Ramseur takes Knowles administration into the sunset

Chief of staff stresses organization, communication in governor's final months

Posted: Friday, March 15, 2002

David Ramseur's paperwork is stacked neatly in small, staggered piles down one side of his desk.

So it's no surprise when Gov. Tony Knowles' new chief of staff says his main goal in closing out the two-term Democratic administration this year is simply making sure that mistakes aren't made.

"We all view this as a very important year," Ramseur said. "We want the governor to leave office on good terms with the public. ... We'd like to leave here mistake-free. The administration so far has been scandal-free. We want to make sure that that continues."

As deputy chief of staff, Ramseur had not been in the spotlight much, although he wrote the governor's speeches for seven years. He is nattier than his predecessor, Jim Ayers, but also more subdued. Ayers, who coordinated policy and brokered end-of-session deals with the legislative leadership, left in January to join an environmental organization.

"Jim Ayers to me was the consummate legislative poker player," Ramseur said during an interview in the Capitol. "He is frequently one or two steps ahead of the game on the second floor (where the Legislature meets). I wouldn't say that's my particular strength.

"My background is as a reporter and writer and communicator, and I think that if I have a strength it's an ability to try to read and communicate with the public. Some of this government stuff tends to be either pretty dry or pretty complicated. I've tried to put that in terms that the public can easily understand."

Ramseur, 47, came to Alaska in 1979 as a reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. He covered legislative sessions in Juneau from 1981 to 1983, and then worked another two years covering Congress for both the News-Miner and the Anchorage Times, before accepting the job of press secretary in the administration of Gov. Steve Cowper from 1986 to 1990.

He was with Cowper in Fairbanks one day in 1989 when the governor planned to announce that he would not seek a second term. Instead, Cowper learned of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Twelve hours later, he was standing on the ship.

"It was Easter weekend," Ramseur recalled. "I remember coming back to Juneau after being gone for three days and I had a stack probably two inches thick of phone messages from all over the world - BBC, Australia, London, you name it. It was a fun time, as depressing as it was to see the spill. ... It was exciting to be in my position."

Although he said he had some sleepless nights soon after going to work for a politician, Ramseur today thinks he has made a better use of his talents.

"I could not work for somebody who was, for example, pro-death penalty," he said. "Both Cowper and Knowles, who I have worked for, I have shared a philosophy. I can't think of any major public policy issues where I've had a disagreement with either of them. ...

"I think I have more impact in this position than I did as a reporter you know, as a mediocre reporter, a decent reporter. I won a few Alaska Press Club awards, but not Woodward or Bernstein. And I just think I've been more effective on this side of the note pad. ... I think I know fairly well how the media works and how to convey public policy to the public through the media."

Internally, "I'm fairly obsessive-compulsive in terms of organization," he said. "I try to keep the governor on schedule."

Ramseur touts the fact that Knowles is taking on big challenges in his final year - pushing for a long-range fiscal plan and a subsistence solution.

"We've got a very aggressive legislative agenda," he said. "A lot of people thought that we'd be cruising in the final year."

Asked about the Knowles legacy, he said: "Despite being outgunned and outnumbered by the Legislature, he accomplished a fair bit, primarily for Alaska's children. Smart Start, Denali KidCare, just all the investments for kids, improving the child protection system."

Associated Press writer Dan Joling of Anchorage met Ramseur when they were enrolled in the master's program for journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Ramseur later followed Joling to the News-Miner.

"He's very thorough; he's a bright guy," Joling said. "I think David is sensitive to the politics of these policy decisions. I think he's very politically savvy."

Larry Persily, a former Associated Press writer and Empire editor who is now deputy revenue commissioner in the Knowles administration, said Ramseur, his part-time roommate, hasn't changed since he worked for Cowper and remains "critical of any reporter who's critical of the governor."

"David's very loyal to the governor and the administration," Persily said.

But Ramseur is not always as serious as his demeanor might suggest, Persily added. "He's become addicted to golf. He needs intervention."

Ramseur plans to make Anchorage his year-round home after the administration exits in December. He has spent legislative sessions apart from his longtime "spousal equivalent," Susan Wibker, a child-protection attorney for the state.

He has an interest in Russian affairs stemming from his time with Cowper, who "melted the ice curtain between Alaska and the Far East."

"I'd like to keep my fingers in that," Ramseur said. "I'd like to join the senior golf tour, but I've got to improve my game by about 25 strokes."

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.

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