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Do Walker or Begich have the character shown by Hollis French?

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: June 28, 2018
  • Published June 28, 2018

Hollis French gave us four years of Bill Walker and Byron Mallott by doing something almost no one ever does. He sacrificed his dream of leadership.

I decided to check in with French amid the tussle and confusion between Gov. Walker and former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich. Their three-way race with an undetermined Republican nominee looks a lot like the triangle that existed four years ago when French ceded his ballot line to Mallott.

At that time, Gov. Sean Parnell was the Republican incumbent and Walker was running as an independent. Mallott was the Democratic nominee with French his running mate. Even deeply wounded by scandal, Parnell was virtually assured to win against his split opposition.

To beat Parnell, Walker and Mallott joined forces representing the Democrats. That meant French, who had originally thought he could be governor but dropped down to lieutenant governor to support Mallott, now had quit the race altogether.

He got nothing in return.

Who would make that sacrifice now? We're in the early days of the campaign, but it's clear that if Walker and Begich persist, the only question in November will be which of them ends up second and which third.

Alaska's electorate has a large middle. The majority of us are neither Republican nor Democrat. But any Republican nominee — or, to be more precise, whoever is the legitimate candidate farthest to the right — can command more than a third of the vote. A good conservative can poll in the mid-40s without effort.

That means the liberals and moderates don't have enough votes to split. After four years, Walker is clearly defined as a left-leaning moderate.

(This dynamic also works the other way, when a conservative splits with a right-of-center candidate. That elected Tony Knowles governor in 1994 and Begich mayor in 2003.)

Walker and Begich's sides both have strong points to argue as to why their man should be the one. They always do in these situations.

I've been in the middle more than once, trying to talk someone out of a race. I have never succeeded.

For those who are susceptible, politics addicts like no other drug. It entangles the deepest emotions of self-worth. Candidates hear applause, see their names on signs, and imagine sitting in the special chair of power. Even devastating evidence of coming failure is often not enough to start detox.

We learn to be this way. Don't be a quitter. Never give up. Reach for your dreams. Overachievers get a lot more of that than lessons in sacrifice for the larger good.

That's what makes what French did so remarkable.

After a career as an oil worker and a prosecutor — a perfect political resume in Alaska — he proved his intelligence and political savvy in 12 years in the state Senate. But in 2014 he was bored and his district had been reapportioned against him.

When Walker said he would run for governor as an independent, French saw his chance, believing he could win a general election in which Walker, then seen as a conservative, split Parnell's re-election vote.

But not long after French entered the Democratic primary, Byron Mallott said he wanted to run. French didn't like the idea of running against a legend of the Alaska Native community whom he deeply respected. He decided to drop down the ticket to be Mallott's lieutenant governor.

That primary race was easy for French. He spent his time raising money for the general election. Starting the general campaign, he had the largest war chest of anyone on the ballot.

But by then, it was obvious Mallott had no chance. As impressive as his record might be, he showed no skill as a campaigner. To me, his campaign speeches were off-putting — indignant, scolding and slow.

Facing certain defeat, union leaders and Democratic insiders took advantage of a growing friendship between Walker and Mallott to talk them into forming a joint ticket. The only barrier was French, who held the lieutenant governor nomination and had already stepped aside once for Mallott.

"That was one of the more interesting 72 hours of my life," French said. "I learned from Byron on a Saturday that he and Bill had shaken hands and decided to become a team. And I had one highly destructive tool, if I decided not to withdraw."

The political drug worked on him for a time. He didn't want to quit. But he could see he would have little support if he continued and Parnell would likely win.

"If you say, 'I want to get out of this thing with some honor,' you behave honorably," he said.

French dropped out and asked for nothing in return — no cabinet appointment, support for a later race, or any such inside deal.

"It was this weird, one-of-a-kind moment, and I said to myself, 'I'm not going to do a handshake for a deal, I'm not going to do a handshake for a job,'" French said.

Instead, he went on a long vacation. A year of campaigning and a primary victory had ended his political career.

French did ultimately get Walker's appointment to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, but that's no better a job than he could expect to get in the private sector with his qualifications. And he said it took six months of lobbying Walker to get the nod.

Would Walker or Begich make the same sacrifice?

I know and like them both, but I have my doubts.

Firstly, neither is as weak as Mallott was four years ago. Both have major political assets and liabilities that will look different from their own perspectives.

Second, they both are on a mission. Each feels himself needed to rescue Alaska from dark times.

And finally, neither may possess the humility and clarity of Hollis French.

Others will probably have to force this choice.

It's a tough moment for moderates. Many are confused, angry or undecided. But the only way to protect their values in Alaska government is to line up strongly behind Walker or Begich now.

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