Five years ago, Mike Dunleavy ran for Alaska Senate and asked residents of the Mat-Su to kindly not shoot him.
“Mike Dunleavy knows that Alaska is on a freight train to Brokeville. If you see Mike Dunleavy coming up your driveway, don’t shoot. Mike’s bringing good news,” his campaign ads stated.
Now, Dunleavy’s asking Alaskans to send him to the governor’s mansion. He’s the first high-profile challenger to Gov. Bill Walker in next year’s elections.
In the next year, Walker will make his case for re-election, but polling indicates Alaskans are having second thoughts about the only independent governor in the United States.
A statewide poller found in July that only 38 percent of Alaskans have a positive view of Walker. A national firm, working the same month, found more than half of Alaskans have a negative view of the incumbent governor.
That leaves the door open for a challenger.
Over the next year, Dunleavy will make the case that he’s the best person to run the state.
“I think he’s got a good chance, depending on who gets in the race, of becoming our next governor,” said fellow Republican, House Minority Leader Charisse Millett of Anchorage.
Alaska faces a multibillion-dollar budget deficit, an economy in recession, dwindling population, an epidemic of drug abuse and other, perennial problems that grow like fireweed.
In a conversation with the Empire, Dunleavy said his four top priorities are balancing the budget, reducing crime, bringing in Outside investment (to balance the state’s reliance on oil), and improving education outcomes.
“If we can succeed in three or four of those issues, that would be fantastic,” he said.
Dunleavy is a social and fiscal conservative, even by the standards of the predominantly Republican Alaska Senate Majority.
Earlier this year, Dunleavy left that majority because he felt its proposed state budget — which included $197 million in cuts — didn’t go far enough.
“I think you want to have a balanced budget, and right now our budget is out of whack,” Dunleavy said by phone.
“He was very concise in how he feels,” Millett said, recalling the budget debate. “There’s not a lot of gray area with Sen. Dunleavy. I think clarity is a good thing.”
In January, Dunleavy proposed a four-year plan to cut $1.1 billion from the state budget. Combined with spending from the earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund — at a level that Dunleavy said would require no reductions in the Permanent Fund Dividend — the state’s multibillion-dollar deficit would be solved.
“It does not require new taxes; it does not require the taking or manipulation of the dividend,” Dunleavy said at the time.
There would be consequences to state services and state jobs. What those consequences are would depend on where the cuts come.
This year, the Legislature decided against cutting the budget as much as the Senate or Dunleavy wanted.
As governor, Dunleavy would have the power to propose the initial draft budget that is sent to the Legislature for amendments or approval.
Speaking to the Empire, he said he would expect to make “targeted reductions” in state programs.
“I’m not going to come in there and slash and burn again,” he said, referring to the almost $4 billion that has been cut from the state operating budget since 2014.
“I have no intention in my administration of having us look out the window and see dinosaurs. I’m not going to throw us into the stone age,” he said.
Dunleavy remains adamantly opposed to new taxes, and after his conversation with the Empire, said he supports a statewide advisory vote on any plan to use a portion of the Permanent Fund.
‘My profession is education’
Before joining the Legislature in 2012, Dunleavy spent decades as a teacher and administrator, mostly in western Alaska.
He arrived in Alaska in 1983 from Pennsylvania, where he was born and raised. He took a job at a Southeast logging camp in Whale Pass, then got his teaching certificate and moved to the Norton Sound town of Koyuk.
“My profession is education,” Dunleavy said by phone.
Through the rest of the 1980s and 1990s, Dunleavy worked in a series of teaching and administrative jobs within western Alaska school districts.
He earned a master’s degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1992 and passed through the University of Alaska Anchorage superintendent endorsement program in 1997.
In 2002, he was serving as assistant superintendent of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District in Kotzebue when the district abruptly closed the Kivalina school in the middle of the school year for a variety of issues.
The following year, he was named the district’s superintendent, and he battled teacher turnover in that role until 2004, when he quit to move to the Mat-Su.
While in the Mat-Su, Dunleavy stayed involved in education issues. He founded a consulting firm, Dunleavy Educational Services, which won contracts from the state to help rural school districts hire and keep teachers.
In 2009, he ran for the Mat-Su School board and won. In 2011, he became the board president.
At the time, Susan Andrews and John Creed — journalism professors at Kotzebue’s college — accused Dunleavy of undermining teachers and seeking pay raises even as he froze classified employees’ salaries.
Robert Boyle, who replaced Dunleavy as Kotzebue’s superintendent and now heads the Ketchikan Borough School District, first encountered him as a teacher in Koyuk.
“He was always thoroughly prepared and dynamic. Students really liked being in his classroom,” he recalled.
As an administrator, he prioritized flexibility, Boyle said.
“I thought he was spectacular. I thought he was visionary and the changes to the programs that he brought to the district (were) very much focused on student achievement,” Boyle said.
In the Senate
When Dunleavy ran for Alaska Senate in 2012, he challenged Wasilla Republican Sen. Linda Menard and vowed to break up the Senate’s coalition majority, of which Menard was a member.
“It’s partially why I’m running,” Dunleavy told the Anchorage Daily News at the time. “I don’t believe the coalition represents the constituents. I think it represents itself.”
When Dunleavy won that race, he followed through: The coalition collapsed and was replaced by a firm Republican majority that has stood in the Senate since then.
While a member of that majority, Dunleavy has supported alternative approaches to the traditional public school system. In his first year within the Senate, he proposed a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the state to give money to religious schools.
That idea drew pushback, and it never advanced from the Senate.
According to Legislative records, that’s been the pattern for many of Dunleavy’s proposals. Since 2012, Dunleavy has been the lead sponsor of 19 bills or proposed constitutional amendments. None have become law.
That’s somewhat unusual: In 2012, Republicans Click Bishop and Peter Micciche were also elected to the Senate after having never served in the Legislature before. Each has seen at least two of his bills become law. Several other lawmakers with previous Legislative experience also became freshman senators that year. They have likewise seen bills become law.
Though Dunleavy has not led a bill into law, he has influenced legislation and the state budget through his position on the Senate’s finance committee and as chairman of the Senate’s education committee.
He has disagreed with his fellow Senate Republicans on matters including the budgetary issues that led to his departure from the Senate Majority.
“I think the message that folks should get from that is I will make the tough decisions; I won’t run with the crowd,” he said.
Dunleavy said his overarching priority with education is local control and flexibility. He believes education decisions are “best done at a local level, a family level,” and he supports the idea of “school choice,” such as charter schools.
On the issues
Dunleavy has supported legislation opposing abortion and that hasn’t changed with his run for governor.
“I’m pro-life, there’s no doubt about it,” he said.
He supports resource development to boost Alaska’s economy and opposes the creation of new federal parks or monuments that might limit that development.
“We don’t need any more land reserved or preserved. I think we have enough of that,” he said.
He supports the Juneau Access project, and while he has in the past called for budget cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System, he said it’s not his intent to shut it down.
He wants to see a more efficient ferry system that runs with lower costs.
“What would that look like? I’m willing to engage folks,” he said.
He knows that Alaska is facing a tough financial position and that some people are leaving the state because of it.
“Some people say right now is a good time to cut and run, but I believe in standing and fighting for the future of the state,” he said. “I believe I have the vision and guts to make some difficult decisions for the state.”
• Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 523-2258.