Impeachment case may cloud Alaska governor's political future

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Gov. William Sheffield (D) escaped impeachment this week, but he is keeping a vow of silence about running for reelection in 1986. ``You'll be the first to know,'' Governor Sheffield told reporters after the 20-member state Senate adjourned Monday from the first impeachment hearings ever held in Alaska.

The Senate went home after deciding Sheffield's role in awarding a $9.1 million state contract to one of his political contributors did not break any state laws and did not constitute an impeachable offense.

``This has not been good, probably, for my reelection aspirations -- if I have any,'' Sheffield said. ``But I think it's too early to tell about how the people really feel.''

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Sheffield won his first bid for political office in 1982 when he became the first Alaskan to spend more than $2 million to become governor. But other Alaska politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, said the odds against Sheffield winning reelection are overwhelming.

``Impeachment matters are politically fatal,'' says Sen. Pat Rodey (D) of Anchorage, who sided with Sheffield throughout impeachment proceedings. ``In this specific instance, there is no reason to alter that diagnosis.''

``Sheffield hasn't had any political future for the past month,'' says Republican Sen. Tim Kelly, a member of the GOP's state central committee. ``The Democratic Party in this state can't afford to have Governor Sheffield heading its ticket next year. He'll take them all down with him.''

The Senate, after 12 days of hearings on impeachment proceedings, voted against issuing even a reprimand to Sheffield. It convened in special session after a Juneau grand jury on July 2 recommended impeachment inquiries.

In a 69-page public report, the grand jury said Sheffield and his former chief of staff, John Shively, manipulated bid specifications so that a company owned partly by plumbers union leader Lenny Arsenault could win a lease for office space in Fairbanks.

Mr. Arsenault helped raise $92,000 in campaign contributions for Sheffield in 1983, the grand jury said. The lease was awarded without competitive bidding, and it was voided after the grand jury released its report.

In testimony before both the grand jury and the Senate, Sheffield said he couldn't remember meetings that other witnesses said he participated in and actions he took on behalf of Arsenault's company.

The Senate said it couldn't produce the evidence to prove that Sheffield perjured himself before the grand jury when he couldn't recall his actions.

The impeachment hearings were a momentous political event in Alaska. All 12 days of the proceedings were carried live on statewide television and newspaper coverage was extensive.

Sen. Arliss Sturgulewski (R) of Anchorage, who has declared her candidacy for governor, says she won't need to mention the impeachment inquiries if she and Sheffield win their respective party primaries.

``I don't think I as a candidate will have to remind the public about this,'' says Senator Sturgulewski, who is currently considered the GOP's front-runner for the nomination.

But Sheffield is no stranger to adversity. The son of working-class parents, he has been handicapped by a speech impediment. Though now a millionaire, Sheffield has struggled for success.

He moved to Alaska in 1953 as a Sears television repairman. Through hard work and careful investments, Sheffield by 1982 owned a chain of 10 hotels in Alaska and Canada's Yukon territory. In making his first bid for office in 1982, he spent $500,000 of his own money to get elected.

Because of Sheffield's proven ability to fight the odds, not all Alaska politicians are willing to count him out of next year's governor's race.

``At first it appeared this would be the death knell for Sheffield,'' says Sen. Vic Fischer (D) of Anchorage. ``It may, in fact, be his rejuvenation.''

If Sheffield can shape up state government in the next 16 months to be ``something more than the sloppy operation that we've had,'' the governor could at least make a bid for reelection, Senator Fischer says.

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