Independent gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker on Thursday took back a promise to veto any legislation that would weaken abortion rights in Alaska, saying he shouldn't have committed himself to a position on hypothetical bills.
"That's further than I wanted to go," Walker said. "I did something poorly and I went further than what I was comfortable with."
Abortion rights are as hot and polarizing an issue in Alaska as they are in the rest of the country. When Democrat Byron Mallott and his supporters started meeting with Walker and his team to discuss a fusion ticket, pro-choice vs. pro-life played a big part in the discussions.
Walker said that other positions he has taken on abortion are unchanged: although he considers himself a "social conservative" and personally opposes abortions, he would not initiate any effort to restrict them if he is elected, and he would not support anyone else's push to do so.
But if a bill passed the Legislature anyway, like recent efforts to restrict state-paid abortions for low-income Alaskans, he would consider signing it, he said. First, though, he would consult his attorney general on its constitutionality and get the positions of his lieutenant governor and advocates on both sides.
"I can't guarantee how I would handle any particular bill, but I can guarantee a process," Walker said.
That makes another pledge of his less certain: that if he wins in November, abortion law wouldn't be any more restrictive at the conclusion of his four-year term than it was at the start.
"I can say I will not introduce any legislation, I will not promote any legislation that changes anything, but I could be faced with something that could change the law," Walker acknowledged.
Walker made the veto promise during an Aug. 20 interview with Alaska Dispatch News, just after Alaska AFL-CIO president Vince Beltrami said the umbrella labor organization would withhold its support for either candidate unless they teamed up.
There had been talk of a merged ticket for months after polls showed Walker and Mallott drawing from the same pool of voters, creating the likelihood of an easy victory for the incumbent, Republican Gov. Sean Parnell.
On Thursday, two days after the merged ticket became reality, the AFL-CIO made good on its promise and endorsed the new team, making available the checkbook of its super PAC, the Putting Alaskans First Committee, and starting an effort to convince the 60,000 members of its constituent unions to vote for Walker.
At a news conference, Beltrami said the Thursday vote by 52 members of the AFL-CIO executive council was "overwhelming" but not unanimous. Some representatives from unions that had supported Parnell abstained, though none voted against the resolution, he said. He declined to provide the vote.
With union members on both sides of the abortion debate, Beltrami said, social issues were not a factor in the AFL-CIO endorsement.
"It's how candidates respond on the issues that matter to working families," Beltrami said. "Bill Walker is as solid a candidate as there is, as well as Byron."
The unions considered Walker and Mallott's support of collective bargaining rights and expanded Medicaid and opposition to right-to-work legislation, Beltrami said. Parnell's record is mixed, he said, but organized labor is set against his running mate, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, over Sullivan's fights with city unions.
"I think that the fact that Mayor Sullivan has pushed this anti-worker agenda is a huge factor in what made the overwhelming majority of our executive council want to get involved in this race," Beltrami said. "As lieutenant governor, that person is one step away from being the governor."
Democratic leaders also adopted a pragmatic approach, though not without concern. The interview in which he said he would veto anti-abortion legislation was published Monday, just as talks between Walker and Mallott were intensifying.
Walker said someone from Mallott's side read the statement out loud during one of those meetings, though he couldn't remember who. Walker said he responded, "I don't deny I said that, but that's further than I wanted to go."
Walker said he made it clear to Mallott and other Democrats that he wasn't going to change to make the ticket work. He may have quit the Republican Party on Tuesday, but that didn't represent a personal change, he said.
"I'm still the same last week as I am this week, last year as I'm this year," Walker said. "I gave up nothing in the way of my core values. I was not asked to give up anything."
Walker acknowledged his revised veto threat could lead to charges he is a flip-flopper.
"I'm sure that those running against me will make absolutely as much political hay as they can on this thing, but that's not the way I operate." His reason for clarifying his position: "I don't want anyone voting for me thinking one thing and I'm thinking something else."
Kay Brown, the Democratic Party executive director who attended some of the discussions with Walker, said she could accept his position and still support him.
"I'm strongly pro-choice, but that's not the only issue for me," she said. "I care about the owner state, I care about how the person stands on a lot of things and I do feel there's a lot of agreement and alignment between Bill Walker's personal views and my personal views."
Columnist and talk show host Shannyn Moore said she invited some abortion rights supporters to lunch with Walker last week so they could see if they could support him. Even though his position on abortion is opposed to hers, she said, they have other issues in common.
"The difference between Sean Parnell and Bill Walker isn't their belief that abortion is wrong -- the difference is that, for 40,000 uninsured Alaskans, having Medicaid expansion includes birth control," Moore said.