Opinions

Gov. Walker needs to remember the vacant Mat-Su Senate seat belongs to citizens

It is difficult to know whether Alaskans are always well-served by their government, and Gov. Bill Walker's bitter free-for-all with Republicans over choosing a replacement for Wasilla Sen. Michael Dunleavy is a case in point.

Dunleavy, a staunch conservative and frequent Walker critic, resigned his seat Jan. 9 to concentrate on his run for governor. A week later, 50 District E Republicans met to review a list of 11 possible replacements. They interviewed five and, following tradition, the next day forwarded a list of three to Walker.

They picked teacher Todd Smoldon, retiree Tom Braund and Sutton state Rep. George Rauscher — who drew fire for posting "BDSM Free Zone' on his legislative office door after a woman accused a lawmaker of striking her. Walker sat on the list for more than three weeks. Why is anybody's guess.

In the end, our Republican-cum-independent-cum-undeclared governor ignored the district Republicans' wishes and tapped Mat-Su Assemblyman Randall Kowalke, whose name was not on the final GOP list.

Kowalke had been considered, but reportedly received only a half-dozen votes from the 50 reviewers. Walker said he was the best pick.

State law requires a governor to select a legislative replacement from the same party as the person who vacated the seat. The political parties traditionally — the operative word — send a list of three finalists to the governor for consideration, but a governor is not handcuffed to the list. The choice then faces legislative confirmation by the party.

Is it always done this way? Nope. In 2009, Senate Democrats submitted to then-Gov. Sarah Palin but one name — then Rep. Beth Kerttula — to succeed Sen. Kim Elton, who resigned to join the Obama administration. That abused tradition and Palin refused to appoint her.

Kowalke, a retired businessman, has declared he will run for Dunleavy's seat. He describes himself as a centrist Republican, and tells the Associated Press he is conservative, against abortion and a "Second Amendment guy."

Whatever he may or may not be, unions like him. In his bid for the Mat-Su Assembly, he received support from at least eight unions. Their political action committees gave his campaign nearly $5,000 in 2015, or about a third of his campaign total.

[Republican Senate appointee whose Facebook posts drew attention withdraws from consideration]

Maybe that was Kowalke's attraction for Walker. Unions. The governor is in office thanks largely to unions. Running as an independent against then-Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, Walker was destined to get creamed. The Democrat candidate, Byron Mallott, faced the same fate. With polls trumpeting their ultimate electoral demise, and union bosses promising money and help, they joined forces to narrowly defeat Parnell.

When Walker picked Kowalke, perhaps he was hoping for an ally in his quest for an income tax and curbing Permanent Fund dividends to help overcome Alaska's chronic budget deficit — or maybe he was seeking a kinder ear for his gas line. Senate Republicans were unamused.

The Senate Majority quickly rejected Kowalke. An angry Walker fired back, appointing Braund from the GOP's list in an in-your-face response. Braund is a hard-line abortion opponent who claims he remembers being in his mother's womb. In a 2017 Facebook post, Braund wrote of abortion: "If I had the reins, this would be murder and the abortionists and all their accessories would be hunted and executed with scissors cutting their hearts out."

It makes you wonder about the vetting process, if there is one, in Walker's office or the Republican Party.

"It is evident that the Senate republicans (sic) will continue to reject any person I appoint, no matter how qualified, unless that person's name is on the list provided to me by the republican (sic) party," Walker said in terse letter to Senate President Pete Kelly.

Whether the lower-case "r" in Republicans was a childish insult or the work of a new secretary is unclear.

Then, Braund, apparently seeing the storm brewing, bailed out, withdrawing his name from consideration. The Republicans forwarded to Walker the next name on their list: Vicki Chaffin Wallner of Palmer. Walker responded by demanding two more names to the GOP's list.

What should have been a traditionally smooth process degenerated into a circus, with Walker initially ignoring the district's Republicans — a cynic might think — for his own ends.

What was lost in all this is that the vacant seat in question is not Walker's property. It belongs to the people. District politics — of both parties — serve an important purpose, engaging average citizens at the grassroots level. Senate Republicans were right not to yield to Walker's imperious rejection of an important tradition that has served election districts and Alaska well over the years.

In the end, questions remain: What happens now?

It is, indeed, difficult to know whether Alaskans are always well-served by their government.