Alaska’s independent governor drops re-election bid

Bill Walker was instrumental in promoting an Arctic gas line, as well as adopting policies that benefited Alaska Natives.

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Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, accompanied by Lt. Gov. Val Davidson, his wife Donna Walker and their daughter Lindsay Hobson, received emotional thank-yous from Alaska Federation of Natives leaders after he announced Friday that he would not seek reelection. (Yereth Rosen)

Two days after Alaska’s lieutenant governor abruptly resigned in what appeared to be a sexual harassment scandal, Alaska’s governor ended his campaign for re-election and threw his support to his Democratic rival.

Gov. Bill Walker, the nation’s only independent governor, made the announcement Friday at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage.

“Every decision I have made as your governor I have made on the basis of what I believe is best for Alaska. With that said, effective today, I am suspending my campaign for the re-election as governor,” he told the audience.

With only 18 days remaining before the election, he said, he has come to the conclusion that he and new Lt. Gov. Valerie Davidson cannot win a three-way race, and that Begich had the better chance of beating Republican Mike Dunleavy.

“Alaskans deserve a competitive race, and Alaskans deserve a choice other than Mike Dunleavy,” Walker said in his speech.

Despite some differences with Begich, Walker said, he and the Democrat “more closely align” on important issues. Those include his work “to improve the relations between tribes and the state and restore respect for Alaska’s first peoples” and his administration’s work toward securing a long-desired North Slope natural gas, he said.

Among the reasons for his decision, Walker said in his speech and in comments afterward to reporters, was his desire to preserve what he considered important progress toward achieving a North Slope natural gas pipeline and work on behalf of Alaska Natives.

He and Begich, Walker said, are largely in agreement on those major issues. But Dunleavy has different positions.

On the natural gas project — which would pipe Arctic natural gas to Southcentral Alaska to be liquefied and shipped to China and other Asian markets — Dunleavy would reverse a lot of work that was made through personal relationships built with the president of China and other leaders, Walker said.

Dunleavy has sought to reduce state funding for the Alaska Gasline Development Corp., the state agency sponsoring the LNG proposal, Walker said.

“He said in a debate in Kenai recently that he doesn’t think that the government of Alaska has any role in developing this project,” the governor told reporters. “He says to go back and let the producers work on it. Obviously, he doesn’t understand that the producers asked me, they came to me and said, `You do this. You can do this better than we can.’ And we did.

Dunleavy, a former state senator, has criticized the governor’s approach to the project, though in general terms.

“What we do know is that press releases don’t build pipelines,” Dunleavy said in a September news release. “Our campaign remains committed to a project that maximizes the benefit to all Alaskans without jeopardizing our financial future, one driven by the private sector, not politics.”

Begich, a former U.S. senator and Anchorage mayor, on Friday commended the LNG work done by Walker and his administration.

“He’s done an incredible job on bringing the gas line to an unbelievable point, more than any other governor in the history of Alaska,” Begich said in comments to reporters late Friday. And he said he and Walker have a common approach on that issue. “I think people who care about that should look at our campaign, that we see that as an opportunity.

Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act was another key issue on which Walker said he and Begich agree. As governor, Walker expanded Medicaid coverage dramatically, an action that was especially important to Alaska Natives in rural areas; as a U.S. senator, Begich voted for the ACA, which he continues to support. Dunleavy opposes the expansion as too costly.

In an AFN gubernatorial debate that followed Walker’s withdrawal announcement — a debate that turned out to be a two-person affair — Begich lauded the current governor for his work on behalf of Native tribes.

“Just like the federal government, the state must recognize tribes, pure and simple,” Begich said. “I want to give credit to Governor Walker for that recognition. I want to continue that if I’m elected as governor.”

A day earlier, Walker had closed a speech to AFN with an apology on behalf of the state for the wrongs inflicted throughout history on Alaska Native people.

On Friday, Walker told reporters he wanted the make sure the apology was seen as sincere. He said he studied other recent apologies to aboriginal people made by government leaders, including that from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the First Nations members who endured abuses in that country’s residential schools.

After his withdrawal announcement, AFN leaders representing all the regions of the state gathered on the stage with the governor and thanked him in an emotional but impromptu ceremony. They called for, and received, a unanimous vote from the floor accepting the apology from the previous day. They handed over gifts and doled out hugs.

“We appreciate your work and we love you and we wish the best for you and your family,” AFN board member Sheri Buretta, an Alutiiq from the Prince William Sound region, told the governor. “And I knew in my heart that you would never split the baby.”

The governor’s tumultuous week started on Monday, when he learned of “inappropriate comments” made by Mallott to a woman. Mallott resigned the next day. Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson, who had been serving as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, was sworn in Tuesday as the new lieutenant governor.

Mallott, who is Tlingit, was the first Alaska Native elected to a statewide office. Davidson, who is Yupik, became the first Alaska Native woman to hold statewide office.

Though there is just a short amount of time in her term — the new governor will be take office in early December — Davidson said she is prepared to take over the work that Mallott was doing, including his leadership of the governor’s climate action team.

“I think we build on the work that has already been done, and every day is a new day to get it right,” she said on Thursday.

The team has submitted a climate strategy and an action plan that pushes for more reduced carbon emissions, more use of renewable energy, investigation of carbon-capture opportunities and other initiatives. Davidson said she expects the plan to result in concrete action, no matter who is governor.

“I think it’s a good plan, and when you have a good plan, it lasts,” she said.