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Politics

Walker promises development, criticized for vagueness

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 31, 2014

With the Alaska National Guard scandal raising questions about trust and accountability in Gov. Sean Parnell's administration, his re-election team has tried turning the tables on opponent Bill Walker, hammering him over inconsistencies or vague responses.

It's an often target-rich environment, given that Walker has morphed from a candidate who four years ago focused on oil and gas issues into one who hopes to have broader appeal for voters in Tuesday's general election.

But his unusual fusion ticket that merges the longtime Republican with a well-known Democrat has left some voters wondering how Walker, 63, will govern on critical social issues such as abortion rights, an area where he's waffled.

Meanwhile, Parnell's political operatives have worked aggressively to increase uncertainty over Walker's positions, pouncing on gaffes from the sometimes off-the-cuff candidate.

Parnell regularly tells voters, for example, that Walker has shifted positions on how severely he'll cut the state's budget, which faces a massive $2 billion deficit this year or more.

Walker said in early September it needed a 16 percent cut. Walker more recently has said he wasn't taking a position when he made the statement, and plans to ask agency heads to trim budgets 5 percent if he wins.

Walker has said at least he's talking about the state's fiscal woes and is being attacked for a mess that Parnell created.

The Parnell campaign has also suggested that Walker plans to raise taxes on oil producers, after Walker opposed the oil tax rewrite known as Senate Bill 21 approved by voters in August.

Walker has said he'll honor the vote but closely watch the law to make sure the state's major producers keep their commitments to stabilize oil production.

Walker admits he's no politician looking for a lifetime job in office. He says he's an Alaskan who wants to turn the economy around by developing the state's promising resources, including the North Slope's gigantic natural gas reserves.

Rick Halford, a Republican and former House and Senate majority leader, said Walker's "down-to-earth" approach is one reason he's endorsing him.

It's often Walker or his family hammering campaign signs into yards while they operate a successful law firm in Anchorage, Walker Richards.

"He's not analyzing everything he says and telling people what they want to hear," Halford said. "He's straightforward and real. What you see is what you get."

Aggressive opposition

The governor's race hasn't seen the trackers employed in the contentious U.S. Senate contest who follow candidates' every move with cameras rolling.

But the Parnell campaign is still digging hard for gaffes, including by sending a note-taker to Walker's community halls to track his statements on issues such as education and health care. The man refused to share his name when questioned by a reporter at one event, but acknowledged he was there for the Parnell campaign.

At a recent forum at the Rotary Club of Anchorage, Parnell campaign aides with cameras rolling got a flub they wanted. Walker, who often says he could not be more pro-development, told the crowd he's tired of being blamed as anti-oil.

Then he tripped: "My goodness, I couldn't be more anti-oil."

Shortly after the debate, the campaign tweeted a YouTube video of Walker's "Freudian slip."

Lindsay Hobson, Walker's daughter and campaign spokeswoman, wanted to respond by highlighting what she said were Walker's pro-development statements around the quote.

But she and others hadn't been videotaping or recording debates.

"We aren't driven to dig up records or search into someone's past," Hobson said. "That's not our focus. We want to keep our criticism issues-based."

Walker as governor?

If Walker wins Tuesday, what would he be like as governor?

Some critics say they have no idea.

Adding to the uncertainty is the unusual fusion ticket. Two months ago after the August primary, Byron Mallott and Hollis French agreed to step off the Democratic gubernatorial ticket so Mallot could join forces with Walker.

Walker also agreed to drop his Republican Party affiliation to gain the support of the Democratic Party for the nonparty "unity" ticket.

The new animal made a potential winner out of two campaigns that had faced certain doom against Parnell, vying for his second term after inheriting the office when Sarah Palin quit in 2009.

Unions have provided the biggest chunks of funding for the Walker-Mallott ticket during an election when Parnell's running mate, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, will see Anchorage voters consider his signature law to limit union power in the Municipality of Anchorage.

Mallott, a longtime, widely trusted leader in the Alaska Native community, has helped attract an endorsement from the Alaska Federation of Natives and support from some of the state's increasingly powerful Native corporations, such as Bristol Bay Native Corp. and Chugach Alaska Corp.

But the coalition has made for strange bedfellows, with tea party darling former Gov. Sarah Palin turning away from her former lieutenant governor, Parnell, and endorsing Walker alongside former Democratic governor Tony Knowles, whom she beat in 2006. Also in Walker's camp is broadcaster and political commentator Shannyn Moore, an independent who once dubbed Palin the "worst governor ever."

Angered by Palin support

Palin's endorsement was the last straw for Republican Andree McLeod, a staunch critic of her short-lived administration that lasted from late 2006 to 2009. McLeod said she yanked the Walker-Mallott signs out of her yard and stuffed them in the trash as soon as she heard the news.

She said she already had reservations about the "unity" ticket because she felt like Walker and Mallott had been too vague. Their message is, "Trust us, we'll be fine," she said.

But she was supporting them until Palin's endorsement. McLeod said she now questions Walker's judgment.

"If Bill Walker thinks it's OK to cozy up and to excuse away the actions of a former governor who abused her office, disgraced Alaskans and abandoned the state and her duties, what else is he capable of?" McLeod said. "I don't know."

McLeod says she's no fan of the Parnell administration and has filed, to no avail, public records requests to learn what Parnell knew about the Alaska National Guard scandal that has involved allegations of sexual assaults, favoritism in the guard and other misdeeds.

Despite her concerns about Parnell, McLeod said she's now voting for him.

"Better the devil you know," she said of Parnell. "At least he's manageable" and people know what to expect from him.

More anger over Palin support

Palin's endorsement, announced Oct. 22, prompted the Alaska Federation of Republican Women, representing 600 women across the state, to publicize a letter comparing Walker to Palin.

The organization had supported Palin during her bid for governor in 2006, even raising about $100,000 for her campaign, said president Rhonda Boyles. But Palin turned her back on the Republican Party.

"She wasn't very principled in how she dealt with the Republican Party," Boyles said. "She went on that ticket but she was never part of the Republican establishment and in fact worked against that."

When Palin left office, she had about $100,000 in her bank account that she could have given to a political entity such as the Republican women's group. Instead, she gave it to the Mat-Su hospital where she gave birth to Trigg, Boyles said.

"There are a lot of disgruntled women in the state because of that," Boyles said, adding that support for publishing the commentary was unanimous among the 20 board members who attended a statewide teleconference meeting. "Even if it was just $5,000, it would have been a statement saying 'Thank you for helping elect me.' "

Walker backtracks

Boyles said she sees similar self-interested motivation in Walker, who, as discussions for merging the unity ticket were underway said he would veto any legislation weakening abortion rights.

Walker, a social conservative who opposes abortions, later backed off that statement and said he should not have committed himself to a position on hypothetical bills. He also clarified that he would not initiate or support efforts to restrict abortion rights.

Boyles pointed out that Walker had decided to run an independent candidacy before the primary in August because he felt he had a better chance of defeating Parnell in a general election than in the Republican primary.

After the primary, Walker then jumped onto the "unity" ticket.

"We believe his movement from R to I to D says more about, 'I want to be governor,' than the principals a good sound economy needs," Boyles said.

Walker is not a Democrat, though critics sometimes use that term now to describe him.

The fact that he and Mallott are from different parties will lead to dysfunction in a Walker administration, said McLeod. She worries the chaos experienced during Palin's 2 ½ years in office will return in a Walker governorship.

"We've already been through half a Palin administration," McLeod said. "We don't need another."

No political labels

Mallot, a former director of both the Alaska Permanent Fund and the regional Native corporation in Southeast Alaska, said the Walker-Mallott campaign will leave political labels at the door.

Walker has promised an open administration, and that means listening to everyone, including Palin, Mallott said.

"She's an Alaskan and she cares about Alaska," Mallott said. "You may not agree with her, but she's a voice that should be heard like all other Alaskans."

Mallott and Walker differ on gay marriage. Walker said he supports marriage between a man and a woman as called for in the Alaska constitution. But Walker, asked if he would appeal a recent federal court decision overturning Alaska's ban on same-sex marriage, said he would "uphold the laws of the land."

Once taking office, Walker said he would review all litigation the state is involved in and determine the merits of pursuit, settlement or dismissal.

"Despite my personal views on marriage, with the state's dire financial crisis, pursuing expensive litigation that has little chance of victory is an unwise use of our dwindling resources," he said.

Abortions

Mallot also believes Alaska shouldn't restrict access to abortions.

Walker, when asked how he'll address decisions related to those topics, has often said he'll decide when those issues arise, after studying details and consulting closely with Mallott and others.

Walker's decisions on social issues such as abortions could affect Alaskans very personally, Mallott said. But Alaska faces much bigger issues, such as the economy.

"In terms of Alaska's future, in terms of what Alaskans are dealing with in their everyday lives, the issues of abortion and marriage equality aren't going to be huge impacts on their lives," said Mallott.

Walker has said Mallott will be the first and last person he consults before making a decision, Mallott said. But Mallott pointed out that the governor will make the final call as the constitution requires.

Mallott will respect Walker's decisions, he said.

"In terms of moving Alaska down the road as a society and an economy, those social issues are what they are and I'll live with them, and I will respect them because I know it comes from a deeply personal place in him," he said.

Mallott said Walker does not evade tough issues. Instead, he is cautious about taking positions until he has all the details.

Mallott said he came to trust and respect Walker after spending a year debating him, when Mallott was running as a Democrat and Walker an independent. He realized Walker has only the state's best interests at heart.

"I listened to him, and listened hard as you do during these forums and I tried to find something false, something that doesn't resonate," Mallott said. "I didn't find that in Bill Walker."

Moore: Walker differs from Parnell

Moore, the broadcaster and commentator, said she supports Walker.

She said she's happy to be in agreement with Palin.

"I would say to Sarah Palin I'm sorry," she said. "I once said you were the worst governor ever, but I was wrong. Sean Parnell is."

People say Walker and Parnell are the same when it comes to women's reproductive rights and that they're both opposed to abortion, she said. But Walker strongly backs solutions to reduce unwanted pregnancies.

"Walker wants comprehensive education that's appropriate in regard to reproduction, and he wants women to have access to birth control and he wants to expand Medicaid for low-income women so there is less need for women to get an abortion," she said.

She said Walker talks with people he doesn't agree with, and he was her favorite guest on her TV show.

"I don't have reservations about this ticket at all," she said. "I think the ramifications to Alaska of having Sean Parnell in charge four more years are something I don't even want to think about."

If Parnell wins, 40,000 Alaskans won't be covered by health insurance, she said, referring to Parnell's refusal to expand Medicaid. Before the primary, Walker said of course he'll expand Medicaid because it will help Alaskans.

"That's a life-or-death situation for some people," Moore said.

Who is Bill Walker?

His life story is entwined with many of the state's major events. He was born in Fairbanks in 1951 and raised in Delta Junction and Valdez, where his family owned a construction company.

During the 1964 earthquake, the company's building materials for houses and a hotel were washed off the dock, and construction stopped as the town began planning a move to a new site.

To make ends meet, Walker said his family picked up janitorial jobs, and he cleaned the U.S. Post Office until people there found out that at 13 years old he was too young for the work.

Later, his family bought houses in the old Valdez and moved them to the new town where they were sold.

He worked as a journeyman carpenter, teamster and laborer on the building of the trans-Alaska pipeline in the early 1970s.

At 27, he won a seat on the Valdez city council, and it appointed him to mayor. He left with 30 days in his term to head off for law school at the University of Puget Sound in Washington state.

Parnell supporters have criticized Walker for leaving office early, but Walker said he had the full support of the council and that Parnell had sought to leave office early as well, when he lost a race to Rep. Don Young for the U.S. House in 2008.

"It's a silly accusation," Walker said.

After his experience in Valdez, Walker didn't run for office until 2010, when he lost to Gov. Parnell in the GOP primary.

Oil and gas issues

At his firm, Walker has focused often on oil and gas issues for municipalities. Walker Richards has fought successfully to increase valuations for the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline, in opposition to efforts by the state, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and BP in support of lower values.

The higher values have meant higher property taxes for local governments and the state, though the state revenue is offset somewhat because oil companies can use the higher value to lower production taxes.

Walker also fought for years, in vain, to develop a gas line project through the Alaska Gasline Port Authority that today consists of the city of Valdez and the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Walker said efforts have failed mainly because the oil companies have refused to unlock the gas.

Also, after ExxonMobil refused to develop the valuable Point Thomson oil and gas field for decades, Walker in 2005 filed an agency demand against the state to force development. That led to a public hearing and a lawsuit that helped elevate the issue, he said.

Walker takes credit for the progress that's happening at the field now, but so does Parnell, whose administration settled a court battle between Exxon and the state. The settlement created what is essentially a plan of development that has advanced, with a $4 billion gas cycling effort expected to add 10,000 barrels of light oil into the pipeline in 2016.

Walker brought a lawsuit against the state saying the deal happened without proper public and legislative input and gave away the state's power to ensure full field development. The Alaska Supreme Court has yet to rule on that case.

Parnell has pointed to the lawsuit as proof that Walker will stop development at Point Thomson, currently the biggest undertaking on the North Slope.

Walker has said he's not trying to stop the development but wants to ensure the public has input going forward.

"I said enough is enough," when Exxon dragged its feet, Walker said. "When Alaska needed a fighter, I did that."

Tillion for Walker, Navarre for Parnell

Clem Tillion, a Republican and former Senate president, said he supports Walker because he will build projects that have long-term value for the state. "He will maximize the revenues we are going to get," Tillion said.

Tillion said Parnell has spent money needlessly, pursuing short-term gain as the state's long-term savings dwindle. "He says he's making jobs but the state is paying $20,000 for a $10,000 job," Tillion said of Parnell.

Halford said he thinks Walker will winnow down unneeded megaprojects the state is pursuing. In the last few years, the state has spent around $1 billion studying projects such as the Juneau access road and the Knik Arm bridge.

"It's all in studies and we haven't built anything," he said. "It doesn't mean you shouldn't study things. But when you say yes to everything and do nothing, you haven't got much balance."

Walker has said he'd stop the Alaska Stand Alone gas pipeline, a small-volume proposal seen as a just-in-case plan should the large-volume project initiated by the Parnell administration fail.

Walker has said the small line is not economic and the state shouldn't chase two pipeline projects, only one of which can be built.

Walker has said he'd support the large-volume project, called Alaska LNG, and finish the job. But he has criticized the project -- a partnership of the state, BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and pipeline builder TransCanada -- as being too confidential.

Walker said he won't allow it to go forward if he digs into those confidential details and learns it's a bad deal for the state.

Parnell has said the project -- estimated to cost $45 billion or more than $65 billion -- is the most open one in history. He says Walker will derail the effort and hurt the economy.

Mike Navarre, mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough where the Alaska LNG project is considering building a liquefaction facility, said he's a Democrat endorsing Parnell.

His support boils down to his long-term relationship with Parnell -- the two served in the Legislature in the 1990s. The Parnell administration has also been very responsive to the borough's needs, he said.

"While I don't always agree with him, I feel like he listens to my arguments and takes them into account," he said of Parnell.

Navarre said he has disagreed with Walker on the port authority's approach to developing a gas line, believing it unconstitutional because he said municipalities would control revenue the state should control.

"I have nothing against Bill Walker and always got along with Byron Mallott, but in terms of philosophies, I don't think Bill Walker and Sean Parnell are that far apart on most issues, so I just think it's not time to change direction," Navarre said. "The big gas line is moving and more real than any I've dealt with in the last 40 years."

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Bill Walker attended law school at Lewis and Clark College. He attended undergraduate school there, and attended law school at the University of Puget Sound.

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