Alaska News

Candidate profile: Treadwell's underdog run for US Senate draws on 40 years of Alaska work

He was a Wally Hickel protege who built himself into an authority on the Arctic, an entrepreneur who amassed personal wealth from well-played technology investments. His friends call him intelligent and energetic.

Now Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, once considered a moderate Republican or even forward-thinking on matters like climate change, is branding himself as the "true Alaskan conservative" in a fierce political contest for U.S. Senate.

Treadwell, 58, is the only one of the three leading GOP contenders to have won statewide office. Yet he finds himself the struggling underdog -- at least financially -- after more than a year of campaigning for the job he first got a whisper of as a teenage Senate page during the Watergate hearings.

Earlier this year he let his top campaign staff go. His campaign manager is Peter Christensen, a longtime friend volunteering for the gig. The more than $900,000 that Treadwell had collected as of the end of March included $225,500 in his own money that he loaned his campaign. He had just $143,000 in hand.

Compare that to the $2.7 million that fellow GOP candidate and former Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan had raised -- just $600 of it his own money and most of it still in hand as of March 31, the end of the last reporting period to the Federal Election Commission. Or consider the $6.7 million collected by Democratic Sen. Mark Begich -- none of it his own -- with $2.8 million still to spend. Fairbanks lawyer and tea party favorite Joe Miller raised less than the others, but because he started with money in hand, he ended with almost $300,000, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis.

So-called "super PACs" and other political groups are flooding the race with millions more dollars for television and radio ads, none of them mentioning Treadwell. The big money is funding a media war between Sullivan and Begich as Republicans try to take over the U.S. Senate.

Money, Treadwell says, won't decide the race. He says he'll have enough to make his case for the primary and more support will follow.

He has yet to air a single TV or radio ad but will start doing so across Alaska next week, according to his campaign. The absence is noticeable in a race that has seen more than 21,500 broadcast TV spots as of June 15, according to Kantar Media, a national monitoring and research firm.

Meanwhile, Treadwell is campaigning from Nome to Ketchikan, meeting with miners and fishermen, showing up at parades, baseball games and veterans posts, holding local fundraisers and meet-and-greets. He's held fundraisers around the country, including at least one hosted by Grover Norquist, founder of the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform.

"I still honestly believe this race is very similar to the one I won four years ago, where I was not the best-funded candidate in the race," Treadwell said this spring, referring to the 2010 GOP primary for lieutenant governor. "And we won by 20 points."

In June, he was buoyed by a poll from Dittman Research that put him almost even with Sullivan in the GOP Aug. 19 primary. The poll wasn't paid for by any of the Senate candidates but the political consulting company may end up working for Treadwell, said Matt Larkin, head of Dittman Research. Other recent polls had Sullivan way out in front. Miller lags behind both.

Treadwell has support from big names that go way back. Former House Speaker Gail Phillips backs him, and her daughter, Robin, is one of six paid Treadwell staffers. Former University of Alaska president Mark Hamilton and retired Marine Col. Catkin Burton are co-chairing the campaign. Former Alaska Senate President Drue Pearce is on his team. A cadre of national leaders who served under President Ronald Reagan are donors, including former Secretary of State George Shultz and Interior Secretary Donald Hodel.

Overall, Treadwell collected more than double the donations from Alaskans as Sullivan through March, the Center for Responsive Politics found.

"The whole history of our statehood was standing up for ourselves against Outside interests," Treadwell said Friday.


Louis Mead Treadwell II says he "grew up as a country kid in a small town," the oldest of three boys raised in Newtown, Conn. He went to Sandy Hook Elementary School, scene of the December 2012 mass shooting where 20 children and six adults were killed by a 20-year-old who then shot himself.

He says the nation's response shouldn't be more gun control, but rather more intensive mental health services.

His father, Timothy Treadwell, was first selectman, the town's elected chief executive, and as he remembers it, "the only people who had to wait outside his office were reporters and his kids." His father's business was modernizing newspaper printing presses.

Treadwell delivered the local paper -- "I had far more chickens and woodchucks and cows on my paper route than people" -- then worked as a reporter, a job he would later do aggressively in Alaska.

His dad drank, too much at times, and when he did, a harsh and violent side emerged. Treadwell says he appreciates shelters and other help for families that didn't exist decades ago in his hometown.

"But the other thing is, my father was not a guy to be thrown away, either," Treadwell said. "When he was sober, people thought he was a brilliant guy. People thought he was going to be governor of our state." A park in Newtown is named for him.

The family didn't have a lot of money, but he was marked by a childhood rich in encounters with intelligent, creative neighbors and townspeople, he says. A cartoonist who later became art director of The New Yorker. A robot inventor. A teacher who figured out a way to convert IBM Selectric typewriters into early computer terminals for his students.

Treadwell was particularly taken with a family friend named Robert Fulton. He traveled the world on his motorcycle, wrote a book and made a movie about it, and invented a helicopter-based system called Skyhook that used a hook and cable to recover soldiers.

In February 1972, when Treadwell was 15, his father was killed in a house fire. The day before was a busy family time. His father took the boys to open a new firehouse. One brother was in a wrestling tournament and Treadwell wrote about it for the town paper. The boys wore themselves out tobogganing behind a tractor.

Late that next morning, his mother, Anne Treadwell, began hollering. "The house is on fire! Everybody get out!"

Mead, still in pajamas, grabbed his boots, ran to a neighbor's house and called the fire department. The neighbor took an axe to a window and pulled out his brother and dog. His other brother and mother got out, too. His dad later was found collapsed on the guest room floor. The fire's cause was never established.

While rebuilding, his widowed mother and the three boys moved into a cabin without running water, heated by a coal-burning stove.

"Ultimately alcohol is probably what killed my father," Treadwell said.

Treadwell, who drinks socially, recognizes alcoholism as a disease and says individuals must learn to control their behaviors.

He has raised his children largely on his own. His wife, Carol, died of brain cancer in 2002, leaving him with three young children. A fourth baby died of sudden infant death syndrome. His sons are now in college and his daughter goes to prep school. The Treadwells sponsored Mars in the Planet Walk that spans the city in Carol's memory, and the organ at Holy Family Cathedral was donated as well.

"These deaths have strengthened my faith," Treadwell, who is Catholic, said Friday. "I live for the chance to see my dad, my wife, my son again."


As a boy, Treadwell went with his paternal grandmother on regular trips West that "showed me the size of the world and its possibilities," Treadwell said.

After his 1974 graduation from the preparatory Hotchkiss School -- he went there on scholarship his senior year -- his grandmother took him and his youngest brother to Alaska. Treadwell took in the view of Mount McKinley and the wildlands.

"That's when I decided to be an Alaskan," he said.

On the ferry to Alaska, he read Wally Hickel's book "Who Owns America?" In Anchorage, the teen met longtime Hickel aide Malcolm Roberts and eventually got a meeting with Hickel, the former governor who was running again. A summer ranching job had fallen through.

"I can't afford to pay you, but you can work here anyway," Hickel told the teen.

He quickly became part of Hickel's universe and Roberts', too.

"He stayed at our home, and he's been like a member of our family ever since," Roberts said. "He is brilliant. He understands the Arctic better than anyone in Alaska. He has got many, many gifts."

Still, Roberts declined to talk about the Senate race and said he is not actively involved.

As a Hickel intern, Treadwell wrote a position paper on fisheries on the then-still-developing concept of a 200-mile economic zone for federal waters.

He grew from his start as disciple, serving as Hickel's press secretary in his 1978 unsuccessful run for governor, traveling with him through Soviet Siberia, working with him on natural gas projects and later serving as managing director of Hickel's Institute of the North think tank.

One day recently, Treadwell put together a lengthy list of "Rules Wally Hickel Taught Me."

It starts with "Stay Free," ends with "Frontiers Are in the Mind," and includes "Ideas Are More Important Than Money."


After his summer in Alaska, Treadwell went to Yale University on scholarship. He majored in history, studied Alaska, became president of the Yale Daily News, pushed for the school endowment to divest holdings in segregated South Africa and worked three jobs to pay for flight school.

He graduated in 1978 and became a political reporter for what was then Alaska's dominant paper, The Anchorage Times.

He made an offer to buy the Kodiak Daily Mirror but withdrew it when he got into Harvard Business School. He did a field study that examined putting the Alaska Railroad, then federally owned, into private or state hands and says the research was used in the congressional debate that turned the railroad over to the state.

In 1982, he moved back to Alaska for dual gigs: a liquefied natural gas project under former Govs. Hickel and Bill Egan, and a study of statewide cellphone service. Alaska's oil producers weren't ready to develop a gas pipeline yet, in part because they were using the gas to repressurize fields and produce more oil. But the project, like the one the Parnell administration is working on today, sought to ship Alaska's gas to Asia. Cellphone service to Alaska didn't happen then either, but he was working for Ron Duncan, who later helped start GCI.

He continued the gas pipeline work as vice president of Yukon Pacific Corp. and made dozens of trips to Asia to find markets for Alaska's gas.

Then, in March 1989, the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground and spilled millions of barrels of oil in Prince William Sound. The city of Cordova was hard hit and hired Treadwell to manage its oil spill response.

Treadwell came "at a time of utter chaos and helped organize a coherent response on behalf of the city," Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and environmental activist, said recently when asked about Treadwell. "Essentially, Mead helped to channel a lot of raw emotion into constructive political outcomes."

Treadwell co-founded the Prince William Sound Science Center and regional citizens' advisory council.

And he took action to prevent governmental and industry neglect, Steiner said. He helped write the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 in Congress as well as state spill prevention laws that he then implemented as deputy commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, an appointment he secured during Hickel's second term in the early 1990s.

Steiner, a frequent critic of the Parnell administration's environmental record, called Treadwell's work on the spill "a real asset."

Recapping his years at DEC, Treadwell emphasizes both pro-development work, such as issuing permits for mines and other projects, and protection, including creation of a state environmental crimes unit.

Treadwell made his money as a high-tech entrepreneur and investor. One company's patents led to digital watermarking. Another company created the 360-degree camera used in Google's Street View and by the U.S. military for street mapping in Afghanistan and Iraq. His net worth is between $2.4 million and $10 million, according to an analysis of his Senate candidate financial disclosure.

Treadwell's longtime girlfriend, lawyer Lisa Nelson, says he's intelligent and committed to Alaska.

"Energetic, my gosh! People talk about me as being the Energizer bunny. He's like way past me. He just keeps going and going," said Nelson, a former state prosecutor, former assistant attorney general -- and a Democrat. She says they try not to talk politics much and that she may change her registration so she can vote for him in the primary. They became close a few years back with a group of friends into downhill skiing.

In all, Treadwell says he's been working on Alaska issues for 40 years.


Still, as an elected politician in a Republican-leaning state, Treadwell has not pushed for action on climate change, a disappointed Steiner says.

In the 2000s, as chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, an advisory agency to the president and Congress, Treadwell testified about the need to address human-caused climate change.

Treadwell testified to a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 2008 that "we understand it is this nation's goal -- expressed with other nations -- to reverse the trend of climate change caused by humans."

But when he ran for lieutenant governor four years ago, he told the tea party-esque Conservative Patriots Group "I challenge the argument that man-made CO2 emissions are causing significant global warming."

He says now that more study is needed and that humans didn't cause all the global warming.

Randy Ruedrich, the longtime former Alaska Republican Party chairman who is supporting Sullivan in the GOP primary, says that Treadwell turned more conservative when he ran in 2010.

"He tried to go from the traditional pro-Alaska development guy to being a social conservative," Ruedrich said.

Before that, Ruedrich said, Treadwell seemed to align more with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican.

Asked whether he has changed his core beliefs to become electable in a Republican primary, Treadwell said he absolutely has not.

"I believe I have the best conservative credentials of anybody in the race," Treadwell said.

He's anti-abortion and against gay marriage. He's for a federal balanced budget amendment and school vouchers, against amnesty for illegal immigrants and the Affordable Care Act.

On abortion, he said his views are long-held and personal, not a partisan awakening.

"I was a baby conceived out of wedlock," he said. "Abortion was available. I'm very glad my mother chose life." (At the time, abortion was illegal in most of the country.)

He said abortions should be discouraged at every turn, even in cases of rape and incest. He doesn't believe the government should ever pay for an abortion. Federal law needs to be changed, he said, though he didn't have a specific proposal.

"There is a child there who is innocent no matter what the circumstances of conception were," he said.

Back in 2010, he was a financial supporter of the voter initiative to require parental notification before a minor's abortion.

His beliefs are rooted in his experiences, he said, reading George Orwell's "1984" as a kid, traveling in the Soviet Union "during the heart of the evil empire," and seeing government make decisions that people could better make for themselves.

"I believe the best way to solve most of the world's problems is acts of kindness rather than acts of Congress," Treadwell said.

Reach Lisa Demer at or 257-4390.

Candidate profiles

The Daily News is profiling candidates for U.S. Senate in the Aug. 19 Alaska primary election. Read an earlier story on Republican Dan Sullivan at


Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.