Former Gov. Bill Walker is looking to get back into the Alaska Governor’s Mansion, and Tuesday evening he and his running mate Heidi Drygas were pitching themselves to Juneauites.
In town for this year’s Celebration festival, Walker held a fund-raising dinner at a home on Fritz Cove Road. Standing on a packed deck overlooking Auke Bay, Walker told the crowd he would be more comfortable running for governor and losing than not running at all.
“It’s not that we need better leadership, we need leadership,” Walker told the crowd.
In their remarks, both Walker and Drygas criticized Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s deep cuts to state services and accused the current administration of trying to dismantle what Alaskans spent years building.
“Cutting the ferries in the way that he did,” Drygas said. “Who does that? This is not the Alaska we want to raise our families in.”
Drygas is a former commissioner of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and told the crowd she was honored to have been chosen as Walker’s running mate, having worked with him during his previous administration. Byron Mallott , who served as lieutenant governor during Walker’s time as governor,died in 2020. In 2018, Mallott dropped out of a bid for reelection following revelations of what Walker previously described as inappropriate overtures toward a woman.
Walker, who is again running as an independent, lost the governorship to Dunleavy in 2018,. The loss followed the Walker administration’s decision to take money traditionally dedicated to the Permanent Fund dividend and use it to fund state services. The issue went to the Alaska Supreme Court which upheld the administration’s use of the funds, but the decision has bitterly divided Alaskans — and lawmakers — ever since, and legislators have yet to come to an agreement on a policy for the dividend.
Speaking to the Empire Tuesday evening, Walker defended his decision to cut the dividend and said he wanted to work with all Alaskans to find a long-term fiscal plan for the state. Lawmakers in the Alaska State Legislature have drafted several competing versions of a fiscal plan for the state, splitting the state’s annual draw from the Alaska Permanent Fund between dividends and state spending. Several lawmakers who previously called for dividends based on a statutory formula have expressed support for a so-called “50-50” plan, splitting the annual draw in half.
Members of the Senate Finance Committee have noted that without an additional $800 million in new revenues, that plan would run up a deficit within a few years. Of the 50-50 plan, Walker said, “We couldn’t quite get there yet, it was too aggressive to be successful.”
The former governor didn’t endorse any of the fiscal plan proposals recently before the Legislature and emphasized he wanted to work across the aisle and with a diverse group of Alaskans to find a plan.
Walker did note that it was his administration that proposed the plan for the annual percent of market value draw that now makes up the largest source of the state’s revenue.
“We shifted over from 90% (of state revenue) based on oil to 30% based on oil,” Walker said, “[If] we continue to grow that Permanent Fund, there’s our budget right there.”
But almost of third of Alaska’s current lawmakers aren’t seeking reelection, and many races have several candidates vying for the same seat, many of them from the same party. Walker himself is one of 10 candidates running for governor, a list that includes Dunleavy, former state lawmakers Les Gara and Chris Kurka and Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce.
The deluge of candidates is in part because with Alaska’s new open primaries and ranked-choice voting, outside candidates are feeling competitive, trying to connect with voters to win if not their first choice, then maybe their second or third.
Walker isn’t the only gubernatorial candidate campaigning while in town for Celebration. Les Gara held his own fundraiser at a private home on Wednesday evening. Gara has criticized Walker for his stance on abortion and previously told the Empire Walker’s administration tried to block Medicaid funding for abortions in the same way the Dunleavy administration has.
On Tuesday, Walker told the Empire he was personally anti-abortion but said Alaska’s Constitution clearly protected a women’s access to abortion.
“I will uphold the constitution,” Walker said. “Nothing will change in our administration in that regard because our constitution is very clear, and we will defend those rights.”
A former Republican turned independent, Walker emphasized bipartisanship and working in the interest of all Alaskans. Walker and Drygas both said they wanted to strengthen state institutions that had seen cuts under the Dunleavy administration, including the University of Alaska, the Alaska Marine Highway and the state’s public education system.
“I’m a horrible bystander when there’s work to be done,” Walker said. “Having seen Alaskans working collaboratively, we’re able to accomplish a tremendous amount.”
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.