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Dunleavy’s disruptive demand for resignations exposes his lack of direction

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: November 20
  • Published November 19

The governor-elect’s transition requested a loyalty pledge from Alaska state workers with a demand for mass resignations Friday. The question is, loyalty to what?

An unprecedented swath of employees will have to apply for to keep their jobs. The purpose, said Tuckerman Babcock, the transition director and incoming chief of staff, was, “Sending out the message, ‘Do you want to work on this agenda?’”

But he has it backward. Governor-elect Mike Dunleavy first needs to articulate an agenda.

Other than saying he wants to give away state savings and state land and that he opposes taxes, Dunleavy ran without a platform. In this odd campaign season, he got away with it, winning with free-money promises and the Republican label.

Traveling after the election, I mentioned to a Washington state resident that our governor-elect promised to pay everyone $6,700. He responded that any politician in America could get elected to any office by believably making that promise — and I think that’s right.

But on other issues, we don’t know much. During the campaign Dunleavy offered non-answers, skipped debates and refused to talk to reporters, and even said he would study up after the election. The budget cuts he talked about were misinformed or meaninglessly small.

He’s not the first candidate to win an election without a platform.

New office holders often come with vague understanding of issues, although they usually fake it better than Dunleavy. He didn’t serve long in the State Senate and never held key leadership posts. It’s understandable he would be uninformed.

Normally we make allowances for that. The honeymoon period is when new governors get their policies figured out.

But for the state’s at-will employees, this honeymoon ended early.

Babcock’s memo, sent Friday afternoon (the best time to duck media coverage), asks all at-will state employees to resign and apply for their jobs through the Dunleavy website. Babcock clarified in an interview with the ADN that those who don’t submit resignations will be fired.

Governors normally ask for resignations from commissioners and top policy leaders. There are a couple of hundred of those. Recent administrations kept holdovers even in some of these upper positions as well, because people with the right qualifications have many better offers.

State employees generally don’t earn as much as workers with equivalent responsibility in the private sector. Many have to work in Juneau, which is hard to get to and an expensive place to live. Stability is the main attraction for recruiting.

Babcock’s memo took stability away for many hundreds of workers. He asked for resignations from many more than previous transitions, including everyone Dunleavy could legally terminate, including prosecutors and public defenders, Pioneer Home managers, investment officers, and the coordinator of marine pilots, among many others.

The governor can fire all these people, but making such a threat is foolish, devastating to morale, and could lead to chaos in state government, especially if professionals leave who normally don’t have to worry about changes of governor.

“These other folks have never gotten these letters before, and it is freaking them out," said Commissioner of Administration Leslie Ridle. “I’m guessing the transition team doesn’t understand, it is hard to hire these professional positions.”

You don’t hire an IT chief or retirement coordinator according to the person’s politics. Why demand a political pledge from the woman who reviews qualifications of architects, engineers and land surveyors?

Some prosecutors already said anonymously they will not follow through with a process that appears intended to politicize their work. If they refuse to resign and Dunleavy fires them, he will be hurting anti-crime efforts. Those jobs are hard to fill.

Besides, other than fealty to Dunleavy as an individual, what agenda are the prosecutors supposed to support? He never said specifically how he would address crime or how the Department of Law would work differently.

Dunleavy’s statements on health care were vague and contradictory. The memo Friday apparently covers all the physicians and pharmacists the state employees in the prisons, the mental hospital and public health. What agenda should they review in deciding on their resignations?

The state employs a lot of educators, too. Dunleavy’s biggest claim to fame as a legislator was an attempt to give public money to private and religious schools. But during the campaign he said he supports public education 100 percent. And the agenda is…?

Dunleavy is a Republican and Babcock quit as chairman of the party to join the transition. Should state employees be fired if they don’t support the 64 points of the Alaska Republican Party platform?

That would mean educators would need to support teaching Christianity as the nation’s foundation; doctors would have to oppose abortion, equal rights for gays, and Medicaid expansion; and lawyers would have to back the loony legal idea that the federal government cannot control land or resources in Alaska.

Until Dunleavy gives some substantive communication, we won’t really know which of those ideas he intends to pursue and which he will abandon.

Alaska has the nation’s most powerful governor—he calls all the shots and he can indeed pursue all this. His party has organized both houses of the legislature, pending a recount in one House district.

We know the Republicans will not support broad-based taxes. Legislative Republicans in the past loved mega-projects and loathed oil taxes. If they don’t support Dunleavy’s super-sized dividends, they will face a big political risk.

All that added together equals depletion of Alaska’s savings.

But the new governor and majorities will also have the power and time to fundamentally change Alaska society. By sweeping the table in this election, Republicans gain control of legislative reapportionment, which could give their party dominance for the next 12 years.

Elections work best when the media and public demand answers from candidates. Dunleavy never faced tough questions and never gave clear answers to basic ones. Voters picked the biggest dividend on offer, but in doing so they gave away blanket authority for many other decisions.

State employees have only that knowledge upon which to make their job decisions over the next week or so.

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.

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