Three days before making an announcement that shook Alaska politics, Byron Mallott still thought he could be governor. “I could see the numbers but I still believed there could be a way to win,” he said.
At the end of the long Labor Day weekend, Mallott and independent gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker made a joint announcement: Mallott would resign as the Democratic gubernatorial candidate to become lieutenant governor on Walker’s independent ticket.
While some Alaskans had been urging the two for weeks to combine forces, it was by no means a sure thing. It wasn’t until the Friday before the announcement that Mallott “began to examine the reality of my campaign.”
In a three-way race for governor — among himself, incumbent Gov. Sean Parnell and independent Bill Walker — there was no way for either Mallott or Walker to come out on top, Mallott said.
Months before, Mallott and Walker had met for coffee and talked around the possibility of a joint ticket, Mallott said. It wasn’t until Alaska’s umbrella labor organization, Alaska AFL-CIO, refused to endorse either Walker or Mallott that what eventually became the “unity ticket” started falling into place. The group nudged the two to come together at its convention in Fairbanks in August. Mallott wasn’t keen on the idea, but after the organization said it wouldn’t endorse him, his fundraising started drying up, he said, and it forced him to face facts.
Walker said he also realized, “in a three-way race, I couldn’t win.”
“We’re drawing from the same pool,” he said.
When the two men had their first serious discussion of the topic on the Friday before the Sept. 2 deadline to change the ballot, they initially decided there was “no way we could come together” — not because of political differences but because of logistical questions. They didn’t know where to begin the merger process, Mallott said. He was also very aware he represented “a major party, obviously, as their candidate.”
“How could I leave that nomination?” Mallott said. “How could I leave that trust?”
Later that night, Mallott had a change of heart, he said. He called the chair of the state Democratic party to see what could be done about joining forces with Walker. He told the party, “I would be willing to if the party will release me from my obligation.”
That launched a series of talks with Walker, Walker’s running mate Craig Fleener, and Mallott’s running mate, Sen. Hollis French (D-Anchorage). After a long weekend of discussion, statewide representatives from the Democratic party voted to free Mallott from candidacy.
“Sunday and Monday was way intense,” Mallott said.
Coming together with Mallott was a way to “walk the talk” of his campaign, Walker said. At the Alaska State Fair, more than 50 Alaskans told him they would support a unity ticket, Walker said.
“As an independent, my message has been (that) I want to have a no-partisan administration,” he said. “We should listen to Alaskans in our campaign.”
Walker had to give up his Republican voter registration to run on the ticket with Mallott.
“I certainly won’t be asked back to a certain group of folks, and that’s OK,” he said.
Mallott said his initial conversation with French about the unity ticket was “a difficult one.”
French had planned to run for governor but stepped down when Mallott decided to run. When the unity ticket was announced, he stepped down as the Democrats’ lieutenant governor selection to allow Mallott and Walker to come together.
“He is an optimistic man, and our conversation was a difficult one for both of us,” Mallott said.
There was no pushback from either running mate, Walker said. Everyone in the room for the unity ticket discussions was focused on what was best for Alaska, he said. No one asked what was in it for them, Walker said.
“If anyone had said, ‘This doesn’t work for me,’” the conversation would have been over, Walker said. “There was none of that.”
Now that they’re running together, the two have focused on the state’s budget as the most important thing to fix. Walker said the Parnell administration, and the rest of the state, is acting like Alaska isn’t millions of dollars in debt. He referenced the multimillion-dollar update of Anchorage’s legislative office building and University of Alaska President Pat Gamble’s recently rescinded $320,000 bonus. The House Finance Committee in February predicted deficit spending through fiscal year 2024. Walker said he wants to develop a plan to nurse the state’s budget back to health in a few years.
Democrats and Republicans in the Alaska Legislature need to come together and “acknowledge we’re in a fiscal crisis and start acting that way,” Walker said.
“We all need to pull the same end of the rope for a while and make this work,” he continued.
The first thing Walker would cut as governor is the bulk of the state’s studies. He said that if the state “can’t fund it, you just study it,” spending millions along the way.
“We can’t study everything,” he said.
When it comes to social issues, things get a little more complex.
“Bill has his views, I have mine,” said Mallott, who has been outspokenly liberal on issues of abortion rights and marriage equality. Walker has repeatedly identified himself as a social conservative.
Mallott said the two would “not take initiative to change what’s there,” meaning they won’t push for social change in office.
“We have to focus on those issues that bring Alaskans together, and not deal with those things that divide us,” Mallott said.
If legislation on marriage equality or abortion rights does come to Walker, “We’ll make that decision at that time.”
“I can’t guarantee how I will decide on a bill that comes across our desk,” Walker said. “I can guarantee an open process, but I can’t guarantee a result.”
Walker said he “(looks) forward to moving to Juneau” and joked that he has already picked out a house.