Trump’s clumsy threats made Murkowski a political hero

If there's anything Alaskans don't like, it's having Alaska threatened by Washington, D.C. That's why Sen. Lisa Murkowski came out of this historic political week with unique new stature and why Sen. Dan Sullivan hurt himself badly.

On Wednesday, Sullivan told an Alaska Dispatch News reporter that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had delivered a threat against Alaska energy development if Murkowski wouldn't reverse her opposition to the Republicans' repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

[Trump administration threatens retribution against Alaska over Murkowski health votes]

Sullivan was the third link in a chain of incredible political ineptitude leading from President Donald Trump through Zinke.

These kinds of political threats happen, but subtly. When they come out in the open, they backfire.

Sullivan not only revealed the threat — really dumb — but seemed to take it seriously and, if media reports are accurate, pushed Murkowski to capitulate.

I have no doubt Murkowski was as furious as has been reported. But she didn't blab. She simply froze Interior nominations at the Energy and Natural Resources Committee she chairs — the committee that oversees Zinke's department.


Of course, her spokesperson said that move was unrelated. That's how this is supposed to be done.

Murkowski came out looking like a steel-spined hero, bucking Washington threats against Alaska to do what was right. I suspect even her conservative Alaska critics got a tingle from the spectacle, if they aren't Republican Central Committee members.

Sullivan came out looking like a pipsqueak.

After the "Obamacare" repeal failed in the wee hours Friday, he released a statement saying, "Tonight, my heart aches" for Alaskans having trouble affording medical coverage.

But his votes would have made their plight worse. He supported legislation that would have increased the cost of private coverage and taken public coverage away from tens of thousands. He put his party above his state.

[Nothing is bigger for Alaska than this health care vote]

Politics under the lights takes roles from the playground. You don't give in to a bully.

My nephew in New Jersey sent me a text Thursday morning, "Time for some traffic problems in Anchorage."

Gov. Chris Christie lost his political career over retribution against a New Jersey mayor when his aides shut down traffic lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge. That's how people outside Alaska read Zinke's threat.

But I immediately thought of another incident.

In 1990, Gov. Walter Hickel was wavering about whether to jump into a gubernatorial election as an independent. Only two hours remained until the filing deadline and he had not decided.

In the story he loved to tell, Hickel received a call from John Sununu, then the White House chief of staff, threatening the Alaska gas line project if Hickel filed for the election. That call made Hickel mad enough to run, and he won.

The anecdote is so Alaskan it was dramatized onstage in Anchorage last year. (Also typically Alaskan, our current governor is still obsessed with building the same eternal project.)

When Hickel died in 2010, he was buried, at his request, standing up and facing Washington so he could keep on fighting for Alaska.

Sullivan may not understand that attitude, but Murkowski was raised on it.

For 150 years, Alaska has been dependent on the federal government and resistant to the federal government. The movement for Alaska statehood was energized in the early 1950s by hatred for the high-handed Douglas McKay, who held Zinke's job as interior secretary at the time.

Murkowski's mentor, Sen. Ted Stevens, began his career in that movement. He spent many decades in the paradoxical fight to get the federal government to leave us alone and to give us more money. Alaskans were proud of his wolverine ferocity in the Senate.


Even Alaska Republicans who wanted "Obamacare" obliterated must be glad to see strength again.

Murkowski's attitude also won hearts on the left, and not only on the merits of the issue.

Moderate and progressive Alaskans saved Murkowski in 2010 when she lost the Republican primary and returned to office with a write-in campaign. But many didn't trust her to vote for principle over party when the chips were down.

The Senate's confirmation of Trump's education secretary underlined their suspicions. Murkowski voted against Betsy DeVos on the floor of the Senate, on the losing side, but in committee, when she could have stopped it, she supported DeVos.

Murkowski's explanation for this contradiction didn't make sense, but I believed it was sincere. She said she voted DeVos out of committee to give the nominee a floor vote. Murkowski's support for process and her slow-to-decide caution sometimes end up satisfying no one.

On health care, it was easy to imagine Murkowski would ultimately change her mind and support a health care package if it addressed key concerns. She gave plenty of signals of remaining in play, including saying she decided to oppose opening debate only at the last minute.

But when Zinke issued his threat and Sullivan made it public, they may have locked in her no vote. To back down at that point would have betrayed Alaska tradition with a humiliating capitulation.

The consequences for our state are not alarming.

A health care bill that would have hurt Alaska was defeated. I hope a needed fix for "Obamacare" follows through a bipartisan process.

If Zinke makes any attempt to carry through on the threat of retaliation, it won't last long. Those traffic lanes to the George Washington Bridge soon opened. Opposing your own priorities to carry out a grudge is a losing game.

Trump came out of the fight weaker, but Alaska got a U.S. senator who is now a national figure. She took on the president and won.

Murkowski has become our state's pre-eminent political figure. Alaska party Republicans would be wise to accept that gift and embrace her.

They could learn a lot from Lisa Murkowski.

The views expressed here are the writer's 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. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.