SITKA -- With just three weeks to go before the June 1 filing deadline, the Alaska Democratic Party still hadn't found a candidate to take on Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Republican incumbent with $2 million in the bank. The search was stalling as Democrats gathered for their party convention in Sitka, a small Southeast Alaska town rich in scenery and history whose mayor was a big guy named Scott McAdams.
Now, five months later, McAdams is in a tight, three-way race to become Alaska's next U.S. senator. His name will be on Tuesday's ballot along with the Republican nominee, lawyer and tea party star Joe Miller. McAdams is trying to hold his Democratic base and keep voters who don't like Miller from supporting Murkowski's write-in campaign to keep hold of her seat.
The majority of attention in the race has been on controversies surrounding Miller and the drama of Murkowski's upset Republican primary loss and write-in campaign. Many Alaskans still don't know much about the 40-year-old McAdams -- where he came from and how he became the Democratic hope to win the Senate seat.
He'd planned to run for re-election as mayor before an improbable turn of events. As a Democrat and the mayor of the host community, McAdams chaired the Democratic Party convention. One day he sat in on a session that included a consultant from Los Angeles brought in to critique various candidates' stump speeches.
"They had several of the candidates get up and talk. And there was still some time left so they asked for someone else to come and volunteer and no one did," recalled Hal Gazaway, an Anchorage lawyer active in the party. "Scott had been kind of hosting us around because he was the mayor of Sitka. ... And so she had told Scott to come up. He did, she asked, 'What are you running for?' and he said, 'I'm running for mayor of Sitka.'
"And she said no, no, no, pick another office. And so he said, 'In that case I'll run for United States Senate against Lisa Murkowski.' She said, 'And where are you going to be giving the speech?' He said, 'The Petroleum Club in Anchorage.' "
As Gazaway tells it, McAdams hit it out of the park. "I said if he decided to run for United States Senate to let me know and I'd pay the filing fee for him."
'A LONELY CANDIDATE'
Other Democrats also encouraged McAdams and said they liked how he chaired the convention. Even so, McAdams wasn't expected to be more than a long shot, and his candidacy didn't draw much notice -- until Miller shocked the state and won the Republican primary on Aug. 24. Suddenly, McAdams was in the hunt.
"As you know, there was a time in this race when I was a little bit more of a lonely candidate, even I think some people in this room said, 'Scott, why don't you run (again) for mayor?' " McAdams recounted at a homecoming rally in Sitka last week. "We really like what's happening in the city; would you please reconsider?' "
A lot has changed since the August primary. McAdams has generated more than $1 million in campaign donations. His "town hall" rallies are packed with supportive audiences who leave enthusiastic for their candidate. McAdams is an unabashed Democrat in an Alaska largely dominated by Republican politics -- he talks about protecting a woman's right to choose an abortion and emphasizes labor rights and bringing federal money for state projects.
Like most Alaska politicians, McAdams favors oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and offshore. But he also says he'll advocate for federal royalties from the drilling to pay for renewable energy projects.
Because it's a three-way race that includes two Republicans, one candidate might be able to squeak by with less than 40 percent of the vote. Miller is trying to build on a base of devoted supporters while Murkowski and McAdams battle to shift enough votes between them to win.
McAdams' opponents are clearly seeing him as a threat. The National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee launched an anti-McAdams ad campaign over the past few days. Ad executive John Tracy (formerly news director at KTUU-Channel 2), whose agency is working for her campaign, last week flew to Sitka, where he recorded interviews with a pair of former Sitka mayors who support Murkowski rather than McAdams.
One of them is Stan Filler, Sitka mayor from 1997 to 2000. Filler said McAdams' two years as Sitka mayor don't qualify him to be Alaska's U.S. senator. The Sitka mayor has essentially no more power than any of the other six members of the city and borough assembly, while an administrator manages the town. The mayor presides over the assembly meetings and has whatever intangible influence comes with the title. He is paid $500 a month by the city.
"The mayor of Sitka, Alaska, is nothing like being the mayor of Anchorage or Fairbanks. We don't make any big decisions; you just run a meeting. You go out and shake hands with people and do the simple things," Filler said.
Filler and McAdams have some history as political adversaries. Filler owns a bar called Ernie's Old Time Saloon. Several years ago Sitka passed a clean-air ordinance that exempted bars and private clubs. McAdams was among those who pushed to expand the ban into the two bars and two clubs that still allowed smoking, one of which was Ernie's. Surprised opponents helped push the question to a public vote this month, where the expansion was rejected, 1,435 votes to 1,008.
Ask McAdams' supporters in Sitka what they like about his performance as mayor, and his skill at running a meeting comes up quickly. The previous mayor had a style that led to contentious meetings and angry citizens. Under McAdams, his supporters say, meetings are half as long, municipal work gets accomplished, and people are treated respectfully.
"He restored civility to politics in Sitka," said Spencer Severson, a commercial fisherman in town.
Thad Poulson, editor and co-publisher of the Daily Sitka Sentinel newspaper, said McAdams has been an excellent mayor who "obviously made a study of governance, of political science ... he's very good at it." Poulson said McAdams, unlike other Sitka mayors, also didn't get power-hungry and overstep his authority by trying to meddle in the city administration.
He said McAdams "is what he is. He doesn't pretend, for example, to be a conservative, which is a very fashionable thing to do in Alaska," Poulson said. "Say one thing and expect another, decry big government running our lives and then go for handouts, which is the Alaska way. Scott doesn't do that. He says, 'We depend on an orderly government process, we know that it serves a function in Alaska, a very big function, and we have to respect that.' "
FOOTBALL AND FISHING
McAdams was born in Orange, in Southern California's Orange County, south of Los Angeles. He moved to Alaska at 7, after his parents split up. His mom had a second cousin whose husband worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Petersburg, a commercial fishing community of fewer than 3,000 people in the Southeast Panhandle. She decided it would be a good place to start a new life, with Scott and his sister.
The family moved into a low-income housing project in Petersburg. McAdams grew up big: as a ninth-grader he was 6-foot-2 and weighed 240 pounds. There was no football program in Petersburg, so at the age of 15 he went to stay with his grandmother, going to high school and playing as an offensive lineman in Tracy, Calif., where he was named All-Northern California.
McAdams went on to play a year of football at Sacramento State University. He put in a full day of school in addition to football, but struggled with academics and "hardly had 75 cents in my pocket to do a load of laundry," he said. In the meantime, a buddy back in Alaska was making good money commercial fishing. McAdams left college and returned to Petersburg.
He worked one summer at a cannery and started commercial fishing, longlining and seining in Southeast, the Gulf of Alaska, around Kodiak and in the Bering Sea.
McAdams met and married his wife, Romee, three years after he began commercial fishing. She was a college friend of a girl McAdams knew from Petersburg, who had come to Alaska for a visit after graduation. They moved to Sitka in 1997 and he enrolled at Sheldon Jackson College. After receiving an education degree in 2000, he got a job teaching and coaching the varsity football team in Riverdale, Calif. He stayed for a year before returning once again to Alaska.
McAdams worked from 2002 until last fall as the supervisor of protection and visitor services for the state-owned museum at Sheldon Jackson College. He coached the Sitka High School football team and a "C" high school basketball team.
McAdams didn't cast his first vote in Alaska until 2001, a fact Murkowski pressed him on during a recent televised debate. But he quickly embraced government and politics in Sitka, the former capital of Russian America that now has a population of just fewer than 9,000. He was first elected to the Sitka School Board in 2002, was the school board president from 2005 to 2007 and the president of the Alaska Association of School Boards from 2007 to 2008. That's when McAdams won a two-year term as mayor.
OPPONENTS IN SITKA
Sitka elected a new mayor this month, a McAdams political opponent on the assembly named Cheryl Westover, who won by just two votes. Westover, who is not registered with a party but describes herself as a fiscal conservative, maintains McAdams was not a "'get-done sort of person" and that she'll be pushing more for economic development than he did. McAdams dismisses his Sitka opponents' statements that his Assembly majority was not pro-business enough as a political attack and says he lobbied for the city's interests on state and national levels.
One issue brought up against McAdams as mayor is the collapse of a proposed deal for the University of Dubuque in Iowa to operate part of the shuttered Sheldon Jackson College campus. The Dubuque president criticized McAdams personally, although it was Dubuque that backed out of the talks. The prevailing feeling in Sitka of those who were involved is that McAdams didn't cause the exploratory effort to go awry; Westover said she did not think that deal would have worked regardless. She argues, though, that McAdams' term was one of inertia.
Westover also questions how McAdams, after being elected mayor, went from the Sheldon Jackson museum job to director of Sitka Community Schools, a $70,000-a-year position running after-school and weekend programs, and managing the local gymnasium and pool. There were other applicants with relevant experience, Westover said, and she questions the process by which McAdams ended up with the job after leaving the school board and becoming the city's mayor.
"I got up and testified under 'persons to be heard,' " she said, "because while it might be legal it didn't seem very ethical that he's mayor and the city puts money into the community schools program that he's director of."
Sitka School District Superintendent Steve Bradshaw said he hired McAdams for the job because he knew him as an educator who has taught, coached youth sports and knew budgets. He says Westover's claims were unfounded.
"Unfortunately for Cheryl she doesn't know squat about how things happened with the job. And you have to take into consideration that Cheryl was not a Scott fan, that Scott beat somebody she thought should be the mayor of this community," Bradshaw said.
"I am absolutely qualified for that job," McAdams said, "I think that's Cheryl Westover's attempt at political grandstanding." He didn't take the job until a year after leaving the school board, as required, he said. And as mayor he has recused himself from voting on school district issues since starting the job.
'WE CAN WIN THIS THING'
McAdams relocated to Anchorage this summer to campaign full-time, but he went home to Sitka for a day last week. His message at his homecoming rally, speaking before about 50 supporters, was that his campaign will finish strong.
"I like to tell folks that I have a campaign staff that would make Gov. Knowles and Sen. Begich jealous, because it's made up of Gov. Knowles' and Sen. Begich's staff," McAdams said.
A staffer for Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, Susanne Fleek-Green, joined the McAdams campaign. So did Begich deputy chief of staff Leslie Ridle. She handled Begich's constituent relations in the Anchorage mayor's office and did the same thing for Tony Knowles when he was Alaska's governor.
McAdams' demeanor is personable and casual. He's held his own during debates, often with the sort of direct responses that caught the attention of Democratic Party convention-goers. He cracks jokes, a contrast to the tension during debates between Miller and Murkowski. He talks about local government giving him experience being accountable to his neighbors, who can gripe at him in the store.
Among the most controversial issues in McAdams' home region of Southeast Alaska is Murkowski's bill to give the Native corporation Sealaska prime lands in the Tongass National Forest. McAdams said he doesn't support the bill in its current form and wants to hear more from clans and tribes about what they want to see.
He calls the U.S. Senate a club of "millionaires doing the bidding of billionaires" and favors increasing Social Security taxes on the nation's highest-paid to keep Social Security afloat. Currently, only the first $106,800 a person makes is taxed to pay into Social Security. McAdams argues that the federal health care law needs to be improved, not repealed, while both Miller and Murkowski say they want to repeal it. He opposes development of the Pebble Mine prospect in Southwest Alaska, saying it would endanger the Bristol Bay red salmon fishery.
Lon Garrison, the current Sitka school board president, spoke after the Sitka rally of how McAdams impressed him as a leader on lobbying for school issues in Juneau and Washington, D.C., during McAdams' six years on the board, and showed him the ropes.
McAdams' told his Sitka supporters the race is about more than Miller's personal drama, tea party talking points or Murkowski's "sense of history interrupted and her personal legacy." He asked them to tell the "overanalyzers" and "strategic voters" to vote their values and resist the urge to write in Murkowski out of fear of Miller.
"We can win this thing," he said, "and I believe we will."
Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.
• Date of birth: Oct. 10, 1970
• Occupation: Director of Sitka Community Schools
• Employment history: Teacher, Riverdale Unified School District, California, May 2000-June 2001. Program coordinator, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Sitka, fall 2001-fall 2002. Supervisor of museum protection and visitor services, Sheldon Jackson Museum, employed by the state Division of Archives and Museums, fall 2002-fall 2009. Director, Sitka Community Schools, fall 2009-present.
• Previous public offices held: Mayor of city and borough of Sitka, 2008-October 2010; Member of Sitka School Board, 2002-2008
• Previous unsuccessful runs for office (include dates): (Candidate did not answer)
• Post-secondary education: Bachelor's in secondary education, Sheldon Jackson College
• Military service (starting and ending dates, last rank, specialty): (Candidate did not answer)
• Spouse: Romee McAdams
• Children: Three
• States lived in for at least six months: Alaska, California, Washington, North Dakota
• Web site: www.scottmcadams.org
By SEAN COCKERHAM