Governor's 'Captain Zero' image (mostly) undeserved

Posted: Sunday, August 02, 2009

Gov. Sean Parnell faces tough issues. On the energy front, a gas shortage threatens the Railbelt. Meanwhile, renewable hydropower competes for massive investment with a bullet gas pipeline to the Railbelt. Court fights over development of the Point Thomson oil and gas field will also demand decisions.

Next August, Parnell must face Rep. John Harris and possibly other Republicans in the 2010 primary. The general election follows nine weeks later.

What kind of governor will Parnell be between now and next November? If he survives, will he change or follow the same path after the elections? Parnell's legislative career offers some insights.

From the beginning, Parnell has been hard working, pragmatic and above all, dependable.

It's unusual for a freshman representative to win a seat on the powerful House Finance Committee, particularly when the freshman is only 30 years old. As the editor of a newsletter covering the state budget, the 1993 announcement that Republicans had tapped Parnell for a seat on House Finance caught my attention.

I was skeptical. Parnell's father had served a single term in the House before stepping aside to run for Rep. Don Young's congressional seat. That opened the elder Parnell's Anchorage House seat, which his older son, Sean, a newly minted lawyer, promptly ran for and won. Why Republican power brokers gave the kid a coveted finance seat was a mystery.

One reason soon emerged. Parnell lived and breathed budgets, a focus he maintained during his eight years as a legislator. I wrote more than 100 stories about him and his budget work.

In 1993, his freshman year, he chaired budget subcommittees for the departments of Environmental Conservation and Public Safety. Parnell spouted the customary Republican rhetoric about cutting fat out of state government, and Hickel administration officials at those departments considered themselves on the defensive. One particular official at Public Safety was adept at using budget bafflegab to confuse legislators and instill a fear that asking questions might make them look stupid. It didn't work on Parnell.

Administration officials also discovered, to their dismay, that Parnell was quietly working with the minority Democrats that the agencies had been counting on to speak out in committee hearings about the terrible things that would follow if proposed budget increases were disallowed. In a series of stories that year, I reported how Parnell and Democratic Rep. Kay Brown reached agreement to increase money for the Council for Domestic Violence, a unit of Public Safety that Hickel considered a low priority. In return, Democrats accepted Parnell's novel plan to pay for the increase by confiscating Permanent Fund dividends going to incarcerated felons; later, and more significantly, the Democrats refrained from attacks on his wise but politically vulnerable plan to cut a much larger amount of real fat he'd discovered in the trooper budget.

Parnell was always pragmatic. In 1997, when the Republican Senate Finance Committee co-chair Drue Pearce pushed an operating budget, including spending reductions required to meet the Republicans' 5-year budget goals, Parnell led members of the committee in a surprise, end-of-session coup that overturned Pearce's proposed budget, in favor of a less politically risky one that increased spending. The change of direction received only minor mention in the mainstream press, and Parnell's role none at all.

While Parnell was always thinking about ways of improving the budget process, his thinking never strayed far from the conventional. Sometimes that got him in trouble. In 1999 Parnell negotiated wording on a ballot question asking voters to approve the use of Permanent Fund earnings in the budget. Voters overwhelmingly said "no."

Because he worked behind the scenes, and because his way of operating usually involved not making news, Parnell gained an undeserved reputation as a non-entity, and perhaps a dull-witted one at that. Ironically, the persona Parnell cultivated in those days laid the groundwork for the "Captain Zero" image he has more recently struggled to overcome.

As during his unsuccessful 2008 campaign against Don Young - the man who tagged him with the "Captain Zero" appellation - Parnell's instincts will likely play it safe. He'll pay lip service to Palin's controversial gas pipeline initiative but follow through with action only where absolutely essential. Other issues will go on the back burner until the election. The risk for him is that laying low will add credence to the "Captain Zero" image.

If he wins a full term, expect Parnell to use his skills at quiet negotiation to push for a resolution to Railbelt energy issues. And expect him to be friendlier to the oil industry than the unpredictable Sarah Palin. Parnell was a loyal Palin supporter, but before that - as a legislator, oil industry lobbyist, lawyer, and Frank Murkowski administration official - Parnell was a friend of the industry. A dependable friend.

• Juneau economic consultant Gregg Erickson is editor-at-large of the Alaska Budget Report newsletter. He can be contacted at

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