Because making lists appears an imperative for opinion writers and bloggers everywhere, I tried my hand at it. There are, no doubt, things left out and things people will disagree with. But this is what I came up with for the best and worst of Alaska politics and government in 2013, with some random mentions thrown in. There aren’t many fireworks here. The last year in politics in Alaska was understated. But it wasn’t without its good and bad times, good and sometimes difficult lawmakers, its light controversies and big boondoggles, and great shoes. Read on:
Freshman legislators of the year: Sen. Peter Micciche (R – Soldotna) and Rep. Lynn Gattis (R-Wasilla) get this award. Micciche got loads of flak last year for being a senator and working as the natural gas plant operator for ConocoPhillips. But he handled the criticism with aplomb and made the bill that repealed oil taxes tougher on the oil companies than it would have otherwise been. In his first year, the former Soldotna mayor has established himself as hardworking, thoughtful and most importantly, not afraid to speak his mind without alienating his colleagues. For her part, Gattis has proven herself to be about as tough, smart and plain spoken as they come. Expect much from both of them.
Worst legislative decision: This award goes to the new lease for the Anchorage Legislative Office building and members of the legislative council who negotiated the lease. Supposedly, Legislative Council Chairman Rep. Mike Hawker (R- Anchorage) alone negotiated the lease with politically active real estate developer Mark Pfeffer. That may be true, but all of the 16 members of the council share the blame. It happened under their watch. The no-bid project expands, renovates and adds glass elevators to the downtown legislative office building. Total renovation costs to the state: $7.5 million. Total yearly rent: $5 million a year for ten years. Currently, the state is paying $682,356 a year. All of this, and the state doesn’t even get to own the building. Pfeffer and his partners do. It’s surprising that the deal was approved. Hawker, who is a CPA, is also one of the state’s smarter legislators and knows how to read fine print. It’s also surprising that Pfeffer, a master at getting no-bid state contracts, would push for such a controversial deal for the state. Legislators, media and the public won’t soon forget. (Kudos to ADN’s Lisa Demer for staying with this and nearly every other big story in the state.)
Most spiritual: I have to confess, during an interview with Sen. John Coghill last year, I nearly broke down and asked him to pray with me. And Sen. Fred Dyson’s stories about being a Jesus freak amongst the hippies in Berkley in the 1960s gives me hope for humanity, and for myself.
Biggest boondoggle award: The more than $100 million dollars that has gone into the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, which is charged with building a bridge from Anchorage spanning the Knik Arm. The agency was created by Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2003. By 2006, the idea to involve the private sector in the financing was beginning to take hold. Kevin Hemenway, a senior financial adviser for KABATA, wrote that the private sector involvement was “the best test of all” as to the success of the project. Soon, Valley legislators and KABATA were using the private sector involvement as a talisman against naysayers. Former Alaska state Sen. Linda Menard put it best when she said, “(C)ompanies don’t waste their time on a project unless they know it’s viable.” No, they don’t. Gov. Sean Parnell also came to that same conclusion recently, when he decided the most prudent move would be to cut the private sector out of the project, because the private sector wouldn’t take the risk. His solution? Throw $55 million more of public money at the project in the next budget. It is, after all, an election year, and the Valley vote might very well decide the race.
Best voice of 2013: If you’re ever in a room in Juneau, and hear someone and think, “God, that guy should be on the radio,” chances are that Sen. Dennis Egan (D-Juneau) is somewhere near.
Most intransigent legislators: Take it from me, being “intransigent,” or using the more common patriarchal term, “difficult,” is not necessarily a bad thing. It often means that you’re right. However, sometimes, particularly in politics, you can be so right that you’re wrong. Let me present freshman Republican legislator Rep. Lora Reinbold (R- Eagle River) and Democrat Rep. Les Gara (D – Anchorage). Both are philosophical ideologues from opposite ends of the political spectrum, and both appear to choke on the word “compromise.” Gara, however, has been around for a long time, and he has great, loyal staff, and a Harvard law degree to boot. And although he does so with a grimace, he will give. Reinbold, on the other hand, goes through staff like the state goes through money and she was the only legislator to vote against making July 21 Jay Hammond Day. Whatever you think of that no vote, it took courage to do so. Remember: we always need some of these in government and we have just enough of them. They keep us honest. And keep journalists busy.
Nicest legislators: Once again, this award is shared on both sides of the aisle. Everyone loves Rep. Ben Nageak (D-Barrow). The room lights up when he smiles. On the right side, you’ve got Sen. Kevin Meyer (R- Anchorage). Even as the powerful co-chair of the Finance Committee, he is always one of the nicest and kindest elected officials in the Capitol building. On the left, again, is Rep. Beth Kerttula (D-Juneau), who makes you want to cry sometimes she’s so nice and understanding, particularly when you’re being difficult.
Most powerful legislative staffer: Tom Wright, who works for Speaker Mike Chenault, is often referred to as the 41st House member. He understands the game, the rules governing the legislative process and has tremendous institutional knowledge. He understands power, has it and knows how to use it.
Best dressed: He doesn’t get points for cutting-edge style, but Gov. Sean Parnell is by far the best dressed politician in Alaska. He’s always dressed appropriately, even when he’s wearing jeans.
Biggest political blunder: Gov. Sean Parnell’s decision not to accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid could be considered heartless, but it likely won’t hurt too much at the ballot box. But not naming a labor representative on the newly created Alaska Gas Development Corporation might. Word has it that unions expressed interest, and when Parnell didn’t bite, labor was upset, maybe upset enough to go after him. They’ve got the pockets to do so.
Worst votes for Alaska: This award goes to Alaska’s two U.S. Senators, Begich and Murkowski, for their confirmation votes for Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell. The Secretary has been anything but friendly to Alaska’s interests. First, she’s come out strongly against opening portions of ANWR to oil and gas development and more recently against opening the King Cove Road. Her decisions, particularly the later , which a good Republican candidate could have a heyday with, might just have lost the state not only the road, but the re-election of the last Democratic federal official we’ll see for a very long time.
Alaska’s best political fundraisers: We’ll know for sure on Jan. 30, but word is that political neophyte and former DNR Commissioner Dan Sullivan is going to easily out fundraise Lt. Gov. Treadwell, and maybe even incumbent Mark Begich, in the fourth quarter. On the state side, Gov. Sean Parnell is said to be raking it in, and earlier this year, I referred to Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux as an “uber” fundraiser, because she was, and she still is.
Best Alaska political consultant: Art Hackney has worked for Karl Rove and has handled the campaigns for Republican members of our congressional delegation for over two decades. (Full disclosure: he designed the logo for this site.) This year, he took over as President of the American Association of Political Consultants and then got elected to the board of directors of the International Association of Political Consultants, becoming the first to do so simultaneously. He also ran a stealth, winning campaign against alcohol taxes in the Valley, and fought with Bob Gillam against Pebble Mine, which looks all but dead.
Most underrated political force in Alaska: Bob Gillam took on one of the largest mining companies in the world, and it looks like he won. After Anglo America pulled out in September, the Pebble Partnership now has only one partner: Northern Dynasty, of which Rio Tinto owns 19 percent. And now Rio Tinto is considering pulling out. It appears likely that it will do so.
Best shoes: Let me get something straight: It’s not just the shoes, but it’s how you use them. And for that, Sen. Lesil McGuire gets this award. Not only are hers drool-worthy, but her stilettos double as ice picks down the slippery Juneau streets, she also uses them to grind down bad bills as the chair of Senate Rules.
Best political spouses: Becky Huggins, wife of Sen. Charlie Huggins, is likely smarter, and definitely more charming and tougher than he. That’s saying a lot, considering that he is one of the most decorated veterans in Alaska and can do more one-armed pushups than anybody I know. Speaking of charming, Sandy Parnell’s charm and empathy is the most underutilized weapon that the governor has. Rep. Harriet Drummond’s husband, Elstun Lauesen was writing political analysis before I even knew Alaska existed and is still always one of the smartest guys in the room.
Best posture: While politicians know a lot about political posturing, one legislator stands out for her perfect posture – – Sen. Cathy Giesel (R- Anchorage). Her committees are also run like her gait: with grace and purpose.
Most embarrassing floor action: To give you an idea of how tame the current slate of lawmakers are, Rep. Scott Kawasaki (D- Fairbanks) wins this designation hands down for being caught on camera sticking his tongue out during a legislative debate. I thought it was funny, but Republican legislators were all like, scolding. Like, how could you. They were like, you embarrass us and this great institution. They were all like, next time you stick your tongue out at us, we’ll stick it out at you! Anyway, that’s what I got out of the press conference following the incident, dubbed by the clever folks at KTOO at the “tongue depressor.”
Most courageous thing ever said at a hearing: Speaking of things that weren’t said that we’ve all wanted to say, Wilda Laughlin, the legislative liaison for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, went ahead and did it. During one of those excruciatingly long legislative hearings, Laughlin yelled at Rep. Bill Stoltze to ““shut the f#%k up” over a hot mic.
Biggest government pay raise: This award goes to Bryan Butcher who almost doubled his salary when he left his post as commissioner of the Department of Revenue and became the executive director of the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation.
Most employable politician: If this politics stuff doesn’t work out for him, and he needs to get a real job, Sen. Donny Olson (D-Nome) can always go back to being a doctor, a lawyer, reindeer herder or a pilot.
Wiliest: Although they appear to be diametrically opposites, House Speaker Mike Chenault and Sen. Charlie Huggins have proved to have more in common than what it first appears. They both carry a good-old-boy charm. They’re both extraordinarily patient with the respective members of their caucuses. And while they’re both gentleman, they’ll cut your guts out if they need to. Chenault would likely do so with a fishing knife. Huggins might be more comfortable with the kind of army issue knife they gave to Vietnam combat vets.
Elected officials with the best political instincts: U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and state Sen. Johnny Ellis. Both of them are like animals.They don’t think, they act. They understand how to seize an opportunity and make it work.
Best Trivial Pursuit partner: On my team I’m picking Rep. Billy Stoltze, who has an uncanny memory and recall of facts, and is a tremendous student of history.
Best government flacks: I know that I’m biased here, but I can’t avoid it. This goes to those who, this year and in years past, answered my questions to the best of their abilities or found someone to do so, who understood deadlines, and who didn’t take the process personally. Thanks to Zack Fields with the Alaska Democrats, Stacy Schubert with Alaska Housing Finance Corp., Mark Gnadt with the House Minority, Carolyn Kuckertz with the Senate Majority, DOT spokeswoman Jill Reese, Cori Mills, an assistant attorney general with the Department of Law.
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