JUNEAU — The speaker of the Alaska House is many things, but the terms "lean" and "sinewy" are rarely applied to him. Mike Chenault, a Republican from the Kenai Peninsula community of Nikiski, is the kind of guy who glances at his belly at a news conference and mutters, offhand, "I've never ran from much — as you can tell."
One thing that Chenault can do with surprising grace, however, is bowl.
With a metal wrist guard, a windmilling windup and his own ball engraved with a logo of a hammer, Chenault has a 183-pins-per-game average — good enough to rank sixth in this season's legislative bowling league headed into Thursday night's matchups at Taku Lanes, just down the hill from the Capitol.
"Chenault, you wouldn't be able to tell by looking at him — he's a pretty good athlete," says Senate President Kevin Meyer, a trim Republican from Anchorage.
The bowling league would usually make for a bit of a spectacle for outside observers — featuring, as it does, some of the state's most powerful politicians blowing off steam with staffers and a few lobbyists over beers. But Thursday night marked a momentous occasion in the history of legislative leisure, foreshadowed by the arrival shortly after 7 p.m. of a member of the governor's security detail.
A few minutes later, Gov. Bill Walker himself walked in for his first evening of bowling alongside Chenault as a member of the speaker's team, S'n'M. ("Smoke and Mirrors," Chenault insists.)
"I haven't been kicked off the team yet?" Walker asked.
Chenault's response: "We're going to vote on it after tonight."
The week before, Walker, a Republican-turned-independent, became the first-ever governor to bowl alongside his legislative branch counterparts since the league's founding in the mid-1980s. But Chenault had another obligation and missed seeing Walker notch a two-game average of 133 — seven pins less than Crystal Koeneman, one of two women on the team and an aide to Juneau GOP Rep. Cathy Munoz.
Thursday's games pitted S'n'M against 3rd Strike, a team made up mostly of staffers that also includes Lance Pruitt, an Anchorage Republican representative. In the league's bipartisan spirit, Chenault's squad includes Reps. Adam Wool, a Fairbanks Democrat serving his first term, and Bob Herron, a Bethel Democrat who serves in the leadership of Chenault's Republican-dominated majority caucus.
To understand the significance of Walker and Chenault playing on the same team, one has to look no further back than last week, when Chenault introduced a bill in the Alaska House that could perhaps be compared to a bowling ball aimed at the governor's head. It would block the state's attorney general from serving on state boards and commissions, and asks that Walker find someone to replace the current attorney general, Craig Richards — the governor's former law partner and one of his closest advisers — as a trustee for the Alaska Permanent Fund.
Not only that, but Tom Wright, Chenault's long-time chief of staff and an alternate on the bowling team, was the campaign manager for Sean Parnell, the incumbent governor whom Walker unseated in 2014.
The details of how Walker and Chenault ended up on a team together are a little hazy, though the idea emerged from the league's season-ending party last year.
Walker is more of a skier than a bowler — he grew up in Valdez, and tells a story about his first-ever bowling experience as a high school basketball player on a trip to Fort Greely, outside Fairbanks.
The teenagers proceeded to bowl themselves to exhaustion, and performed abysmally in their game that night.
"It was free and we'd never seen it before," Walker said. "The entire team bowled all day."
Walker throws his bowling ball straight down the lane, unlike Chenault, who uses a right-handed hook.
The House speaker is known as one of the best bowlers around, along with Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara and one of the league's founding members, Sam Cotten — a former House speaker and now Walker's fish and game commissioner. Cotten sheepishly acknowledges bringing two bowling balls to Juneau with the rest of his stuff.
Walker tallied a respectable 163 in his first game Thursday, which he claimed was the "highest score of my entire life." Chenault, meanwhile, rolled a 222, which, when combined with their teammates' scores, was good enough to notch a win against the opposing squad.
Chenault, 58, used to play in two bowling leagues on the Kenai Peninsula but stopped when his kids were born and didn't start again until he was first elected in 2000.
"I didn't pick up a bowling ball 'til I came down here," he said.
He arrived about 15 years after the league's founding in the mid-1980s by the late Tim Kelly, a former Senate president once described by an aide as "the ultimate legislative mechanic" and "an insider's insider" who was able to bring his colleagues together.
"He called me into his office, he looked at me and goes, 'We're going to start a bowling league,'" said Eldon Mulder, a former Kelly aide who's now a high-powered lobbyist. "He said, 'Because no one's talking — we need to improve the way we get along with each other.'"
In the early days, games didn't start until 9 p.m., said Mulder, who ended up as the founding commissioner of the league. But it quickly became a way for new legislators and staffers to make friends and strengthen their political networks.
The same will likely apply to Walker, who, unlike his predecessor, never served in the Legislature or as a staffer.
"I don't think it hurts him," Chenault said. "If you want me to help you with something, I need to have a relationship with you."
Last year — his first in office — Walker said there was hardly any time for hobbies. There was no snow for skiing anyway; asked what he did for fun, he mentioned a ceremonial puck drop at a couple of hockey tournaments.
This year, by 7 p.m. on Thursdays, "we're starting to wind down," Walker said.
In the second game of the night, both Walker's and Chenault's scores dropped off — Walker's to 145 and Chenault's to 184. But that was still enough, even with their team's substantial handicap, to come out of the evening with a decisive win.
Walker ended his evening with a surprise appearance at a downtown Juneau bar, the Lucky Lady, for a birthday celebration for Anchorage Rep. Charisse Millett, the House majority leader. The next morning, Chenault said the governor's status on his bowling team was still under review.
"You usually let a pitcher throw a few games before you decide if he stays on the team," he said. "We're trying him out."