JUNEAU — A cruise ship hosting a conservative political group pulls into Juneau to listen to the governor of Alaska speak.
The governor is turning up on conservative cable news programs, pushing oil development, and is headed to New York for a high-profile seminar organized by a national media outlet.
For Alaskans, this may sound like deja vu, like they’ve time-warped back to 2007.
But these are the current activities of Sean Parnell, not Sarah Palin, who charted a very similar path four years ago on her way to greater fame as the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee.
Parnell insists they shouldn’t worry.
The Republican said he is “absolutely not” shooting for the vice presidency or a Cabinet slot and is instead seeking to seize on what he calls a ripe opportunity to boost domestic oil and gas production, grow the U.S. economy and create jobs.
Jerry McBeath, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said this is consistent with the strong role Parnell has taken during his two years in office to promote oil and gas production in the state.
“For him to seek out venues, such as cable news and Fox and others, he’ll find a sympathetic audience there,” McBeath said. “It seems to follow his already expressed intent to develop Alaska’s oil and gas resources.”
“I don’t think that makes him a Palin look-alike,” he said.
That both Palin and Parnell would stress energy development is a no-brainer; Alaska is an energy state, whose government relies heavily on oil revenues to run, and production has been declining. Parnell has been perhaps more assertive on the issue of state and federal relations than any other Alaska governor, McBeath said, pushing the feds — who own most in Alaska— to not overregulate and to allow more development.
There are major differences between Palin and Parnell: she has a charisma that attracts huge crowds and media attention; conservatives she met when they cruised into Juneau four years ago reportedly swooned. Meanwhile, the normally low-key Parnell can walk through crowds in Juneau with little notice. A key piece of Parnell’s legislative agenda is overhauling the oil tax system that is part of Palin’s legacy.
Here’s another difference: When Palin was governor, she worked with the Democrats to increase taxes on the oil industry. Democrats are the loudest critics of Parnell’s plan to cut taxes.
Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, hopes Parnell takes advantage of time in the national spotlight to promote Alaska’s current incentives to draw companies. If he wants to trash the feds, fine, Gara said. But he said Parnell shouldn’t trash Alaska’s current tax regime to try to get his bill passed.
Andrea Mogil, who has a pie shop in Juneau and doesn’t own a TV, remembers hearing about Palin’s activities four years ago on the radio and in papers. Parnell, she said, doesn’t have the same visibility. “It hasn’t even occurred to me that he’s jockeying for another position,” she said.
Speculation surrounding Parnell has more often been around a possible run for Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich’s seat in 2014. Emails from Palin’s time as governor suggested she’d been angling for the vice presidential slot months before John McCain picked her, but hesitated to endorse him until she got an explanation about “pro-environmental stands he’s taking that could hurt Alaska.”
The overall message Parnell is carrying — reduce reliance on foreign oil by drilling at home — has been a mantra for state leaders for years. Parnell has been speaking to it since taking over for Palin when she resigned in July 2009.
But it has become central to Parnell’s administration in the year since he won election in his own right, as he’s set the audacious goal of having 1 million barrels of oil a day flow through the trans-Alaska pipeline within a decade.
He talked about it last month in Juneau, when addressing prominent Republicans, including former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, participating in the Conservative Political Action Conference Cruise; earlier this year, he ducked out off a contentious legislative session for Texas to try to secure an investment commitment from Anadarko Petroleum Corp.
And the topic routinely comes up in speeches he gives around Alaska, where he’s also trying to sell residents on his plan to cut oil taxes to boost investment.
Nationally, Parnell is working to make the connection that additional federal revenues from drilling on federal lands will create jobs and “help with the economic issues we face.”
In the last week alone, he’s worked to make that connection in testimony before Congress, advocating for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; in speeches and on cable news shows, as lawmakers grapple with ways to reduce the federal deficit and create jobs. On Monday, he’s set to be in New York, focused on another issue, among the governors participating in NBC News’ “Education Nation” summit. When Palin was governor, she attended a women’s leadership seminar put on by Newsweek.