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If Walker wins, Mallott could be the new kind of lt. gov. we've always heard about

Dermot Cole
Bill Walker, Byron Mallott make ticket for Alaska governor official. Sept. 2, 2014 Tara Young / Alaska Dispatch News

FAIRBANKS -- Anyone who runs for lieutenant governor in Alaska promises to be a “new kind of lieutenant governor,” as in one who has something to do other than guard the state seal and see if the governor has a pulse.

And anyone who runs for governor nods approvingly at such aspirations and makes all the right comments about teamwork.

All this is as predictable as the tide tables. But they call it the office of the "lite guv" for a reason.

During the Alaska Constitutional Convention, the delegates said the state couldn’t afford the luxury of a lieutenant governor, so they called the next-in-line to the governor the “secretary of state,” expecting the person to stay busy with paperwork. Delegate Frank Barr said that a traditional lieutenant governor was a figurehead and he worried that Alaskans “will think we are putting a man on the payroll to do nothing. They might understand the title, secretary of state. A secretary usually works.”

Three people worked as secretary of state until a 1970 constitutional amendment recast the position as lieutenant governor.

Playing second

The name is not what counts. With power concentrated in the governor under the Alaska Constitution, the lieutenant governor has as much or as little influence as the governor allows. That changes whenever a new governor is chosen, and it is based on personalities and temperament.

After a typical election, the governor and his or her staff see little need to share a lot of power with No. 2, and the old kind of lieutenant governor emerges, a job with the lightest workload in the Western Hemisphere.

When Gov. Sean Parnell told Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell three years ago to stay in his corner, it was not that uncommon though the highly publicized nature of the split was unusual. "Commissioners have expressed concern over not knowing something is being requested of their lower level staff by you and your office staff. Additionally, you and I have discussed the concern and confusion generated by you attempting to direct agency work,” Parnell wrote.

Whoever is governor doesn't want a shadow governor.

A joke recounted long ago by former House Speaker Mike Bradner about repeated visits to the lieutenant governor’s office during several administrations bears repeating. He noticed that the second-in-command could often be found with his feet propped up on the desk, reading the newspaper.

All of which led Bradner to say the job requirements for lieutenant governor were to own a good pair of shoes and a subscription to the Juneau Empire.

Make that a smartphone and the joke still applies, as the way in which Alaska chooses lieutenant governors -- more shotgun marriage than the assembling of a team of  rivals -- rarely gives the lieutenant any political leverage.

We have had some lieutenant governors whose political prowess made the job far more than what appears on paper -- the late Terry Miller, who served with Jay Hammond, and Fran Ulmer, who served with Tony Knowles, come to mind. Sometimes the second person balances the ticket. Sometimes not.

Most of the 13 people who have held the post under its two names have struggled to remain relevant beyond tasks such as monitoring the supply of notaries public, while usually holding out hope it would lead them to the governor's job. Only two -- Keith Miller (then secretary of state) and Sean Parnell -- have made it to the big office, both moving up via the resignation route.

Balancing the ticket

With the 2014 governor’s election two months away, the lieutenant governor's post has become a bigger fact in the selection of the next governor than anyone had predicted.

The news this week that the Democratic Party will not field a candidate for governor means that if Bill Walker and Byron Mallott are elected, we would -- for the first time -- have a lieutenant governor entering office with real bargaining power.

Part of this is because of Mallott’s statewide stature and an extensive resume that dates back to the first Gov. Bill Egan administration. Part of it is because Mallott has given Walker a chance to win and made re-election a much tougher task for Parnell. The second person on the ticket usually has far less clout.

The Democratic Party endorsed the idea of going without a candidate because of a belief that if Mallott joined Walker, the combination could topple Parnell. If that happens, Mallott stands to be the most powerful lite guv the state has ever had.

The closest parallel, and it’s not that close, was the 1990 late-election combo of Wally Hickel and Jack Coghill, the two described by the late Sen. Tim Kelly -- who lost the GOP lieutenant governor nomination to Coghill -- as “two old dogs who want to bay at the moon one last time.”

Coghill had been the GOP nominee before he abandoned Arlis Sturgulewski and signed on with Hickel for a successful 48-day campaign, old dogs reborn as members of the Alaskan Independence Party.

Wally World began with Coghill holding out high hopes for the lieutenant governor's office, including the power to reject regulations that violated the “can-do” spirit of the Hickel-Coghill team. But the team broke up. Instead of being recognized as the state’s second highest official, the Hickel staff “treat me as if I'm the second janitor on the third floor," he told a reporter.

Ranch foreman, not ranch hand

While Walker often invokes the Hickel legacy and even uses some of the same phrases -- such as the need that the governor be a ranch foreman instead of a ranch hand -- he is far more likely to see the value in a real division of duties with Mallott, especially because Mallott has made Walker competitive with Parnell. If he wins, Walker will owe more to his running mate that any past governor has owed to a lieutenant governor. That would not be lost on anyone.

In a press conference confirming their joint ticket, Walker said they would campaign for the next two months as a team and that would continue if elected. Mallott would be in the governor’s office, not down the hall and out of the way, Walker said. “I’m not much of a down-the-hall kind of person,” he said.

While there is some disenchantment in the Democratic ranks over Mallott’s unprecedented decision to abandon the role as party nominee, the test will be whether he can persuade his supporters to accept the combined ticket as better than a near-certain November defeat, uniting behind the idea of replacing Parnell.

The governor responded Tuesday with a press release saying that Walker had moved to the Democratic ticket and that the new lineup is for those who "want more of President Obama's policies in Alaska." Parnell will attempt to mobilize the religious right and can expect backing from the oil industry, which is grateful for the tax cut he delivered. Walker said the oil tax repeal is already settled, but his supporters will bring it up.

Mallott’s switch and Walker’s decision to change his party registration from Republican to “undeclared,” means that national resources, including some directed to the U.S. Senate campaign by the Democrats, will come into play. And the dynamics of the Begich-Sullivan Senate race will change, as it will no longer be the only contest covered by the media.

For Walker-Mallott, the challenge will be how the two men handle issues on which they disagree.  Since Walker is focused on oil, gas and business development issues and says he is not running on social issues, that could leave room for Mallott to take a key role on education and subsistence, for example.

There is and will be only one governor, but if Walker is elected, I think we will have a new kind of lieutenant governor.

Based in Fairbanks, Dermot Cole has been reporting on Alaska politics since the 1970s.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.