On Thursday morning, oil and gas attorney and former Valdez mayor Bill Walker became the first major candidate to declare his intent to run for governor in the 2014 Alaska Republican primary.
About 30 people gathered for the announcement at the Walker family home in West Anchorage. Ermalee Hickel, the widow of former Alaska Gov. Walter Hickel, was in attendence, and her late husband's legacy was invoked several times during the event.
Aggressive action on behalf of Alaska was a defining theme of the event. Walker's wife, Donna, introduced her husband as "a warrior" who will defend Alaska, not special interests. "Alaska needs an Alaskan to the core," she said just before her husband came to the podium.
Walker said the major reason he decided to run for governor again is that he's deeply concerned about the direction Alaska has -- and has not -- been going.
As a portent of one major theme Walker's campaign will focus on, hovering always around the proceeding were the memories of three political titans known for their advocacy of Alaska as an "owner state" selling its resources for the greatest return possible, former governors Bill Egan, Hickel and Jay Hammond. Walker referred to the three late governors often as examples of the kind of focus and devotion that Alaska's leadership has lost over the years, qualities he said he aims to return to the governor's office.
Citing Hickel's famous ultimatum to the major North Slope leaseholders, Walker expressed dissapointment that Alaska has gone from "You drill or we will" to Alaska's political leaders standing back expecting other parties to act for the state.
That slippage, he said, is exemplified most recently by the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act and the oil tax reduction that passed through the current legislature with no assurances of reciprocal investment. Both efforts are flawed, he argued, because they give up the state's timeline and goals to other parties and expect them to act on behalf of the state.
"To give away things hoping someone's going to do something for us, we'll run out of things to give away," Walker said.
'No one to blame but ourselves'
Walker stressed several times his intention to run because of a desire to fight for the state's interest in developing its resources. He said that the recent reform bill, known as SB 21, was one reason he decided to run for the governor's office again.
He said that he would not have voted or supported the tax cut, worth an estimated billion dollars per year in the short term. But he said he accepts the will of the people if voters reject a referendum to repeal the cut currently in the works to get on the August ballot.
"I hate what I see out there," Walker said in one of his most forceful moments. "Alaska has gone from an owner state to an owned state, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. Shame on us. That will change when I'm governor."
Specifically, Walker said those changes involve trying to attract as many different oil companies to the North Slope as possible to explore and produce smaller oil fields, and that he would lead the state forward on building a state-owned natural gas pipeline that would alleviate crippling energy prices and provide stock for overseas exports.
This will be Walker's second try at the nomination for governor. He last ran in 2010 primary, when he came in second to the eventual winner, Gov. Sean Parnell. Parnell won 49.5 percent of the votes, followed by Walker (34 percent) and Ralph Samuels (14 percent).
Parnell, a former lobbyist for ConocoPhillips who served as lieutenant governor under Gov. Sarah Palin, took over as governor when Palin resigned mid-term in summer 2009.
Walker's campaign in 2010 was essentially a single-issue campaign, focused on energy. When asked what will be different for him running this time, Walker said that he and his campaign will be starting from a different place, with greater awareness of a range of issues and a different context for the election.
Now, all eyes will fall to Parnell, who has yet to announce his plans for 2014. Since he's officially only served one full term as Alaska's governor, he's eligible to again run for the position next year without spilling over the two-term limit for the state's highest office. There have been whispers that Parnell may also be considering a run for U.S. Senate, as one Republican candidate hoping to get Democratic Sen. Mark Begich out of office.
If Parnell were to decide to enter the Senate race, it could throw a wrench into other Republicans' plans. Polling earlier in the year indicated that Parnell was the Alaska Republican candidate with the greatest chance of unseating Begich, followed by Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and failed 2010 Senate candidate Joe Miller. The latter two have already announced their intentions to explore a possible 2014 Senate run.
Parnell's spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said Thursday that she expects the governor to make an announcement "in the next couple of weeks," but offered no further detail on what office he might be eyeing.
Ben Anderson contributed to this report. Contact Scott Woodham at swoodham(at)alaskadispatch.com