Recall Pressure Mounts Against Alaska Governor
Walter Hickel has been charged with ethics violations and has drawn public discontent for his ambitious development visions. Some say he is a liability to the interests he backs.
ANCHORAGE, ALASKA — THERE is trouble in "Wallyworld."Gov. Walter Hickel, a one-time United States Interior secretary who takes advice from an inner voice he calls "the little man," is facing attacks that threaten to unseat him. The man whose wish list of megaprojects inspired a new nickname for America's last frontier has been charged by a special state prosecutor with seven counts of violating state ethics law for promoting a natural-gas pipeline to be built by Yukon Pacific Corporation, a company he founded and partly owns. The Yukon Pacific project, a $14 billion trans-Alaska pipeline, would deliver liquefied natural gas to Asian markets. Last week, Governor Hickel struck a deal with the prosecutor that might end this investigation. In exchange for total divestment of his Yukon Pacific stock, the prosecutor said she will recommend dropping the charges. The outcome, however, is up to the state Personnel Board. Road to recall
Meanwhile, Hickel's administration is under scrutiny for other allegations, including claims of procurement-law violations and flagrant breaches of state and federal environmental laws. A special state prosecutor and federal officials are investigating charges that the governor, who last year regained the office he held in 1967-68, broke US and state laws when it bulldozed some 50 miles of roadway - without legislative authority or environmental permits - toward Cordova, a Prince William Sound town accessible only by water or air. Last summer, the US Army Corps of Engineers ordered a halt to the road work and called for a criminal investigation. Critics say the work, performed along an abandoned railroad trail, damaged fish-spawning streams and wildlife habitat and desecrated native gravesites. The Cordova road controversy spurred the Sierra Club to help gather petition signatures in the mounting recall campaign. "When we first endorsed the recall, I thought it had very little chance of success," says Pam Brodie, Alaska field representative for the Sierra Club. "Now I think it has a very good chance. The people of Alaska, I think, are unhappy and embarrassed by the governor's behavior." The recall targets both Hickel and Lt. Gov. Jack Coghill. It has attracted a diverse coalition, including dissidents within Hickel's adopted Alaskan Independence Party, native Alaskans, environmentalists, commercial fishermen, and women's groups. Critics point out that Hickel won only 38.8 percent of the vote last fall. They claim he has repaid campaign debts by filling government posts with right-wing ideologues and ill-qualified cronies. And they ridicule his ambitions, including a $150 billion subsea freshwater pipeline Alaska to California; a giant deepwater port by downtown Anchorage; and numerous railroads and highways cut through national parks and vast undeveloped areas. Hickel has also advocated beaming energy from outer space into Alaska; relocating native villages to spur development; and suing the federal government for $18 billion for failing to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling. GOP pollster Marc Hellenthal says Hickel's approval rating has dropped sharply since election day. Hickel never had a mandate because his support came from the fringe, Mr. Hellenthal says. The governor is so unpopular that a recall would easily pass, Hellenthal says. Sam Cotten, chairman of the state senate's oil and gas committee, predicts Hickel will finish his term. But if the term is cut short, the resulting confusion could stall development, he says. "If he were to leave office, it would be obviously detrimental to people who need to have decisions from an executive," Mr. Cotten says. "With permits, modifications to lease sales, things like that, there would be a lot of delays." But state Rep. Dave Donley says chances for realistic economic development might be enhanced if Hickel left office. "I just don't think this administration has been helpful for development because of the way they've gone about it," the Anchorage Democrat says. He says Hickel's devotion to megaprojects came at the expense of the state's campaign to open ANWR to oil drilling.
The ranks file Dave Dittman, a pollster who has worked for Hickel, says the governor's political troubles are no worse than those of his predecessors. Alaska's small, diverse, and politically active population makes it a difficult state to govern, he says. In the past 20 years no governor has won office with more than 50 percent of the vote. Hickel supporters have closed ranks around the man they see as a visionary who will lead Alaska to economic salvation. A prepared summary of the administration's first-year accomplishments includes the $1.025 billion Exxon Valdez oil spill settlement and progress toward drilling in ANWR. Joe Vogler, the Fairbanks miner who founded and heads the Alaskan Independence Party, dismisses the recall forces as environmentalist "carpetbaggers." "The interests of America that come up and try to tell us what to do ... they have no right to control how we develop this country," Mr. Vogler says. Hickel seems unworried. Surrounded by reporters inquiring about the conflict-of-interest charges, Hickel repeated his story of how he turned the 37 cents he carried to Alaska in 1940 into a business empire.