Hollis French’s plan to simplify the Alaska governor’s race

A deal to narrow the election for Alaska governor to two choices failed last week when it was rejected by Gov. Bill Walker. Former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich accepted the deal.

Walker is an independent and Begich a Democrat. If both appear on the general election ballot, they will likely split votes on the center and left and the Republican will win.

I do not want that to happen. As an opinion columnist, I can say that.

Although I like Walker and have known Begich since childhood, I will be straight with the facts in this column and try to be fair to both candidates.

Former state Sen. Hollis French sent a proposal to the campaigns last week to determine who should go forward and who should drop out by early this month.

French called for three polls, by firms selected by the two campaigns, to measure the relative strength of the candidates against former state Sen. Mike Dunleavy, the leading Republican. (French discounted the chances of Republican former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell.)

He asked Walker and Begich to agree in advance that if either of them came in third in all three polls, that third-place candidate would drop out of the race.


Begich considered the idea for three days and told French he would agree. Begich said Wednesday that he expects to win and would score ahead of Walker in the polls.

French said Walker turned down the idea, communicating though an intermediary, within 24 hours of receiving the proposal.

Walker said Thursday that he will not drop out of the race regardless of any polls, even if he is shown to be far behind Begich.

"I've seen lots of swings in polling, and the ultimate poll is the election poll," Walker said.

French has a special role in this situation.

He planned to run for governor in 2014 but stepped aside in favor of Byron Mallott in the Democratic primary, and instead won the lieutenant governor nomination. Mallott then decided to give his Democratic ballot line to Walker in the general and run as lieutenant governor himself.

To make that happen, French had to quit entirely, abandoning his political dream. He believes that sacrifice gives him moral authority to help solve the same problem this time around.

[Earlier: Do Walker or Begich have the character shown by Hollis French?]

But Walker said this situation is different.

"Last time around we were taking on a sitting incumbent, and that is a different scenario than we have today," Walker said.

Vince Beltrami, president of Alaska AFL-CIO, who helped broker the deal four years ago, is supporting Walker and declined to ask him to accept French's plan.

"How is the incumbent governor considered a spoiler? How could he be?" Beltrami said. "In what world does an incumbent governor get out of the race?"

Walker's campaign manager, John-Henry Heckendorn, said Mallott was much weaker in the 2014 race than either candidate is now. An AFL-CIO poll released July 9 showed Walker and Begich relatively equal.

It also showed Dunleavy winning any three-way match-up.

But Heckendorn maintains Walker can win a three-way, going down the middle as a moderate between a liberal and a conservative. He pointed to Gov. Walter Hickel's victory in 1990 and Lisa Murkowski's successful write-in campaign for U.S. Senate in 2010, an example Walker also cited.

But Heckendorn has the 1990 Hickel example backward (he was born that year). Hickel was the conservative against two moderates who split the vote. In the Murkowski race, the Democrat, Scott McAdams, was unknown to voters, unlike Begich.

Heckendorn said Walker's reduction of the Permanent Fund dividend could win the votes of a plurality of Alaskans who saw it as necessary or admired his courage.


But Begich's fiscal plan would also affect the dividend, while protecting it in the Alaska Constitution. Among the four major candidates, his dividend of around $1,900 comes in between the dividend Walker signed this year of $1,600 and the "full dividend" Dunleavy and Treadwell support, of around $2,700.

Begich thinks Walker's stand on the dividend makes him unelectable.

He imagines Dunleavy's independent expenditure campaign — funded by a wealthy brother — reminding voters just before the election of the cumulative thousands of dollars their dividends were reduced by Walker. The $1,600 dividend will arrive in bank accounts weeks before the general election.

Begich also said values align him with voters. Walker squelched his own pro-life views for four years, but if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade, legislation banning abortion could come to the governor's desk.

Begich said he tried to resolve the three-way problem before he filed to run.

According to his brother, state Sen. Tom Begich, their side offered at a meeting in April not to enter the race if a poll showed Walker would be a stronger candidate against Dunleavy. The two sides would design the poll together, to be run by an independent third party. He said Walker's side turned that down.

"We had a pretty severe concern, based on other data that we had seen, that the governor didn't have a chance to win," Tom Begich said.

French has a Begich sign on his West Anchorage lawn. His scheme could be seen as a way to help Begich by removing the stigma of being a spoiler.

By going public and eliciting Walker's hard "no," French may have cemented the three-way race rather than diffusing it.

But something had to be done. Unless one of the candidates drops out before the ballots are printed, in early September, the Republican is almost assured to win.

I don't buy the idea that Walker's incumbency gives him an automatic right to represent the left and center in this election. Every elected official has to prove himself or herself every time.

Walker says he does what is best for Alaska, not what politics tells him to do. He's proved that more than once.

What is best for Alaska now is to let voters choose between two paths forward. Clarifying that choice will require Walker and Begich to reach some kind of agreement.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here

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.