JUNEAU, Alaska — Bill Walker is coming into the governor’s office faced with high expectations for a renewed spirt of bipartisanship in Alaska politics and the grim reality of plunging oil prices and gaping budget holes.
Walker knows the months ahead will not be easy, but he said it doesn’t change his feelings about the job, which he won earlier this month on his second try against Republican Gov. Sean Parnell. He is excited for the opportunity.
“What people were telling us throughout the campaign was they wanted change and they were tired of the fights,” Walker said. “I think what we offered was an opportunity of working together.”
On Monday, Walker will be sworn in as the 11th governor of Alaska and its first not affiliated with a political party. Two governors, Bill Egan and Wally Hickel, each served separate, non-consecutive terms.
Hickel, Walker’s mentor, served his first term as a Republican and his second as a member of the Alaskan Independence Party.
Walker, who finished behind Parnell in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary, ran this time as an independent, saying it was time to put politics aside for the betterment of the state. The campaign picked up momentum when, faced with the potential of splitting the opposition vote with the Democratic candidate Byron Mallott, Walker and Mallott — who often found themselves at debates or forums without Parnell, agreeing on many issues — banded together to create a “unity” ticket. As part of the package, Mallott abandoned his gubernatorial ambitions to become Walker’s running mate, and Walker changed his voter registration from Republican to undeclared.
No deals were cut with Democrats, and there can only be one governor, Walker said. However, he has made clear his intent to reach out to Mallott as part of his decision-making process.
Kay Brown, executive director of the state Democratic Party, said she hopes to see a coalition-type government where different points of view are represented. “The government should strive to be inclusive and to listen carefully to all points of view and make decisions that reflect what’s best for people as a whole, society as a whole,” she said.
The last time Walker served in political office, as the youngest mayor of Valdez during the hectic early days of the trans-Alaska pipeline, Jimmy Carter was in the White House. Now 63, Walker, who was born and raised in Alaska, built a law career focused on oil and gas and municipal government issues. He is perhaps best known for his efforts to advance an all-Alaska gas line, which runs from the North Slope to tidewater.
Longtime friend Merrick Peirce called Walker a family man who is warm, hard-working and genuine. “He has never said anything privately that was not consistent with what he has said publicly,” Peirce, who worked with Walker through the Alaska Gasline Port Authority, said by email.
It was Walker’s frustration with lack of state progress on a gas line that helped spur his return to politics in 2010. During this last campaign, while the gas line remained a major topic, Walker sought to show he wasn’t a one-issue candidate.
He made expanding Medicaid coverage under the federal health care law a priority, something Parnell resisted, despite broad-based support, citing cost concerns. Walker said the state needs a fiscal plan and needs to take greater control of its destiny as an “owner-state,” not giving in to the whims of industry.
Industry groups that supported the rollback of oil production taxes championed by Parnell and his efforts to advance a liquefied natural gas project are anxious to see how the incoming administration will govern.
Walker, who supported this year’s failed effort to repeal the tax cut, has said he doesn’t plan to offer changes to the tax structure this session. But he plans to monitor whether the tax is having the desired effect of more oil in the pipeline and increased industry investment. While he has raised concerns with Alaska’s position in the gas project — namely, that Alaska isn’t in the driver’s seat — Walker also has said he is not interested in starting over or in slowing down efforts to make a gas line a reality.
Kara Moriarty, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, doesn’t want delays, either. She said she’s optimistic, but her group also is interested in who will comprise Walker’s gas line team.
One of his first announced Cabinet picks was for Mark Myers, a former director of the Division of Oil and Gas, to replace Joe Balash as Natural Resources commissioner. Balash has been a prominent figure in gas line talks.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, who voted against Parnell’s plan to advance the project, said if there’s one person in the state he trusts on the gas line, it’s Walker. He said he would defer to Walker and his administration a lot on the issue.
Republican legislative leaders, who had a good relationship with Parnell, expressed willingness to work with Walker. The GOP has controlled the Legislature since 2013, after Republicans regained control of the Senate from the bipartisan coalition that was in place for years.
“I’m willing to be open and at least give him a chance and see what he can do because it’s not about me and it’s not about Bill Walker. It’s about the future of the state of Alaska — and that’s what we need to concentrate on,” said House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski.