Sykes Could Spell Trouble for Knowles in November

Posted July 20, 2004 at 4:31pm

Jim Sykes thinks Alaska’s Senate seat is up for sale and he wants to change that.

The frequent candidate and co-founder of the Alaska Green Party is running against Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) and former Gov. Tony Knowles (D) — as well as their multimillion-dollar war chests. [IMGCAP(1)]

To be sure, there are 11 other candidates of varying degrees of competitiveness seeking the seat, but establishment candidates Murkowski and Knowles are the ones with whom Sykes has a bone to pick.

When Vice President Cheney headlined a fundraiser on Murkowski’s behalf, Sykes issued a press release blasting the event as an example of “how blatantly the two major political parties, and their special interests, are trying to buy Alaska’s U.S. Senate seat.”

To that end, Sykes has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to try to stem the tide of Outside money pouring into the hotly contested race (people in Alaska refer to the rest of the country as Outside, with a capital O).

“I hope to get a hearing this month,” the 54-year-old Sykes said about the lawsuit he filed in Washington, D.C. “If we get to the merits of the case, it’s serious business.”

Sykes believes that a ruling in his favor would have repercussions for federal races nationwide. But he has a very steep hurdle to clear before he can declare victory and say he has done more to ban third-party contributions to candidates than even the far-reaching Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

A similar suit filed by another Alaska Green Party candidate, Joni Whitmore, in 1994 was thrown out of Alaska District Court and rejected by the 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals for being frivolous.

Nonetheless, Sykes said political action committee contributions and third-party ads, such as the ones aired by a nebulous group called Americans for Job Security attacking Knowles, are corrupting the political process and preventing Alaskans from deciding for themselves who should represent them in Washington.

The long-shot lawsuit would go a long way to helping the long-shot Sykes catch up in the money chase.

Sykes has sworn off all outside money, including contributions from individuals residing in the lower 48.

Under those restrictions, Sykes has only collected about $10,000 to date, compared with Murkowski’s more than $3 million and Knowles’ almost $2.7 million.

“I do know this is a long shot,” Sykes said. “I knew they’d get a lot of money and national recognition; I’ve dealt with this in the past.”

Still Sykes, as the Green Party candidate against entrenched Sen. Ted Stevens (R) in 2002, garnered 7 percent of the vote.

That isn’t much, but it is enough to make Democrats who believe Knowles may be the key to retaking control of the Senate in 2005, very nervous.

Not only could Sykes drain votes from Knowles in the general election, but in a quirk of Alaska law he is also appearing with him on the Aug. 24 primary ballot.

“It’s very possible for him to win enough votes to play a spoiler role for Tony Knowles,” said Carl Shepro, a political science professor at the University of Alaska at Anchorage.

Shepro points out that assessment depends upon Murkowski clearing a three-way GOP primary first — something that is not a given.

But Sykes insists he isn’t trying to be a spoiler. He thinks he can win.

“Alaska is unique,” he said. “If you add all the political parties up, [registration] doesn’t equal 50 percent” of the population.

“Most people are independents,” he said.

Still, how does he persuade a socially conservative, pro-resource development electorate to vote for a candidate who supports gay marriage and opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

For starters, the audio-video producer maintains that 40 percent of Alaskans opposed ANWR drilling in the last poll on the issue. Moreover, he believes that once he explains to Alaskans that they will not reap the same monetary benefit on oil extracted from ANWR as they do from oil extracted on state land, they will be more willing to back him.

“Almost two barrels of Refuge oil would have to be produced to get the same royalty we get from one barrel on state lands,” he writes on his Web site. “Even worse, Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) wrote to [Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete] Domenici (R-N.M.) last September supporting oil royalty reductions that could go as low as zero on North Slope federal lands.”

Ultimately, Americans will have to embrace conservation if we are to meet our energy demands in the future, with our without ANWR oil, Sykes maintains.

None of this is to say that Sykes does not understand that Alaska’s economy is dependent on exporting its natural resources.

To that end, he chides Murkowski and Knowles for backing a trans-Canada pipeline instead of an all-Alaska pipeline.

Both campaigns say Sykes is misrepresenting their candidate’s views.

Both Murkowski and Knowles support whichever pipeline is feasible, according to their spokesmen.

The oil producers backing it are seeking Congressional subsidies, and its route through Canada would subject it to tariffs, he maintains.

“The All-Alaska gas line, already permitted, does not need government subsidies,” he said. “The Alaska line provides more construction jobs for Alaskans, it is contained within American borders and the liquefied natural gas can be shipped to a wide variety of markets.”

As for his stance on gay marriage, Sykes said his unequivocal support for it separates him from Murkowski, who believes states should have the right to bar such unions, and Knowles, who would not support a Constitutional amendment barring it but says he does not back same-sex marriages.

Sykes said his social liberalism and his conservationist views are meant to draw bold distinctions between him and the two major party candidates.

If Democrats think that environmentalists are their natural allies, perhaps Sykes’ disdain for Knowles should give them pause.

His stated goal for the Aug. 24 primary is to draw votes from Knowles.

“The more votes denied to Tony Knowles will strengthen political bargaining power that can affect the entire election,” he writes on his Web site.

His strategy is simple enough. Because the Greens, Libertarians and Alaskan Independence Party candidates are lumped onto the same primary ballot as the Democrats, the more votes Sykes can draw from the mainstream Democrat, the more he can prove himself a serious candidate.

He maintains that the bulk of his supporters would not otherwise back Knowles while at the same time admitting that he needs to draw Knowles’ primary votes to make waves.

“If I deny Tony Knowles the election, I won’t feel bad,” he said. “But the idea that all my votes would automatically go to Tony Knowles is not true. I bring people to the polls who otherwise wouldn’t vote and I bring people from across the [ideological] spectrum.”

Driving home the point that he draws his own political philosophy from a diverse mix, Sykes mentions that as a teenager he campaigned for former Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) while espousing a deep admiration for former Alaska Gov. Walter Hickel (R) and consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

Just as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) would probably like to see Nader, the former Green Party presidential candidate, take a flying leap out of the presidential election, Knowles, who is in a virtual dead heat with Murkowski, probably would like to see Sykes retire to his straw bale house.

In a move that would likely further irk Democrats, Sykes said he would not necessarily caucus with them if elected to the Senate.

Sykes said he would immediately contact Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) about joining forces if he wins in November.

“If the Senate is evenly split, the two of us would have enormous leverage,” he mused.

Even now Sykes holds significant leverage in a race that is likely to be decided by the slimmest of margins.

Sykes did leave open the possibility that he could still withdraw.

“I did get into this race to win it,” he said. “I have to decide if it’s worth taking [voters looking for a third option] all the way to the bitter end and let the chips fall where they may. If I decide I couldn’t win … I may get out.”