all.
"Alaska is home, isn't it -- to every single one of us," Mallott said. "It's a special place, it's a place that you just don't live, it's a place that every day in our lives we celebrate. How many other places do we talk about with the kinds of adjectives that we use when we discuss Alaska? ... It's size is greater than many nations, and yet our entire population, of just over 700,000, is that of a medium- to smaller-sized American city. It is an incredibly unique place because of what the land and the beauty and yes, the spirituality of it, offers to each of us. With our small population, we have the ability to come together in ways that I can think of no other place makes possible."
While broad on generalities, he did speak in some specifics when he spoke to reporters later. He said he was happy that Alaskans will have a chance to vote on repealing Senate Bill 21, the oil-tax cut pushed by Gov. Sean Parnell and backed by Republican-controlled Legislature, and would himself vote to restore the former tax regime.
He said business and the state's economy would thrive if Alaska's society was cohesive, but he wouldn't be drawn into saying the state needed more or less regulation.
Mallott told reporters he had a physical checkup before he decided to run and his doctor pronounced him "fit as a horse" with the heart of man in his 50s. If elected, he would be about the same age as Govs. Frank Murkowski and Wally Hickel when they began terms. But if elected to a second term, Mallott would leave office at 79 -- by far Alaska's oldest governor ever.
Mallott's candidacy -- and French's decision to run for the number 2 spot -- firms up the 2014 election and appeared to make Democrats happy. State Democratic Party director Kay Brown, in the back of the room, said she thought the party would have a strong pair at the top of the ticket.
On the Republican side, Gov. Sean Parnell will seek a second term. His lieutenant governor, Mead Treadwell, is jostling two others in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate race against incumbent Democrat Mark Begich. Two well-known Republicans are trying to replace him: Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan and state Sen. Lesil McGuire.
Former Valdez Mayor Bill Walker, a Republican, is running as an independent to avoid a primary fight with Parnell. Though there was talk of a "dream team" with Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski as his running mate, that idea never materialized. Walker reached into the state administrative machinery to find his candidate for lieutenant governor, Craig Fleener, a deputy fish and game commissioner before he resigned last week.
French said he's been talking politics with Mallott since August. He wouldn't officially be Mallott's running mate unless he wins the Democratic primary -- so far, the only other candidate is Mat-Su math teacher Bob Williams.
"I've always known and liked and respected Byron Mallott, and as we spoke, I could see the resolution he was bringing to the campaign," French said as stadium music like "Who Let the Dogs Out" filled the room before the speeches began. "He was going to stick with it. And once I saw that, I thought Parnell doesn't have real primary, Walker doesn't have a real primary, why should we go through a divisive primary when I have a candidate that I can support and represents my values?"
French said he believed that Walker would help the Democratic candidate.
"Looks to me like you've got two Republicans and one Democrat in the race," French said.
Reach Richard Mauer at email@example.com or 257-4345.