Senator Murkowski the Second

Alaskans Will Register Their Opinions on Nepotism in 2004 Election

Posted January 3, 2003 at 5:30pm

Nepotism in politics is as American as apple pie.

The last presidential election, after all, was fought between the son of a former president (who himself was the son of a Senator) and the son of another former Senator.

The nepotism question of the moment is whether Alaska voters will conclude that they have gotten an adequate slice of the pie or a few measly crumbs as they think about how their newest Senator got her job.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) plum position was handed to her last month by her father, new Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski (R), who served in the Senate for 22 years and was entitled to appoint a successor after moving to the statehouse.

Lisa Murkowski, with just four years in the Alaska House of Representatives under her belt, should fit right in the greatest deliberative body in the world. When the Senate convenes on Tuesday, she will join four other offspring of former Senators: Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Bob Bennett (R-Utah), Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).

The “All in the Family” Senate also includes three spouses of successful politicians, including a president and a former Majority Leader, two sons of governors (both representing New Hampshire), the daughter of a big-city mayor, the son of a Congressman, the brother of a former president, the nephew of two governors, the brother of a Congressman, the second cousin of two Congressmen, and a gubernatorial in-law.

But whatever advantages these family ties brought — and no doubt there were several — with the exception of Chafee, who was appointed to the Senate in 1999 after the death of his father, John Chafee (R-R.I.), everyone else was sent there by the voters. And Lincoln Chafee has since been elected to a full term.

Lisa Murkowski is the 43rd person to follow his or her father into the Senate, and the eighth person to immediately inherit the father’s seat in this exclusive club. But how she got there is absolutely unique.

“That’s a little more blatant,” said Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University who operates a Web site on national and Rhode Island politics and wrote a book about Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s (D-R.I.) political ascent. “The risk of backlash is a little higher.”

Whether Lisa Murkowski’s anointed status will hamper her efforts to win a full term in 2004 is the great unknown. Letters to the editor in Alaska’s newspapers have been brimming with complaints, and The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner sniffed in an editorial: “Alaskans distrust inherited privilege. There’s a world of difference between winning an election and being handed one of the most powerful positions in the country by your dad.”

On the other hand, The Anchorage Daily News was a little more measured, calling it “a good choice, nepotism notwithstanding.”

[IMGCAP(1)] Even some Alaska Democrats have praised the selection.

“We thought it was an adequate choice for the next two years,” said Tammy Troyer, executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party. “Lisa Murkowski is strong, thoughtful, pragmatic and smart.”

Troyer said the choice says more about “the arrogance of Frank Murkowski” than anything else.

No one can say they didn’t see it coming.

When Gov. Murkowski released a list of the 20-odd candidates he was considering appointing, his daughter’s name was there for all the world to see. So was the name of state Sen. Ben Stevens (R), son of Alaska’s senior Senator, Ted Stevens (R). The governor interviewed at least a half-dozen people for the post, according to aides.

When he announced the appointment two weeks ago, Gov. Murkowski said he was looking for three things: Someone who shared his political philosophy, could win re-election and could serve for a long time, as he and Stevens had.

“She has established her own credentials as a legislator and, as the incoming Majority Leader in the [state] House, others have demonstrated their confidence in her abilities,” the proud father said.

David Dittman, an Anchorage-based Republican pollster who has worked for Frank Murkowski’s campaigns, told The Juneau Empire that critics believe the interviews were just for show.

“There are a lot of upset people right now,” Dittman said. “A number of people under consideration may run against her in the primary next year.”

One of the most prominent runners-up, Jerry Hood, the secretary-treasurer of the Alaska Teamsters, told Roll Call last week that it was “premature to guess what may happen in the future. A lot will depend on how [Lisa Murkowski] performs.”

Hood said he has been getting a steady stream of phone calls from people urging him to run, but said he is keeping his powder dry and hopes the new Sen. Murkowski succeeds. He added that much of the criticism of the Murkowski selection has come from the left and right wings of the state Republican Party.

Indeed, conservative Republicans, who generally hold sway in statewide primaries, have been critical of the fact that Lisa Murkowski, in contrast to her father, supports limited abortion rights and some new taxes.

Troyer said the Democrats are counting on a crowded divisive GOP primary damaging Murkowski — or whoever is nominated in 2004.

But right now, Democrats have no candidate of their own. Most party leaders are hoping that former Gov. Tony Knowles (D) runs, but he has not said anything definitive and is spending much of this month traveling out of state. He did not respond to a message left for him by the state party.

Asked whether Knowles would benefit from the griping about how Lisa Murkowski was appointed, Troyer said she doubted it would become an issue. More important to Alaskans, she said, would be Knowles’ own record and centrist politics.

Political legacies are frequently quite successful at the polls. They generally carry with them high name recognition, easy access to campaign cash, and sometimes even a built-in political machine.

“It can have a major deterrent effect on other possible candidates,” West said.

But not all legacies win. In 2002 alone, Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) lost a bid for governor, Maryland Del. Mark Shriver (D) lost a Democratic Congressional primary, Champ Walker (D), son of a prominent state legislator, lost a Congressional election in Georgia, and Andrew Cuomo pulled out of the Democratic race for governor in New York. All were considered favorites to one degree or another.

Lisa Murkowski seems to comprehend the special position she has been put in.

“This is an awesome responsibility for me, and I know it was a very difficult decision to make because there were some truly fine people considered for selection,” she said in a statement after her father announced her appointment.