Governor Bill Walker flew to Washington, D.C., to accompany President Obama aboard Air Force One on the president’s seven-hour flight to Anchorage. “I’m honored to be governor of Alaska at the time a sitting president comes to Alaska,” he told the Alaska Dispatch News. “You bet.”
Walker made the most of his opportunity. By his estimate, he spent 90 minutes talking one-on-one with Obama. They agreed on many things. Walker had expanded Medicaid, bolstering Obamacare. He wants to raise taxes and increase the state’s control of energy production and transmission—ideas the president was bound to find congenial. Walker also talked up Alaska issues. After his time with the president last week, Walker posted pictures of them together on his Facebook page.
Given Walker’s enthusiastic embrace of Obama, you may be surprised to know he isn’t a Democrat. Until a year ago, he was “a traditional Alaskan Republican.” He identified himself as a pro-life social conservative. Walker is an independent now, and if he weren’t he wouldn’t be governor.
Walker, 64, was elected in 2014 as part of a “unity ticket” created with two months to go in the campaign. His running mate for lieutenant governor was Democrat Byron Mallott. As his part of the “unity” deal, Walker canceled his lifelong registration as a Republican. He ran as an independent backed by the Democratic party and organized labor. There was no Democratic candidate. Walker won by 6,000 votes, ousting Republican governor Sean Parnell, who had won with 59 percent of the vote in 2010.
Walker’s victory was unusual for another reason: Sarah Palin endorsed him. She hosted an event for him at her home in Wasilla—after he’d jilted the Republican party, her party. Parnell had been her lieutenant governor, but they disagreed on oil taxes. Elected governor in 2006, she raised them. He cut them. How much her endorsement helped Walker is anybody’s guess.
The fate of Walker as an independent governor doesn’t require guesswork. He came to office with no political machine. “He’s a man without a country,” says Suzanne Downing, the Alaska GOP’s communications director. “There isn’t a constituency out there for him.”
Republicans control the legislature, but he’s disowned them. There’s no independent or Walker caucus. That leaves Democrats and unions, the Alaskan left. They’ve filled the vacuum. Walker is forced to govern, in effect, as a Democrat. He’s their guy.
For the moment, he appears comfortable in that role. On major issues, his positions match those of Democrats. As a candidate, he supported the Medicaid expansion. He criticized Parnell for reducing the tax bite on oil companies. He insists the state should own 51 percent of the proposed $65 billion natural gas pipeline. Alaskans refer to the pipeline as the biggest construction project ever in the United States.
Alaska, however, has hit a bump in the road. For decades, roughly 90 percent of the state’s tax revenues have come from the oil industry. When the price of oil was $110 a barrel, the state was flush. But when it fell to less than $50 a barrel last year, Alaska faced a fiscal crisis. The state has a $3.5 billion deficit.
Walker vowed to cut the operating budget by 16 percent, but managed only 2.8 percent. He cut hundreds of state jobs, many of which were unfilled. He asked for a one-year delay in the cost-of-living increase in salaries of state employees. But Democrats and public sector unions wouldn’t hear of it. Walker had to back down.
The assessment of his tenure by Republicans is withering. “Walker won the election, then empowered Democrats to run the transition process, firing nearly every Republican working in exempt positions, replacing them with liberal Democrats,” says Frank McQueary, the vice chair of the state GOP.
“In his first six months, he refused to work with the Republican-controlled legislature and has drifted far from his previous conservative positions,” McQueary says. “But he is enthralled with the title and the trappings of governor, happy to allow the Democrats to run the show.”
Another Republican says Walker “has started to turn Alaska into a new Venezuela.” When the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority acquired the Fairbanks Natural Gas Company, Republicans said Walker was behind it. Walker’s office denies this, noting that AIDEA is an independent agency.
Meanwhile, the Walker administration blocked a private firm from buying the Point MacKenzie liquid natural gas plant.
Walker, according to a well-connected Republican, “wants the state to own it. He is trying to own and control the means of production in Alaska.”