ANCHORAGE — An Anchorage judge agreed to move quickly on a lawsuit challenging an emergency order that allowed two Alaska gubernatorial candidates to fuse their campaigns into one ticket for the November general election.
Judge John Suddock scheduled arguments for Sept. 26, with a ruling likely by the end of that day. Suddock gave both sides time to file briefings before that, and allowed the merged campaigns to intervene on behalf of the state, which is representing the defendants.
However Suddock rules, the case is expected to be appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court the following week.
The lawsuit was filed Wednesday by Steven Strait, a district chair in the Alaska Republican Party, against Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and elections director Gail Fenumiai. Strait maintains that Treadwell erred in his Sept. 2 decision permitting candidates affected by the merger to officially withdraw from their respective races.
That order allowed Democratic gubernatorial nominee Byron Mallott to join campaigns with independent gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker and run as Walker’s lieutenant governor. The combined ticket is expected to provide a stronger challenge to incumbent Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, whose running mate is Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan.
To join campaigns, Walker dropped his membership in the Alaska Republican Party and re-registered as undeclared, a stipulation made by an Alaska Democratic Party committee when it voted to endorse the ticket.
Walker-Mallott campaign attorney Scott Kendall attended Thursday’s hearing on behalf of the candidates.
Assistant Attorney General Margaret Paton-Walsh, representing the defendants, urged fast action in the matter, saying overseas ballots have already been mailed out.
“I understand my position as a speed bump in the matter,” Suddock replied before finalizing the case schedule.
After the short hearing, Paton-Walsh said more than 2,300 overseas ballots were mailed Wednesday, as required by federal law. She’s not sure how those ballots would be handled should the state lose. That would essentially invalidate the ballots.
Lawsuit supporters have said the case isn’t politically motivated. Strait said the goal of the lawsuit is to return to the ballot people who were legitimately on it and went through the process.
Before Treadwell’s order, Mallott had been on a ticket with state Senate minority leader Hollis French, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. Walker was on a separate ticket, running with independent lieutenant governor candidate Craig Fleener.
Treadwell’s decision allowed French and Fleener to be removed from the ballot.
“French and Fleener did not resign as candidates for lieutenant governor out of any emergency, but instead resigned solely because they were asked and pressured to do so,” the lawsuit states.
In the 2006 general election, the Alaska Division of Elections issued an emergency regulation to allow independent gubernatorial candidate Andrew Halcro to officially replace his running mate Ken Lancaster, who abruptly withdrew from the race after the primary.
Strait’s lawsuit contends that case was different because Halcro “did not plan and manipulate Lancaster’s resignation as part of a political strategy as did Walker and Mallott.”
The lawsuit also notes that the candidates succumbed to pressure by the Alaska AFL-CIO and its president to merge campaigns under a “super ticket” expected to present a better chance of defeating Parnell than a three-way race. In August, the umbrella labor organization declined to endorse either Walker or Mallott, but labor leaders later overwhelmingly threw their support behind the newly formed team.
AFL-CIO President Vince Beltrami said in a statement Thursday that Alaska Republican party operatives are behind the lawsuit, which is filled with “inaccuracies, false statements, and blatant defamation.” Beltrami said it was laughable to think that he was an architect of the Walker-Mallott merger or the first to consider it.
“This idea had been discussed by thousands of Alaskans over dinner and coffee tables across the state for months,” he said.