Parnell has new style but old tests

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

Sean Parnell becomes Alaska's 10th governor since statehood today, taking on the lightning rod legacy of Sarah Palin, questions about his toughness and an election just a year from now, when at least two members of the Legislature will try to take his job.

He takes office with a state budget that's just a thin line away from running red and as the push for a natural gas pipeline to the Lower 48 enters a crucial year.

Oil industry players and legislators sympathetic to their point of view hope Parnell, with his industry background and work under oil-friendly Gov. Frank Murkowski, will change the tone set by Palin on oil taxes and on the gas line. Parnell backed Palin on those initiatives and has made it clear he still intends to follow them, but both sides will watch carefully how he approaches oil and gas issues now that he is in charge.

Parnell also has a state Supreme Court appointment to make, inherits a health department under fire for its care of the disabled and elderly, and has to work with a state Legislature that was openly hostile to his predecessor.

As Parnell takes the oath of office today, here are some of the challenges, opportunities and questions he faces:


Parnell follows probably the best-known Alaskan in history, a governor who fascinated and polarized the nation. He was Palin's lieutenant governor and close ally, and has never publicly disagreed with any of her policies.

Palin, announcing her resignation on July 3, said she was passing the reins to Parnell to continue the same agenda.

There are political benefits to following in the footsteps of Palin, whose Alaska approval ratings had fallen but were still more than 50 percent before she resigned.

Palin got a lot of Alaskans' blood boiling, though, especially in the Legislature. Lawmakers constantly battled with her, complaining about a lack of communication with the governor. That hurt Palin's ability to get things done after the bipartisan successes of her first two years.

Will Parnell, himself an ex-lawmaker, try to repair relations with lawmakers? Will his agenda be identical to Palin's? Will he establish his own political identity? Parnell has stressed "stability" as he takes over, suggesting no big course changes but that he can be expected to do things differently from his famous predecessor.


Parnell has received mixed reviews from legislators for his initial efforts to mend the relationship with those he'll need to get his agenda passed.

"He is making a bigger effort to communicate with us (than Palin did), particularly right now," said House Speaker Mike Chenault, a Nikiski Republican.

But other legislators say Parnell got off to a bad start. He announced via press conference that he wanted the Legislature to add the highly contentious subject of suspending the state's gasoline tax to what was supposed to be just a one-day special session. It was a populist move in the mode of Palin, but legislators bristled and it won't happen.

"I'm one of them who would be sitting here asking, hmmm ... who counseled him on that one?" said Anchorage Republican Rep. Mike Hawker.

Parnell has the advantage, though, of being a former legislator himself who enjoys the respect of even fierce Palin critics such as Hawker.


"Objectively, I'd say Sean's greatest challenge now will be defining himself," Hawker said. "He has expressed his desire to run for office and he can't just be the caretaker of her legacy; he has to clearly define his own vision and really establish executive leadership in a very short period of time. And I believe he is completely up to the challenge ... he has such a wealth of experience that he hits the ground running."

Parnell will have to deal with the fact that two legislators -- Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat, and Rep. John Harris, a Valdez Republican -- have already announced they're running for his seat, and others are thinking about it. Palin said one reason she's stepping down is because such politics would paralyze her administration.

Parnell has a fine line to walk, with just a year before the Republican primary for governor, between proving himself and not letting politics take over.

"Parnell's biggest challenge, I think, is not to be seen as someone using his office to conduct an 18-month campaign for governor," said Anchorage Democratic Rep. Mike Doogan, among those who didn't think the gas tax issue was a good start. "If he continues down this road, he'll just be seen in the Legislature as Sarah Palin in a suit."


The soft-spoken Parnell is a far different personality from the larger-than-life governor he replaces. He can appear shy at times, more comfortable managing behind the scenes than rallying supporters. The Anchorage Press dubbed him the "Oatmeal Governor," a style some legislators welcome in contrast to the drama of the Palin years.

Parnell's run for Congress last year against the colorful Alaska Republican Don Young was a contrast in styles. Young, who narrowly won the election, mocked Parnell as an incompetent "Captain Zero," and crashed his press conference with a big grin on his face. Young, despite being under federal investigation, came from far behind in the polls to beat Parnell, raising questions about whether Parnell has what it takes.

"There is a general concern that he's not tough enough for a political job, a concern that Don Young's 'Captain Zero' remark captured," Doogan said.

But North Pole Republican Sen. Gene Therriault, possibly Palin's closest ally in the Legislature, said Parnell proved his mettle when he was a legislator.

"He's certainly not bombastic ... it's a different style but that doesn't mean it's not effective," Therriault said.


Parnell has unconditionally backed Palin's approach to encouraging a multibillion-dollar gas pipeline to the Lower 48, including granting a license to the Canadian firm TransCanada Corp. and a $500 million state subsidy. It is competing with the Denali project pushed by the oil companies BP and Conoco Phillips (for whom Parnell once worked as a lobbyist). Parnell also used to be the deputy state oil and gas director under Gov. Murkowki, who had a much more accommodating view toward the oil industry than Palin showed in office.

Republican legislators are increasingly queasy about the TransCanada plan, even after Exxon Mobil joined its effort last month. Parnell has reiterated his commitment to Palin's approach but will face heavy pressure from both sides of the debate. Voters will be watching for signs of progress on the long-awaited project.

Parnell will also have to decide how much state money and effort to put toward a proposed pipeline to bring North Slope gas to Alaskans, such as the proposed $3.3 billion Enstar "bullet line" down the Parks Highway. An in-state line is an increasingly big deal for many of the legislators. Fairbanks Republican Rep. Jay Ramras said he's worried Parnell is too focused on the pipeline to the Lower 48 and not so enthusiastic about pushing the proposal for an in-state gas pipeline, but that remains to be seen.


Parnell comes into office as a rise in oil prices has the state budget just above water. But in a place dependent on oil taxes and royalties to pay for most of state government, it wouldn't take much of a change to return to big deficits. And the long-term prospects are not good with the decline of North Slope oil production. He'll have to also keep watch on how the nationwide recession affects Alaska, and decide if state government spending is a tool for economic growth.

"There are going to be immediate budgetary challenges," said Therriault, the senator from North Pole.

Parnell used to be co-chair of the Senate committee that set state spending. Parnell knows how to read a budget -- unlike many in politics. He is also firmly right wing, a position he staked last year by running a campaign against Young mostly funded by the Club for Growth, an aggressive Washington, D.C., anti-spending group.

Parnell said during the campaign that congressional earmarks, the spending directions put in budget bills, have been abused and should be dramatically reduced after a one-year freeze on them. It's an argument that even many Alaska Republicans had a hard time embracing, given the state's historical love for the federal dollars steered home by figures like Young and Ted Stevens. Parnell has said he's interested in making some cuts to state spending but he won't be coming in with wholesale hacking of the budget.

Palin vetoed some state spending on projects but she never wanted much cutting of state agencies. Legislators are watching closely to see if Parnell continues to follow her lead or if he does come out brandishing a knife.

Find Sean Cockerham online at or call him at 257-4344.