Walker goes off list in making pick to Alaska Senate seat

Gov. Bill Walker delivers his fourth State of the State address in Juneau. Photo courtesy of the governor’s office
January, 2018 photo. Gov. Bill Walker delivers his fourth State of the State address in Juneau. Photo courtesy of the governor’s office

By BECKY BOHRER, Associated Press

JUNEAU — Gov. Bill Walker on Friday appointed Randall Kowalke to the Alaska Senate seat vacated by Republican Mike Dunleavy of Wasilla, straying from a list of candidates advanced by GOP leaders in that district.

The decision drew a strong rebuke from Alaska GOP chairman Tuckerman Babcock, who saw it as an affront to the process. He said he has “no doubt” that Senate Republicans will reject the pick. Dunleavy resigned last month to run for governor.

When there is a legislative vacancy, state law requires the person appointed be from the same party as the person who left. Traditionally, the parties send a list of finalists they’ve vetted to the governor for consideration.

A governor isn’t bound to the list but the appointment is subject to confirmation, in this case, by Senate Republicans.

Senate President Pete Kelly said in a statement that his caucus will meet next week to discuss Walker’s appointment of Kowalke, a member of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly from Willow.

“While we recognize a fine choice by the governor in Mr. Kowalke, we would prefer the governor work through the traditional process involving local participation from the districts,” Kelly said.

Kowalke told The Associated Press there is a history of “bad blood” between him and one of the district GOP leaders, whom he beat for the assembly seat and once sued. He said he didn’t think he had a chance to get on a list produced through that process.

Walker called Kowalke “the best person to represent this district.” He did not immediately explain why he did not select one of the three finalists advanced by GOP officials in Senate District E.

Kowalke said it’s his understanding that when Walker decided not to choose any of the three finalists, he interviewed everyone else who applied.

This isn’t the first time a governor has gone a different route.

In 2009, then-Gov. Sarah Palin refused to appoint Beth Kerttula to an empty Senate seat after Democrats submitted just Kerttula’s name. Senate Democrats refused several of Palin’s picks before the two sides agreed on Dennis Egan, who is still serving.

Last month, Walker appointed Rep. John Lincoln to a House seat left vacant by the resignation of Democratic Rep. Dean Westlake. Lincoln was not on the original list of finalists. A Walker spokesman, Austin Baird, has said there were concerns with the initial three finalists but declined to elaborate.

In filling Westlake’s seat, Jane Winzer, chairwoman of the House District 40 Democrats, said she got the impression that Walker did not want to appoint someone who couldn’t be confirmed. Eventually, Lincoln and another candidate expressed interest in seeking the seat and their names were shared with Walker, she said.

Babcock said that after submitting the list of candidates, he had no communication with Walker.

The local selection process conducted by Republicans included having 50 people meet to review 11 candidates, Babcock said. They ultimately settled on a list of three that included first-term Rep. George Rauscher.

Walker “picks somebody out of a hat, someone who got six votes out of the 50 people who were looking over the list,” Babcock said. “It’s a complete in-your-face by Gov. Walker to the local people involved in the Republican party.”

Rauscher congratulated Kowalke. “My office is always open and I am interested in hearing his vision for my district,” he said in a statement.

Kowalke said he is conservative, against abortion and a “Second Amendment guy.”

“If the Republican party and the Republicans in the Senate think it’s a good idea to drag this out, have a big food fight over it and continue to not allow this district to be represented, I can’t see how that works for anybody,” he said.

The seat will be up for election later this year. Kowalke has already filed as a candidate.