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New governor's chief of staff known for being outspoken, independent

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 29, 2014

FAIRBANKS -- Jim Whitaker, chief of staff for Gov.-elect Bill Walker, served three years on the Fairbanks City Council, five years in the state House and six years as mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

And none of it might have happened had the flip of a coin gone the other way.

With Walker set to assume leadership of state government Monday, Whitaker has been busy for the past few weeks with nonstop phone calls, interviews, meetings and the other groundwork of the transition.

He made a quick trip home on the day before Thanksgiving and sat down with a reporter in his home in the hills north of Fairbanks to talk about his years in Alaska and the challenges ahead.

At the outset, he made it clear that his new position is not one in which he will be speaking out on matters of public policy.

Even his strongest supporters would say that Whitaker has a propensity to pontificate -- quick with a magic marker and a whiteboard -- but he said his new focus will be to carry out the priorities of the governor and ensure that the lines of communication are open.

"I don't make political statements, as it's not a political role," he said.

"Simply put, I'm not a loose cannon," Whitaker added. "I'm a team player."

That he came to be a member of the Walker team can be traced back to a political journey that began on an evening 20 years ago in Fairbanks.

He recalled that he sat down one night with his best friend, John Hovenden, and over a couple of beers they solved all the problems of Fairbanks city government.

He said that Hovenden, who tried in the early 1990s to rehabilitate the Polaris Hotel downtown as the "Hotel Captain Hook," shared many of Whitaker's views.

At that time, Whitaker faced some of the same challenges in trying to restore the downtown Lathrop Building, which had also fallen into decay, and they thought the city could do more to promote its downtown.

The two Fairbanks businessmen agreed that one of them ought to run for the Fairbanks City Council. But which one?

Hovenden flipped a coin and Whitaker called it.

"I lost," Whitaker said.

He went on to win a half-dozen city, state and borough elections in the years that followed, and he soon found himself immersed in high-profile and contentious issues, often to the irritation of Republican leaders in Fairbanks and statewide.

Natural gas pipeline

While city issues interested him the most at first, soon he was speaking out on plans to build a natural gas pipeline -- the issue that led to his long friendship with Walker. Whitaker worked on this in the Legislature and later as mayor through the Alaska Gasline Port Authority, the municipal entity formed to push for a gas line, with Walker as project manager and counsel.

Whitaker said that Walker's most striking quality is that he will never quit in the face of difficulty, a leadership trait that Alaska has never needed more than today.

Friends and even enemies of Whitaker say that he also is not one to give up on an issue or withdraw from a fight.

His supporters would say he has built a reputation as outspoken, blunt, independent, fearless and sometimes confrontational. His critics say he masquerades as a Republican, sticking to that party label simply because the GOP is more popular among Alaskans.

Whitaker, who is accustomed to the political fray, responds to such talk with "hell's bells" or phrases that are a good deal stronger, depending upon the circumstances.

One of his early challenges to a popular GOP position came in 2002 when he fought elements of a gas line incentive plan pushed by Veco boss Bill Allen that would have led to a reduction in property tax dollars in Fairbanks.

A year later, former Anchorage Rep. Andrew Halcro compared Whitaker favorably to the long-shot hero of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

"It was Jim who stood up in a closed majority caucus and argued successfully against House Bill 519 on behalf of the taxpayers of Fairbanks," Halcro wrote on behalf of Whitaker's campaign for mayor.

Over the years, many Republican activists grew to dislike Whitaker, saying he supported Democratic causes and candidates and was too quick to find fault with his party brethren over such things as the lack of substantial rules on conflict of interest questions in the Legislature.

Their opposition only intensified when he took the stage for 3 1/2 minutes at the 2008 Democratic National Convention to endorse Barack Obama for president.

"We are Americans first. We're not Democrats. We're not Republicans," Whitaker told the Denver convention a day before Obama's nomination.

He said he doesn't regret his appearance at the convention, though some "politically negative results" came from that decision.

Whitaker said the political posturing of both parties doesn't appeal to him. Most voters don't belong to either one and what should be paramount for everyone in state government is what's best for Alaska, he said.

Business success, failure

Until Whitaker began his venture into politics in the 1990s, he had figured he would continue in construction and property development.

Whitaker's father worked for Green Construction and moved around a lot, which is how Whitaker came to attend Lathrop High School as a freshman in the mid-1960s.

Two decades later, the younger Whitaker worked for Green Construction on the Red Dog Mine in Western Alaska and for a subsidiary that maintained the trans-Alaska pipeline.

He married Patricia, known in Fairbanks as Jinx, in 1989. They have four daughters and eight grandchildren.

In the early 1990s, the Whitakers moved Jinx's long-established business, New Horizons Gallery, into the Lathrop Building. The four-story downtown Fairbanks landmark had fallen into disrepair over the decades, having once been a drop-off center for people who abused alcohol.

The Whitakers set out on an aggressive effort to rent office space and create what became the finest and one of the largest art galleries in Fairbanks. But changing demographics, a downturn in tourism, continuing problems attracting business downtown and the national economic collapse proved too much to overcome.

The Whitakers closed the art gallery in 2009, and the bank foreclosed on the building just as his second term as mayor was ending.

"That was embarrassing and that was heartbreaking," said Jinx, who ran the gallery for 30 years.

They did not declare bankruptcy, however, and have been making payments of about $20,000 a year since then.

Jinx, 67, said they expect to continue making monthly payments until the $9,000 in remaining debts is paid in full.

Jim said they want to be able to "look at ourselves in the mirror, and we didn't want to escape our debts."

A history of speaking up

To a degree that is rare among Fairbanks politicians, Whitaker inspires both intense support and opposition, stemming from his positions on key issues over the past 15 years.

As a legislator, Whitaker warned against BP making a colony of Alaska and -- before the oil price rise of 2007 and beyond gave the state temporary relief -- argued for a state fiscal plan with taxes, some use of Alaska Permanent Fund earnings, spending cuts and economic growth.

He criticized the influence of Veco in Juneau. He helped lead the oil-tax repeal initiative and he endorsed Sen. Mark Begich for re-election.

In 2010, when U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller said he would not answer questions about his past, Whitaker, by then a former mayor, went public with a statement that Miller had misused borough computers.

Whitaker said Miller's action had "happened on my watch and I am obligated to tell the truth."

A year ago, when chaplains in the Alaska National Guard went to Walker with allegations of wrongdoing and complaints about state inaction, Walker told them he was shocked but he worried that if he brought it up as a candidate, the issue might be dismissed as a campaign ploy.

He called Whitaker for advice. Whitaker helped get the chaplains in touch with an Anchorage Daily News reporter, Sean Cockerham, who wrote the first story about multiple allegations of serious sexual misconduct.

While some key legislators in Juneau have had sharp disagreements with Whitaker in the past, he believes that the seriousness of the state's finances will take precedence over previous disputes.

"I know them to be responsible people; therefore their considerations will not be some political disagreement or something personal with me but with the challenges we have to deal with," he said.

"The consequences of not dealing with this productively today are incredibly dire."

Walker said he is comfortable with Whitaker and knows that the former legislator understands the legislative process. The administration will be able to work with lawmakers, he said.

"I think that once we all sit down and have a chance to have some discussion, get to know each other in a different role, it's going to be fine," Walker said.