A Look at Alaska

Posted November 3, 2003 at 6:42pm

It is almost impossible for Alaskans to fathom. But one day — perhaps even in the not too distant future — the 49th state’s politics will no longer be defined and dominated by Sen. Ted Stevens (R), Rep. Don Young (R) and Gov. Frank Murkowski (R).

Stevens, who turns 80 in two weeks, has been in the Senate since 1968, after serving in the state Legislature. Young, 70, has been in Congress since winning a special election in 1973, after losing his first House bid the year before. Murkowski, 70, was elected governor a year ago after 22 years in the Senate. Before that, he was the state’s economic development commissioner.

Although it may seem like it, none can last forever.

“We have a similar situation to South Carolina,” said Randy Ruedrich, chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, referring to the late Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) recent retirement and Sen. Fritz Hollings’ (D-S.C.) decision to step down next year. “They’ve gotten past it. We’re coming toward it.”

Not surprisingly, most ambitious politicians in the Last Frontier are working toward the day when the power troika moves on and they can contemplate moving up.

Of course, many ambitious politicians before them grew old waiting for Stevens, Murkowski and Young to exit the stage.

“One of the sad things about this tenure is that it’s scared away some fine people,” said one longtime observer of Alaska politics.

Ruedrich recalled an anxious state Senator, Tim Kelly (R), who once said, “All political figures have an expiration date. Not all of them know when it’s published.”

But before the state can turn its political attention to those three inevitable retirements, it must first decide, in a way, the succession to Murkowski’s old Senate seat. That’s because in December 2002, he willed the seat to his daughter, then-state Rep. Lisa Murkowski (R).

As governor, Frank Murkowski had the duty to select his replacement in the Senate. After contemplating two dozen potential candidates and interviewing several of them, he turned to his 45-year-old daughter, who had just four years in the state Legislature under her belt.

Naturally, the move drew howls of protest. But as she prepares for what is certain to be a bruising 2004 contest for a full term, Lisa Murkowski has lucked out in some respects: Two prominent Republicans — Teamster leader Jerry Hood and businessman Johne Binkley — have opted against challenging her in the primary next year. A third, former Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin, has not ruled out making the race but is increasingly considered unlikely to run.

That’s good news for Lisa Murkowski because in any Alaska election, Republicans begin with a built-in advantage. George W. Bush finished 31 points ahead of Al Gore in 2000 and is expected to do just as well next year. The last Democrat to win a federal election there was then-Sen. Mike Gravel (D) in 1974. Alaska Republicans usually only lose when they are divided, so avoiding a primary is a healthy start for the younger Murkowksi.

Even Democrats concede that the rookie Senator starts with other advantages.

“People are used to having elected officials in office a long time,” said Bridget Gallagher, executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party. “That’s one of the things they like about Lisa Murkowski. She’s young, and she can stay [in Washington, D.C.] for a while and build up a lot of seniority and influence.”

Which explains why Democrats are so pleased that they were able to convince former Gov. Tony Knowles (D) to run for Senate next year. For Alaska Democrats long in the political wilderness, Knowles, 60, has been their Ted Stevens, Don Young and Frank Murkowski rolled into one: the candidate they want to enter — and win — tough elections.

Knowles’ political career began in 1975 in the Anchorage Assembly — the equivalent of the city council. He served five years as mayor, ran for governor in 1990 and lost in a wild three-way race, won a wild three-way race in 1994, and won re-election against divided opposition in 1998.

In 2004, Democrats aren’t just looking for Knowles to knock off Lisa Murkowski. They are also hoping a strong performance helps build the state party and emboldens potential candidates when Stevens, Young and Frank Murkowski eventually retire.

“That’s why this is a crucial cycle for us,” Gallagher said. “It’s going to be the most competitive cycle that Alaska’s ever seen. That’s why Democrats are mobilizing so early.”

Knowles, a former restaurateur, has succeeded in Alaska politics by being pro-business and close to the all-powerful extractive industries and a moderate on environmental issues. It’s a potent combination that’s hard for many Democrats to duplicate.

With both parties dominated by senior figures for so long, the benches are relatively thin. But Ruedrich said he is heartened by the fact that 13 of the 27 Republicans in the state House of Representatives are freshmen, as are five of the 11 state Senators.

“Alaska right now is in the rebuilding phase in the long term,” he said.

Still, if one of the big three was to retire soon, political observers in both parties expect both Hood and Palin to be in the mix of likely candidates to succeed them. Hood, the Teamster boss, is one of Bush’s favorite union leaders in the country. He switched from Democrat to Republican in 2001 to protest the Democrats’ stance on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Palin, a hard-core conservative whose laid-back manner belies her political grit, was recently appointed by Frank Murkowski to the state’s Oil and Gas Commission — a move, some cynics believe, designed to dissuade her from challenging Lisa Murkowski in the GOP Senate primary next year.

“She’s just biding her time,” said one Juneau insider.

Republicans are also high on freshman state Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom (R) from Anchorage. Dahlstrom challenged Lisa Murkowski from the right in a state House primary last year and lost, but was appointed to fill her term when Murkowski was elevated to the Senate.

But perhaps the biggest rising star in Alaska GOP politics is another progeny: state Senate Majority Leader Ben Stevens, 44-year-old son of Ted. Ben Stevens is considered very likely to try to succeed his father. Fearful of another Murkowski scenario, a group of Democratic legislators has launched a petition drive to put a question on the statewide ballot that would take the job of filling Senatorial vacancies away from the governor and put it in voters’ hands.

On the Democratic side, the two Minority Leaders in the Legislature — state Sen. Johnny Ellis and state Rep. Ethan Berkowitz — “are both ready for prime time and both could marshal support [for a statewide run],” Gallagher said.

State Rep. David Guttenberg (D) of Fairbanks is also highly regarded, and Knowles’ lieutenant governor, Fran Ulmer (D), who lost the 2002 gubernatorial election to Frank Murkowski, is still considered to have a bright political future.

Democrats are also very excited about two new mayors. One is Juneau Mayor Bruce Botehlo, who was appointed state attorney general by former Gov. Walter Hickel — a one-time Republican who was elected on the Alaska Independence Party ticket — and retained by Knowles.

And Democrats believe that Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich is a likely future candidate for governor. Begich is the son of the late Rep. Nick Begich (D).

The elder Begich was elected to Congress in 1970, defeating Frank Murkowski. He died in a plane crash while campaigning for re-election in October 1972 — a crash that also took the life of then-Rep. Hale Boggs (D-La.). Begich won re-election posthumously over Young, who then won the special election to replace him.