Town meetings help Alaska governor test public opinion and where he stands for reelection bid in '86

Alaska Gov. Bill Sheffield has embarked on an exhaustive series of town-hall meetings that is taking him across the state to discover what's in the hearts and minds of Alaskans. Of keen interest to Governor Sheffield is the public's perception of him after last summer's debate in the state Senate as to whether Sheffield should be impeached. The Senate narrowly voted that there was no ``clear and convincing evidence'' that Sheffield committed an impeachable offense.

The public inquiry was initiated at the recommendation of a grand jury that found Sheffield unfit for public office. Jurors questioned his administration's role in helping a group, which included a Sheffield financial backer, lease an office building to the state.

Before the lease flap erupted it was widely assumed Sheffield, a Democrat, would run for reelection in 1986.

The three dozen town meetings, taking Sheffield from Ketchikan, at the southernmost tip of the state, to Barrow, along the northern coast, permit him to reevaluate his prospects for another term. ``I haven't heard any complaints. People's impressions of the job I'm doing are favorable,'' Sheffield said prior to a meeting here this week.

Each meeting opens with a brief update on the performance of Alaska's Permanent Fund. This Fund is a $6.8 billion savings account that receives a fixed portion of the state's oil income and pays some dividends to state residents. In addition, interest from the fund will help cover the cost of evening is open to public comment and discussions.

Because he will not announce his candidacy until next spring, no direct appeals for campaign support are made during the meetings. ``I can assure you there are more scientific and less exhaustive ways to gauge one's popularity,'' Sheffield said.

``These kinds of get-togethers put him in an awkward situation. You might say it looks like he's campaigning, but I think he's taking preventive action against raids on the Permanent Fund,'' said Anchorage resident Bob Childers of the meetings, refering to some legislators who want to spend portions of the Fund's principal.

``Political polls may show he's in trouble [because of the impeachment inquiry], but I don't believe it. People always react to the most recent event,'' Mr. Childers added. Others attending the town meeting here agreed that the tarnish of impeachment may already be fading.

Sheffield based his impeachment defense on a faulty memory and a lack of involvement in day-to-day government operations. Thus, to restore public trust, his staff is using the town meetings to present a governor, in control of state government, and on top of daily issues, said Bob Miller, Sheffield's communication's director.

Alaska's Republicans have vowed not to let citizens forget that Sheffield was the first state executive in 56 years to face impeachment. Ken Stout, Republican Party chairman in Alaska, said he thinks Sheffield will run for reelection to vindicate himself of the grand jury's earlier charges.

Tom Fink, a Republican Sheffield defeated in the 1982 campaign, said the governor has the resources to overcome any image problems. ``In no other state does the governor have so much power and so much money that if he decides to go out and woo the people he could be a very viable candidate,'' Mr. Fink said.

Arlis Sturgulewski, a Republican state senator from Anchorage, and candidate for governor in '86, said she thinks the inquiry came early enough in Sheffield's term that he still has time to undo any damage it caused.

``The people are going to decide Sheffield's fate,'' Senator Sturgulewski said. Public opinion polls will, initially, help determine whether the governor can attract the financial backers and campaign workers needed to win.

Some state political leaders believe the impeachment inquiry eroded more credibility than can ever be recovered.

``I think it will be an uphill battle for him. His supporters feel he's made several slips, maybe he should retire with some honor,'' said Sen. Jalmar Kertpula, a Democrat and two-time Senate president.

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