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Underdog Treadwell campaign relying on volunteer manager

Nathaniel Herz
Mead Treadwell, foreground, and his campaign manager, Peter Christensen, stand outside the Bootlegger Cove home they lived in while working together on the 1978 gubernatorial campaign of Wally Hickel. Treadwell, Alaska's lieutenant governor and a Republican, is running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Mark Begich. Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News

The campaign manager for Alaska’s leading Republican U.S. Senate candidate, Dan Sullivan, is Ben Sparks, a 32-year-old who’s spent his career in politics, working on campaigns with national GOP figures like New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker.

Sparks’ counterpart working for rival Mead Treadwell is Peter Christensen, a 58-year-old volunteer and former entrepreneur who was leading a Mormon mission in Nevada before joining Treadwell’s campaign last fall. Christensen’s most recent political experience was in the 1980s, or “the dark ages,” as he refers to it.

Treadwell was once the frontrunner for the Republican primary election Aug. 19, when voters will choose a candidate to face incumbent Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, in November.

But Treadwell has struggled to raise money, and in March he separated from the two veteran Republican operatives he’d brought in to run his campaign.

Now he’s forging on without them, with a lean group of paid staff members working with a stable of young volunteers. And he relies on an unpaid brain trust that includes Christensen and another longtime friend, former Anchorage District Attorney Ed McNally — a gang of three that first formed in 1978, not long out of college, working on the campaign of then-gubernatorial candidate Wally Hickel.

At the end of June, the campaign had just $167,000 in the bank, far behind Sullivan’s $1.7 million. But Treadwell says he’s relying on ideas and energy to get himself to the finish line — and few experts are discounting his chances at this point in the race, especially after a barrage of negative advertising aimed at Sullivan.

“Wally Hickel used to say, ‘If money ruled the world, Exxon would own the world,’ ” Treadwell said. “Obviously, we’re not going to win the fundraising race. But money doesn’t vote. People do.”

Christensen, who describes himself as “not what you’d consider to be a typical campaign manager,” is now filling that role anyway. He recently retired after a career in financial services, which included founding a successful company that evaluated how well banks interacted with customers.

Christensen had expected to spend his time waving signs and making phone calls, but his responsibilities grew substantially in March. That was after the departure of the two veteran campaign operatives.

While not a lifelong Alaskan, Christensen is a longtime friend of Treadwell, and he moved to Anchorage for good with his wife last winter. Fellow staffers and even some opponents praise him as kind and even-tempered.

Treadwell offered to pay Christensen, but he declined, saying that remaining a volunteer has its advantages when he needs to get a point across.

“I have no risk of a salary to say, ‘Mead, I don’t think that cuts it,’ ” Christensen said, chuckling. “I don’t feel at risk.”

Christensen’s political credentials don’t match those of the two managers who left Treadwell’s campaign. One, Rick Gorka, had been a traveling spokesman for 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney; the other, Adam Jones, had worked with the campaign of 2008 presidential candidate Sen. John McCain.

Treadwell hired the two last summer; they set up much of the infrastructure for the current campaign. But Treadwell couldn’t raise enough money to sustain his full staff.

“We had gotten into a debt situation that was not sustainable,” Treadwell said in an interview.

When Gorka and Jones left, Treadwell loaned the campaign $200,000 of his own money and turned things over to Christensen, telling him: “What you’ve got now is enough to make sure the rent’s paid, that the staff is paid through August.”

“I wanted to give Peter a clean financial slate,” Treadwell said.

Gorka and Jones were still receiving money owed to them by the Treadwell campaign through May and June. But they’re now clear of the campaign’s books, Christensen said.

Christensen’s job now is executing the plan that Gorka and Jones put together, he said, adding that his entrepreneurial background gives him a boost.

Jones said he hasn’t seen Christensen as a handicap to Treadwell’s campaign.

“It’s important to have folks around that you can trust and rely on. Oftentimes that’s better than having a seasoned political operative like myself,” Jones said in a phone interview. “Mead’s got that in Peter.”

The Treadwell campaign now consists of seven paid staff and, on any given day, a couple dozen volunteers. About half of those volunteers are young people, who pack the campaign’s office on Northern Lights Drive, and some of whom live rent-free in Treadwell’s second home downtown, Christensen said.

The living situation evokes memories of the 1978 Hickel campaign, which brought Christensen, Treadwell and McNally, a third friend, to Alaska.

Treadwell, originally from Connecticut, moved to Alaska first and ended up as Hickel’s indefatigable press secretary — one of several Hickel followers who would “crawl through burning, broken glass for Wally,” said Eric Sanders, an Anchorage attorney who managed the rival Republican campaign of former Gov. Jay Hammond.

“Mead was working 24-7 to defeat Hammond,” Sanders said.

Treadwell recruited McNally, a friend from Yale University, to come help. And McNally, in turn, convinced Christensen, a classmate and student government rival in their suburban Chicago high school, to join as well.

The three lived together in a home downtown, in Bootlegger Cove. They describe themselves as a serious group focused on the campaign, though McNally recalled how he and Christensen were later thrown out of a different house “for being guilty of being adolescent males.” They retaliated with a prank that involved releasing a pair of roosters on the shag-carpeted living room.

McNally, who’s now an attorney in New York City and describes himself as Treadwell’s “consigliere,” said he was a “Jack of all trades” on the Hickel campaign, painting signs, making phone calls and sometimes working as a traveling aide.

Christensen, who had just finished a Mormon mission in western Canada, said he worked on a “Walk for Wally” that included a canvass of parts of rural Alaska.

Christensen and one of Hickel’s sons would circle villages in a plane, and “by the time we landed almost everybody was out there.”

“We’d give out balloons and shake hands,” Christensen said. “What a great opportunity to see Alaska and come to love the state.”

Hickel ended up narrowly losing the Republican Party primary to Hammond, then launched a write-in campaign in the general election that also failed.

Still, Christensen describes Treadwell’s current campaign as a repeat of the 1978 race, given the reunion of the three Hickel staffers and the role of the young volunteers, who have come from Alaska and around the country.

Treadwell’s children are even involved. His daughter was recently named the campaign’s digital development director, and a son runs the Fairbanks campaign office.

The team would likely change dramatically if Treadwell wins the August primary, Christensen said.

“We’re going to have to add staff and structure for a different kind of campaign,” he said. “So, we know it will be like drinking from the fire hose when the primary victory comes in. But we’re ready.”