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Byron Mallott to run for Alaska governor

Alex DeMarban
Byron Mallott, shown here in 2011 during his time as a senior policy fellow at the First Alaskans Institute, has announced his intention to run for governor of Alaska.
Jill Burke photo

Before the average Alaskan was born 34 years ago, Byron Mallott had already served as a mayor, a state commissioner and a rising leader at a regional nonprofit corporation in Southeast Alaska. And his career, like the man himself, was still young. His next step will be a run at the state's highest office, as a Democrat.

Now 70 years old, Mallott's résumé includes stints as executive director of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, and a director of the Alaska Public Radio Network, to mention a few stand-out roles.

About the only thing he hasn’t done is run for governor. Until now.

Mallott said in an interview Monday night that he'll gun for the office next year, and will file an official letter of intent to do so in the coming weeks.

Mallott is the lone committed Democrat in a field that so far consists of Republicans Gov. Sean Parnell and oil and gas attorney Bill Walker, who will avoid a Republican primary contest with the governor by running independent of any party.

Democrat Sens. Bill Wielechowski and Hollis French are also exploring the idea.

Mallott, a Tlingit born in Yakutat in Southeast Alaska, said he never set out in life to build a résumé. His decision to run -- after talking with numerous friends and acquaintances -- is based on a sense of public duty. 

"I was born and raised in this state, in a village," he said. "I have held many positions both in public service and government, business, and the nonprofit sector over the years, and I've just come to sense after all of that service that maybe there is something I can give back in a way that moves Alaska down the road in a positive way."

How would he improve Alaska's future? He said he wouldn't discuss policy during a brief phone interview late Labor Day evening, as he was preparing for a trip to the University of Alaska Fairbanks where he's providing input on the creation of a campus park to honor the region's Alaska Native history.

"It's far too early" to discuss policy, he said. "There will be more to come."

Why did he decide to run against Parnell?

"I'm not running against anyone," he said. "I’m running for the office of governor in the belief that we can be a better Alaska, and that there is greater opportunity before us than I think the current leadership on the statewide level -- within the state -- are providing to the people of Alaska."

"But that doesn’t mean I don’t respect Gov. Parnell," Mallott said. "It isn’t about him. It isn’t about me. It’s about trying to figure out a way to move Alaska ahead on a continuing journey to be one of the best places on Earth. It’s as simple as that."

Polls suggest Parnell has relatively solid ratings. He came to power in the afterglow of a golden era in Alaska, with billions of dollars bouncing off the state's walls after former Gov. Sarah Palin hiked taxes on the state's oil producers, then quit early in her term in 2009, leaving open her seat for then-Lt. Gov. Parnell.

Parnell, elected directly to the gubernatorial role in 2010, has avoided controversy by keeping a low profile with limited public appearances and press conferences, while still continuing to satisfy constituencies in part because of the enormous wealth that the 2007 tax hike produced.

But the fiscal picture is rapidly changing. And some opponents such as Walker and possibly French hope Parnell's flagship success -- pushing through a major tax cut in 2013 to spur oil production -- will be his undoing.

State revenue officials say the cut will remove billions of dollars from the Alaska treasury in the coming years, throwing it into severe deficit spending. The tax cut generated surprising opposition in the form of a repeal initiative signed by 51,000 Alaskans, about two-thirds more than the minimum amount needed.

Parnell's campaign manager Jerry Gallagher -- also Parnell's former legislative director -- did not immediately return an email seeking comment about Mallott's decision. But by midday Tuesday, Gallagher replied: "While Governor Parnell continues to work each and every day to increase economic opportunity for Alaskans and strengthen Alaskan families, he looks forward to the 2014 campaign and welcomes others who participate in this process." 

Though no final decision on the repeal initiative has been made -- state election workers have spent weeks sifting through the petition booklets -- it appears the measure will be on the ballot during the primary election next August.

And in November, Mallott, Walker and Parnell could wind up facing off.

Despite Mallott's extensive public roles -- including serving as mayor of both Yakutat and Juneau -- he'll have to work to build statewide name recognition. But his gift for speaking and his penetrating views on a range of topics could quickly attract attention. 

"I'll be the youngest 70-year-old you’ll ever see in a race," Mallott said. 

French said Mallott's announcement doesn't change his current plans as a potential candidate. French just booked a trip to the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention in Fairbanks in October, where he'll continue to seek feedback on a run.

"I'm still doing my exploratory work, talking to people around the state," French said. "Byron is an excellent candidate."

But French said he'll meet with Mallott soon. "He and I have scheduled a coffee in the not too distant future," French said. 

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com