Alaska’s crowded campaign trail

Palin isn’t the only one running for federal office. All the activity muddies the line of succession.

Al Grillo/AP/File
Gubernatorial material? Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich is already running for US Senate, and Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell (below) may yet be a candidate for Congress.
Al Grillo/AP/File

Who's minding the store?

That’s the question many Alaskans are asking now that Gov. Sarah Palin is busy running for federal office alongside presidential aspirant John McCain.

Here, it’s no small concern, with plenty of state business in need of attention: Alaska has just authorized a license with Calgary-based TransCanada Corp. for a massive natural-gas pipeline; rural residents are trying to brace for winter as heating-fuel costs skyrocket; state officials are struggling not to squander a treasury overflowing with riches created by high oil prices; and global warming impacts are so dramatic that several polar bears have been spotted in vast stretches of ice-free ocean, dozens of miles from any solid footing.

“We in Alaska, we’re reeling,” says Beth Kerttula, Democratic leader of the state House of Representatives.

Even Governor Palin’s top aides were blindsided by her selection on Friday. At a news conference later that day, press secretary Bill McAllister and others spoke of learning about it from phone calls and e-mails arriving early in the Alaska morning from inquisitive East Coast reporters.

Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell found out at 6:40 a.m. when he was awakened by a call informing him that he needed to pick up Palin’s schedule, starting with a graduation speech. He was surprised but happy, he said. “This is one of those defining moments for Alaska when our story as a people gets told.”

If Senator McCain and Palin win, that could trigger a complicated succession scenario, including a shuffling of the governor’s cabinet and, eventually, a special election, as outlined at an Aug. 29 news conference by state Attorney General Talis Colberg. The attorney general, who in Alaska is appointed by the governor, has been designated by Palin as successor to Lieutenant Governor Parnell, in the event he cannot take the spot.

“Under a certain sequence of events, I would have my Alexander Haig moment,” Attorney General Colberg noted wryly, referring to the time in 1981 that Mr. Haig, then US secretary of State, asserted he was in control at the White House after the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. (Vice President George H.W. Bush was traveling.)

Parnell, who would normally succeed Palin, is vying to become Alaska’s sole US House member. Results of the Aug. 26 primary pitting Parnell against incumbent Rep. Don Young (R) are unclear. The latest unofficial results show Mr. Young leading by 151 votes, but the state Division of Elections still has thousands of ballots to count before determining which Republican will face Democrat Ethan Berkowitz, a former state legislator, in the general election.

State government will continue normal operations, and Palin is in touch by telephone and electronically, Mr. McAllister said Friday. “This administration is fully functioning,” he said.

Even if Palin returns to her post in Alaska, there is confusion right now, others say.

“In the short term, this puts Alaska in limbo,” says Gail Phillips, a Republican and former speaker of the state House. Uncertainty about who is actually running the state will do little to assure business investors, she says. “I would imagine that TransCanada is scratching their head right now and shaking their head.”

Unlike Parnell, Ms. Phillips and state Representative Kerttula are critical of McCain’s choice for vice president. Phillips was so unimpressed with Palin that in 2006 she crossed party lines and voted for the Democrat. “She has not done anything to change my opinion of her,” the former speaker says. News of the selection “shocked” her, she says. “I thought, ‘That just doesn’t make sense, knowing her experience and background.’ ”

Kerttula says she gets along well with Palin but is stunned that she could be vice president. “As much as I think people underestimate her, as much as I like her, I don’t think she’s ready to do this,” the Juneau Democrat says.

Even before McCain announced his pick, Kerttula says she worried about Parnell juggling his candidacy for the US House with his duties as lieutenant governor. “Now with the governor completely gone – and she is going to have to be completely gone to do this running for office – it bothers me terribly,” she says. “Obviously, they were using these two offices as a stepping stone. We no longer have a governor acting day to day, nor a lieutenant governor.”

If a special election ensues, look for a comeback of former Gov. Tony Knowles (D), who served from 1994 to 2002, or Mr. Knowles’s lieutenant governor, Fran Ulmer, now chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage, says Marc Hellenthal, a pollster and political consultant who works mostly for Republicans.

The other high-profile politician who could run for governor is Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, Mr. Hellenthal adds. “He’s already otherwise occupied,” he notes – running against US Sen. Ted Stevens (R) and currently leading in the polls. “After that, it drops off,” on both the Democratic and Republican sides, he says.

If Mayor Begich wins his race, Alaska’s largest city may face a power vacuum of its own. The mayoral election is in April, months after new members of Congress are sworn into office.

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