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Hallmark Valley feud under way in Mat-Su GOP Senate primary

Amanda Coyne
Mike Dunleavy and his daughters riding mules at their family property in Wasilla. August 8, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Mike Dunleavy riding one of his mules at his home in Wasilla, Alaska. August 8, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Mike Dunleavy's daughter Catherine, 15 years old, with goslings and the family dog Blue. August 8, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Mike Dunleavy's daughter Ciel, 13 years old, playing volleyball at the family's home in Wasilla. August 8, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Mike Dunleavy, photographed at his Wasilla, Alaska house. August 8, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Mike Dunleavy with one of his mules at his property in Wasilla. August 8, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Mike Dunleavy's daughter Catherine, 15 years old, and her sister Ceil, 13, with their family's mules in Wasilla. August 8, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Mike Dunleavy with his mules at his home in Wasilla, Alaska. August 8, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Mike Dunleavy with his mules at his home in Wasilla, Alaska. August 8, 2012
Loren Holmes photo

You've no doubt heard the "Don't shoot" commercials. They're all over the airwaves in the Matanuska Valley and Anchorage areas: a folksy, middle-aged sounding man talking about Mike Dunleavy's values. In his voice a geographically-indistinct twang. Concern is there. So is just a little bit of down-home cliché:

"Mike Dunleavy knows that Alaska is on a freight train to Brokeville. If you see Mike Dunleavy coming up your driveway, don't shoot. Mike's bringing good news." 

If effective political advertising is measured in part by the discussion it generates among constituents and pundits, then ads supporting Mike Dunleavy for Alaska Senate are by most counts a resounding success. But if a measure of a successful political commercial is that they capture the soul of a candidate, well, those ads aren’t much good at that.  

On Aug. 28, registered Republicans of Senate District D in the Mat-Su Borough will choose between two flavors of Alaska conservatism: the neo-fiscal versus the moderate. Dunleavy, of Wasilla, is campaigning on fiscal issues that fuel the tea party movement and Lower 48 Republican politics, lately imported to Alaska. He'd unseat incumbent state Sen. Linda Menard of Palmer, a member of the Senate's Bipartisan Majority Working Group.

But the District D primary is about more than just ideology. The Dunleavy-Menard contest is also an old-fashioned Valley family feud. 

Political neophyte

Dunleavy is lots of things. Folksy he's not. He can turn on concern when he wants, but you're more likely to find interest in his voice. You're more likely to find a little self-deprecating humor. You're more likely to find a politician in that voice. 

Dunleavy's new at this. But if life is a stage and we're all just actors, you might guess that he's been practicing this particular role forever. Perhaps it's his stature: he stands 6 feet, 7 inches tall. Or maybe it's that he's been spotted riding his mules from one house to the next. Or maybe it's that furrowed brow, or the way he presses the flesh. In fact, when he works the room, it looks like he just walked out of Hollywood casting. Grow that man a beard and you might have to reach way back to former Gov. Jay Hammond for another politician that matches Dunleavy's quintessential Alaskana.

In some ways it's the politician in him that makes people nervous. People like the 69-year-old Menard, who is indeed folksy, and would be more likely than Dunleavy to use the word "Brokeville." 

"I just don't know what he wants," Menard said. "He's unsettling to me." Either Menard couldn't quite put her finger on what bothered her about him or she declined to say. 

"I just really resent mean spirited people," she said, explaining in a slow, yopper accen why she wouldn't criticize Dunleavy, or maybe referring to Dunleavy's campaing. It's sometimes hard to tell with Menard. "I'd like to create a community at the Point McKenzie and put all the mean-spirited people there. I'm a grandma. I have to rise above attacks. But what does he want?"

Stands head and shoulders above the rest?

Dunleavy was raised in Scranton, Penn. Coal country. One-legged stool country, a place where the mayor recently announced that because his city is broke, he and the rest of Scranton city employees were taking pay cuts and would work for $7.25 per hour.

After Dunleavy's father, now 92, returned from fighting in World War II, he became mailman and his mother worked as an administrative assistant. In 1983, armed with a degree in history and education, Dunleavy traveled to Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska to work at a sawmill and was bitten by the Alaska bug. Eventually, he made his way to Northwest Alaska, where he landed teaching jobs in the Arctic communities of Koyuk and Kotzebue. Along the way he met his Eskimo wife in Nome and climbed the education ladder from teacher to principal to assistant superintendent to Northwest Arctic Borough School District superintendent. 

Those were tough times for the district; teachers were leaving and a school in Kivalina was temporarily shuttered over allegations of student violence. Long-time Kotzebue journalism professors John and Susan Creed wrote a scathing screed about Dunleavy's tenure at the district during this time, one Dunleavy thinks unfair. 

Jason Ross shares Dunleavy's views. He and his wife taught in Kotzebue under Dunleavy. They have since moved to Anchorage, now teach in the Valley and consider Dunleavy a friend. Ross said Dunleavy was a great administrator who was respected in the community, and that none of the things the Creeds wrote is true. Ross said "politics not allowing us to progress up there" prompted he and his wife to leave their jobs with the district.

Dunleavy left the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, too, a year before his contract expired, in part because his wife had health issues, and yet he continued to rise in Alaska's educational establishment. He has run the Mat-Su correspondence program, managed the Alaska Statewide Mentor Project, and ran the University of Alaska's K-12 outreach program. He's now the president of the Mat-Su School Board.

He has three gorgeous daughters, a modest house on a 40-acre plot of land with a drop-dead view of the Talkeetna Mountains. He has chickens and ducks. He has a horse and two mules. He's a rider and a hunter. Because he's spoken about trying to cut the state budget if elected to the Alaska Senate, and because he's been vocal about the bipartisan makeup of the state Senate, his detractors have tried to paint him as a radical right-winger. A tea partier. But if he harbors some deep radical right-wing agenda, he's keeping that to himself.

"He gets along with people," said former Alaska Senate President Lyda Green, pioneer of the bipartisan majority that's more or less steered Senate business since the 2006 elections and a Dunleavy booster who's raised funds for him. "From what I've heard, he works with everyone. He stands head and shoulders above the rest."

End of the era of Palin? 

Green's involvement is not incidental to Dunleavy's fight for the Valley Senate seat -- a contest that's representative of a broader battle for power in the Alaska Legislature.

Call Dunleavy a tea partier enough, and the label begins to stick, but it's one that he bristles under. He admits to sympathizing with that strain of Republican politics, particularly the fiscal conservative glue holding that faction together. He's Catholic and pro-life, and he has the support of Alaska Right to Life as well as the Alaska Outdoor Council. However, social issues, at least when he talks to this reporter, seem to take a back stage to other issues, as do Second Amendment and hunting rights.

In that way, he seems similar to Menard. In fact, the only issue where they seem to have stark ideological differences seems to be on education, unions, and spending. As Mat-Su School Board president, Dunleavy has been a vocal supporter of school vouchers. Menard, herself a former Mat-Su School Board president, opposes vouchers. And that's earned support from the Alaska's National Education Association, which is campaigning hard for Menard, as are other unions.

But this race seems to have less to do with ideology than what role a legislator should have in running the state, and of course, with the kind of clannish power dynamics pervasive in the Valley and in Wasilla, home to former Gov. Sarah Palin, who fought hard for Menard back in the days before the tea party.

There's long, tangled history here that involves Palin, Menard and Green.

Green was state Senate president during Palin's first year as governor -- 2007 -- but their relationship. stretched back further, in a small-town, political sense, given their Valley pedigree. At one time they were even friends. In the 1990s, they campaigned for one another when Palin was running for mayor of Wasilla and Green was running for state Senate. Linda Menard and Green were also friends.

But things quickly soured when Palin was elected governor and Green began to question some of Palin's policies, particularly Palin's oil and gas line policies, which included a controversial deal with a Canadian company, as well as billions of dollars of tax hikes on Alaska's most powerful industry.

As was true with nearly everyone who vocally opposed Palin at the time, things got nasty between Green and the Palin administration, which griped about her endlessly in emails.

So when Menard decided to run against Green in the 2008 Republican primary, Palin and her fans celebrated. They celebrated even more when Green announced she would bow out of the race, ending her Senate career. 

The Menard family is very close to the Palin clan. The Menards moved to the Valley in 1968, only a few years before Palin's parents, Chuck and Sally Heath, moved there. The Healths grew up with the Menards' children. Palin helped Linda's son, Steve Menard, secure a job in her administration, and Palin's father, Chuck Heath, talked Menard into running against Green. And, too, Menard's husband, Curt, is a former state legislator himself and was mayor of the Mat-Su Borough when he died in 2009.

Menard's son Steve was elected to the Wasilla City Council though he was recalled early in February 2012 after a drunken spree in a hotel.

Menard holds some sway in the area. Many longtime Palmer residents, like Janet Kincaid who moved to the area in 1961, are particularly supportive. Kincaid and others see Menard as one of their own, someone who cares less about party politics and more about the individual needs of the people in the area. "We shouldn't about party labels," Kincaid said. "We should worry about what's best for the people. That's what Linda does."

Kincaid and Menard are longtime friends and have strong, longstanding ties to the community. But the Valley is quickly changing and expanding. Palin's influence has all but disappeared in the Valley. Further, state redistricting has bestowed upon Menard a radically different district than she's represented before.

And now the Valley has a race on its hands.

Shelia Toomey, in the Anchorage Daily News' weekly gossip column, wrote that Dunleavy was down 16 percent in a poll commissioned by Marc Hellenthal, who is doing work for Dunleavy. She was mistaken, however, she said. She was looking at an early poll taken on a House race. Hellenthal won't release the real polling numbers, but he said Monday that the race is "very close." 

Green and others in the Valley believe Dunleavy is going to prevail in the Republican primary. It doesn't help Menard, they say, that the unions, which aren't necessarily aligned with conservative Valley politics, are contributing heavily to her campaign. Her push to move the Anchorage Legislative Offices to a location that happened to sit across the street from a house she owned at the time, and which she has since sold to her son, rubbed some voters wrong. 

Menard also isn't known as an outspoken, legislative powerhouse. She's cosponsored some legislation, but says that she prefers to work behind the scenes, particularly on the budget, the port, and the Knik Bridge. Indeed, the huge budget in the last few years has been very good to Mat-Su roads and other capital projects, including that controversial, over-budged prison.

"It's my job to bring home projects to our area, and I've done that well," Menard said. "I'm a good fighter and leader."

Menard happens to be media shy. She has so far resisted the drum-beat to go on many talk shows, and she's made it a rule during at least one forum that she not to be taped. 

In contrast, Dunleavy seems more willing to talk and listen to anyone who will talk and listen. 

Dunleavy's plan

On a recent afternoon, Dunleavy walked with me through some of his 40 acres of Valley paradise. This is not grim, strip-mall Wasilla. His two teenage daughters were playing volleyball in the backyard. His wife was at work. White puffy clouds licked the Talkeetnas. Fireweed swayed in the breeze. 

Dunleavy talked about his vision for Alaska in the way a non-visionary talks about vision. He's less dreamer and more systematic thinker -- and he thinks state leaders like Menard lack systematic discipline. It's all in the planning, he said. Derivations of the word "plan" litter his speech. 

He admits he doesn't have all of the answers. Ask him about Gov. Sean Parnell's plan to slash state taxes on oil companies by up to $2 billion a year, and Dunleavy will tell you he's still studying the issue but that he's committed to getting more oil down the pipeline. Ask him about what the state could do to help spur construction of the fabled natural gas pipeline, he'll say he's still reviewing the issue. He's been talking recently to Bill Walker, who's long advocated the state be more involved in the construction of the line. Dunleavy isn't opposed to such talk. 

The proposed Knik Arm bridge? He's still studying it. How to solve Alaska's domestic energy issues? Ditto. He does know about education, and uses that as an example of the state's haphazard approach to funding, and how last-minute funding ends up costing the school districts money. 

He thinks the answers are less rooted in specific policies than in overarching philosophy. Or, in his words, "a plan." What kind of state do we want? What kind of government do we want? 

He talks about how the state's boom and bust mentality has resulted in Alaska's leaders just going with the flow. They capriciously spend money when the state has it, cut programs when it doesn't, and they don't seem to understand that in the process, the state has become more and more reliant on one industry, watching with eyes wide shut as the dream of self sufficiency slips away. 

"It might be political suicide to say that I don't have all of the answers. But what I do know is that if we don't have a plan, nothing's going to work," he said. "We'll be forever captive to demagoguery and cults of personalities, and we'll be forever sprinkling money like fairy dust.

"Scranton didn't have a plan," he said.

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com