Halfway through his four-year term, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker announced a shake-up of his leadership team Wednesday, replacing chief of staff Jim Whitaker with Scott Kendall, an attorney fresh from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski's victorious re-election campaign.
Whitaker is a longtime ally of Walker's, and the governor, in a Wednesday morning memo to staff, described him as "my anchor from day one." Walker added: "Jim and I have recently agreed that a fresh perspective in the governor's office could be helpful."
Kendall, 41, has never worked in Juneau. But he's been part of Alaska's Republican political circles for a decade, having worked with Murkowski, the late Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, and investor Bob Gillam.
Kendall also worked with Walker's gubernatorial campaign in 2014, though Walker, a Republican-turned-independent, was trying to unseat a GOP governor, Sean Parnell. And Kendall married into a prominent Democratic family: His father-in-law is Luke Hopkins, the former Fairbanks borough mayor and another ally of Walker's.
Walker and others said they expected Kendall to be able to work across party lines as Walker's administration continues its push to get lawmakers to adopt reforms to begin to alleviate Alaska's multibillion dollar deficit. Lawmakers largely rejected those changes during regular and special sessions this year.
When the new Legislature convenes in January, the state Senate will remain under Republican control, but the House's current GOP majority will be replaced by a coalition largely made up of Democrats.
"Scott's the kind of person that can listen to all points of view and try to come up with a consensus that's good for Alaska," said Mike Dubke, who was Kendall's boss at Black Rock Group, the Virginia-based consulting firm Murkowski hired for her re-election campaign.
Whitaker is a former state legislator and Fairbanks borough mayor who's long worked alongside Walker pressing for development of a state-controlled natural gas pipeline — a project Walker's administration is still pursuing.
Whitaker is also a Republican. But he'd clashed with some of his GOP colleagues in the Legislature and, at least last year, Whitaker wasn't on speaking terms with House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski.
Whitaker didn't respond to requests for comment.
Kendall will live in Anchorage but spend time in Juneau during the session, said a spokesperson for Walker, Jonathon Taylor.
Taylor wouldn't disclose how much Kendall will be paid, saying his salary was still under discussion. Budget documents show Whitaker's salary was $173,000.
Whitaker will remain in the governor's office as "senior adviser on major projects," including ongoing plans to bring cheaper natural gas to Fairbanks and reorganizing several state entities: the Alaska Energy Authority, the Alaska House Finance Corp., and the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.
He'll continue working in Juneau.