While carefully avoiding a victory declaration, leading gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker announced the co-chairs of his transition team Wednesday afternoon -- former two-time Alaska Senate President Rick Halford and Bethel Native leader Ana Hoffman.
Walker and running mate Byron Mallott introduced the two co-chairs at a press conference at their Anchorage headquarters. Reflecting the blended political theme the two candidates stressed during their campaign, Halford is a Republican, Hoffman a Democrat.
Halford and Hoffman said they plan to explore policy issues surrounding 17 topics, many of them hot-button issues in Alaska like subsistence, rural justice, climate change, health care, wildlife management and fisheries. They will not recommend names for commissioners or other political positions, they said.
"Coming out and naming people at this point would be inappropriate," Walker said. "We have one governor at a time. We need to get through this election before we start naming people."
As of the latest vote tally Tuesday night, Walker, an independent, was ahead of Republican Gov. Sean Parnell by 4,004 votes. About 20,000 absentee and questioned ballots remain uncounted, with a big batch expected to be tallied Friday. Parnell says he still thinks he can win.
Walker said he's talked to Parnell since the Nov. 4 election but described a recent conversation as "awkward."
Mallott said the state was "on the cusp of a significant change."
"We aren't declaring; we aren't saying that we won by any stretch," Mallott said. But establishing a transition team presents an opportunity for Alaskans "to look at the way we conduct public policy in a different way."
Walker said he needs to get started on a transition because the next governor will take the oath of office Dec. 1. If he's the one, he said, he needs to be prepared.
Walker said he's known Halford for years. He only met Hoffman last year after winning a bid on a Bethel experience package at a charity auction benefiting the First Alaskans Institute in Anchorage. One of the items in Bethel was an authentic Alaska Native meal.
"Turned out it was in Ana's home," Walker said.
Hoffman, 40, chief executive and president of the Bethel Native Corp. and co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives, is an advocate of rural development, among other issues. She's fluent in Yup'ik.
Halford represented Chugiak in the House and Senate but lately spends much of his time at his lodge in Aleknagik in the Dillingham region. At 70, he remains deeply involved in public policy and played a key role in the last Legislature in defeating House Bill 77, the Parnell administration bill that would have reduced public involvement in state natural resource management.
Halford acknowledged that he was a strong Republican partisan for at least part of his legislative career, especially his first stint as Senate president from 1993 to 1994. He was less so the second time around, from 2001 to 2002, he said.
"Yes, I've been a part of partisanship; yes, I have made lots of mistakes," Halford said. "Yes, I'm a registered Republican, but the Republican Party sadly changed in my mind from the party of small business, free enterprise, individual freedom to a much bigger organization controlled from the top."
Halford also acknowledged that the transition tasks for him and Hoffman sounded less than clear.
"It's vague but you shouldn't be afraid to ask the question because the question's vague and the answers may be vague. It's listening," Halford said.
The campaign later issued a statement that said each of the 17 transition topics would become the special interest of a transition team subcommittee. "The task facing the transition team co-chairs this week is to contact Alaskans who have been identified as potentially serving on the transition team and notify them to assemble in the coming weeks upon a successfully completed vote tabulation," the statement said.
Walker said the Alaska National Guard's leadership and sexual misconduct scandal will be addressed by his administration if he wins, not by the transition team. But a different issue involving the National Guard generated the most detailed discussion of any topic at the press conference.
Halford said the transition team would study the "revitalization" of the Army guard as a force in rural Alaska. Where the Alaska National Guard once had an active network of armories and units throughout the villages, that changed over the last few decades as the guard was more closely integrated into the regular military and took on national and international assignments.
"Those decisions were a mistake for Alaska but you've got to unravel 40 years of history if you're going to try to bring the guard back," said Halford, who noted that generations of rural leaders got their start in the National Guard.
At least three political figures attended the press conference, standing in the back of the room: Steve McAlpine, a former Democratic lieutenant governor and a legal adviser to the Walker campaign; Steve Rieger, a former Republican legislator who represented the Anchorage Hillside, and Democrat Forrest Dunbar, who just lost a race for Congress.