Filling Murkowski’s Shoes Isn’t Easy for Murkowski

Daughter Deals With the Political Fallout From Father’s Decision to Appoint Her

Posted January 23, 2003 at 4:02pm

All freshman Senators have obstacles to overcome, whether it’s leaving their families, learning the chamber’s Byzantine traditions or getting used to the media’s glare. For Alaska’s newest Senator, her biggest hindrance might also be her greatest asset — a famous name.

It’s been five weeks since newly elected Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) announced that his 45-year-old daughter Lisa would take his place as Alaska’s junior Senator. The move brought some criticism — mostly from the media and some conservatives — not just because of alleged nepotism but because of the way he made his decision, publicly releasing a list of more than two dozen potential candidates and then dragging the process out over several weeks before finally settling on one of his six children.

The question was never really about whether Lisa Murkowski was qualified — she was an experienced lawyer and legislator who had just been made state House Majority Leader.

“Out of the crew that were being listed, Lisa is certainly as capable, if not more, than the rest of them,” said Casey Sullivan, a former state House aide to Murkowski who is now a consultant for a pharmaceutical company.

The real issue was whether Gov. Murkowski had rigged the game, knowing he would appoint her all along but releasing the long list of candidates for show.

Right now, however, the new Senator says she’s more concerned about learning to navigate the Hill’s labyrinthine hallways and tunnels. She joked about having an “emergency locator beacon” in case she gets lost in a basement somewhere.

“So much of my day is spent either underground or in rooms with no windows. So when I get out, I have no sense of direction,” Murkowski said. “Take me back to Alaska, and I can get you anywhere in the woods. But [here] I find that I’m almost afraid to go out of the door because I don’t know which way to turn.”

The Choice

Sitting recently in a conference room festooned with Alaskan art in her new office in the Hart Senate Office Building — formerly her father’s — Murkowski said that the subject of her being appointed never came up between the two of them until late in the game.

“The idea between he and I did not exist,” she said. “He may have had his own idea. Quite honestly, I did not entertain the notion because I just didn’t believe that it would be a possibility, so I did not pursue it with my father.

“My name came up because as conversations went about across the state and he looked around at those Republicans who might be qualified to take this appointment, my name kept coming up. It was not from my father. It was not from myself that my name kept appearing.

“We had a conversation and he said, ‘Your name keeps coming up. Are you interested in going back to Washington?’ I confirmed that that was one of those things that everyone in Alaska office would think to as kind of the highlight of a political career. So basically he asked if I wanted to have my name continue on the list, and I said yes.”

Even then Murkowski wasn’t completely sold on the idea. Friends say it was concern about heading to the East Coast, while her husband and two young sons stay in Alaska, that made Murkowski’s acceptance of the job a less-than-foregone conclusion.

“I wanted to take my name off the list two dozen times,” Murkowski said. “It was [about] family. It’s a huge, huge commitment.”

And Murkowski knew the criticism would come.

“I realized that him appointing me and me accepting an appointment was probably the most difficult thing for both of us,” she said. “The easiest thing I could have done was to stay in my rather comfortable little universe that I had created. I had a good political career in the state, and my family was pretty well-balanced with how we were working it all. It worked. Taking this is a huge upheaval.

“On the other hand, for him, it was equally difficult. He could have named any of the other 24 people. There would have been instant hue and cry of, ‘That’s not the right choice!’ Everybody had their view. Everybody had their picks. So there would have been some dissension. There would have been some hurrahs, but it would have died down, and Frank would have had to live with his choice. … In my mind and, I believe, in his, he was absolutely certain that I was the best person for it. And you rise above the difficulties the appointment brought with it.”

The Moderate

Beyond the nepotism charge, there were suggestions in some GOP circles that Murkowski wasn’t cut from the same conservative stalwart cloth as her father. And maybe she was from the wrong city. And maybe she would lose to former Gov. Tony Knowles (D) in 2004, if she could even get through the Republican primary.

Andrew Halcro, a former state House GOP Member who worked closely with Murkowski, said that a certain amount of criticism was inevitable.

“There’s a lot of people that complained Lisa got picked because of geographical representation,” said Halcro. “There are people in Fairbanks who thought that was their seat. That was ridiculous. Then the conservatives don’t like it because she’s been too moderate on issues.”

Halcro and others portrayed Murkowski as a pragmatist, not in the squishy sense but in a way that was sometimes politically risky, especially on issues like gun rights and abortion.

“That’s what always really impressed me about Lisa as a legislator,” he said. “The criticism comes from people who are not very fair-minded.”

Murkowski believes abortion should be legal in some circumstances but resists labeling herself. “The right-to-life people haven’t adopted me and the pro-choice people haven’t adopted me,” she said.

Murkowski said that no one in Washington has raised the subject of her being too moderate, though they have raised it in Alaska. She said that much of the suspicion of her that may exist in conservative circles stems from her involvement in a bipartisan group in the state House that was charged with developing a long-term fiscal plan for Alaska, which faces a unique set of budgetary challenges given its aversion to taxes and its dependence on oil revenues.

But Murkowski said that working with Democrats in that case was an absolute necessity, whereas the situation in Washington will be different.

“There are those who look at my work in the state and say, ‘Oh, she must not be a conservative,’” she said. “I think they’ll find that my actions back here in the Senate are going to be far more conservative when it comes to issues such as taxes and spending. You need to make sure that you’re comparing apples to apples.”

Murkowski predicted that once conservative critics see her performance in Washington they will “relax a little bit.”

The Freshman

Aside from the unusual way she reached the Senate, Murkowski’s path to power has been fairly conventional.

After growing up in Alaska, where her father was a banker, she did her first years of undergraduate work at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., before moving on — for “adventure,” she says — to complete her degree at Georgetown University in D.C. She graduated in 1980, the same year Frank Murkowski was elected to the Senate.

(Her stint at Georgetown wasn’t her first in the nation’s capital; she did a five-week internship in Sen. Ted Stevens’ (R-Alaska) Washington office during her senior year in high school. She is likely the only sitting Senator who is the former intern of another sitting Senator.)

After college, Murkowski went to Juneau to work as a staffer in the state House. In 1982, Republicans took control of the chamber. As she puts it, “I woke up one morning and I was working for the Speaker.”

By then she had caught an acute case of the political bug, and she went back to Willamette for her law degree, not because her ultimate goal was to be a practicing attorney but because she knew, at age 25, that she wanted to run for office.

Murkowski waited until the time was right, working in private practice and with a number of Republican groups until 1998, when she was elected to the state House. She was re-elected two more times and had been elevated to the Majority Leader post for the coming term before the call came from her father.

Now she has the steep learning curve of a freshman without the luxury of a six-year break from campaigning.

Most Alaskans expect Knowles to run, and while he is a Democrat in a heavily Republican state, he has been elected twice statewide. And Murkowski would only face him if her own party lets her.

Murkowski said she fully expects a Republican primary challenge, given the number of viable GOP candidates and the paucity of opportunities to come to the Hill. “All one has to do is look at the longevity of our Congressional delegation, and you realize that openings don’t come but once every 20 or 30 years.”

To lay the proper groundwork, Murkowski will have to become a regular on the flights back home, which take about eight hours and cross four time zones. Stevens told her that when he was first appointed to the Senate in 1968, he went back to Alaska about 30 times in the first year, which she called “incredible.”

Then she’ll need to introduce herself to voters all over a state that is more than twice the size of Texas.

Lynda Adams, a longtime friend, predicted Murkowski would have little trouble endearing herself to constituents in far-flung reaches of the state. The two have already traveled widely together around Alaska working on drug prevention programs.

“I think that’s helped paint a broad picture for her — our climate and our people and our isolation and our pioneering,” Adams said.

Murkowski has some holdovers from her father’s Senate staff to guide her and is in the process of filling the remaining jobs. She has already had tutorials with the Ethics Committee and the parliamentarian.

Murkowski said her fellow female Senators from both sides of the aisle have gone out of their way to help her.

“I think there is a recognition that it’s still a little more difficult for a woman coming into the Senate, and you make your own connections and your own network,” she said. “That female network is working very hard to make me feel comfortable.

“I’m brand-spanking new, and it could be really lonely, but I’ve felt really welcomed here.”