Eric Croft likes Tony Knowles.
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They know each other well. They believe in many of the same things. Croft has helped with Knowles' political campaigns as far back as the 1980s, when Knowles ran for the Anchorage Assembly.
With all that history, Croft might have dropped out when Knowles made his late entry into the Democratic primary race for governor back in May.
But not this year. Not with a watershed decision to be made that could determine Alaska's economic well being for the next 50 years.
"What do we want our relationship to be with the oil industry? One of subservience, or one in which we retain our rights as a sovereign state?" said Croft, a 10-year state legislator from Anchorage. "Tony Knowles just has a friendly relationship with them. I don't take oil industry money and I am committed to acting independently."
On May 28, Croft had a legitimate shot at the party nomination when it was just him against fellow Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage. Then on May 29, he woke up to a different world. Knowles stepped in, a two-term governor who had just run a $5.8 million U.S. Senate campaign two years ago, and Berkowitz decided to run for lieutenant governor.
Croft, at 41 the youngest gubernatorial candidate this year, is treading carefully so as not to stir discord within the Democratic Party. He is considered a major underdog but he is still part of the "Democratic family" by blood - his father is Chancy Croft, also a former state legislator and a gubernatorial candidate in 1978.
Croft sees the oil industry relationship as the main, and maybe the only, split between himself and his well-known competitor for the Democratic nomination.
"I'm still running for the same reasons to do the same things. Now, it's made the hill a lot steeper, let's not fool ourselves. But it didn't fundamentally change the reason," Croft said.
Croft wants to wield a cudgel where others have used velvet hammers. He wants to give Alaska the upper hand in dealing with the state's oil companies, particularly in the gas pipeline negotiations. He says that can only be done by turning the tables.
"You have to change the negotiating framework in such a way that you change the power balance," Croft said. "It's why I wrote and put on the ballot the initiative for the reserves tax, it's why I have publicly talked about taking the Point Thomson leases. You get a governor who does those things and you've changed the balance of power at the table."
Even if Croft doesn't make it to the November ballot, his initiative will. He and fellow Democratic Reps. Harry Crawford of Anchorage and David Guttenberg of Fairbanks want to impose a $1 billion annual tax on the leaseholders of the state's natural gas reserves until they build a pipeline.
It's that initiative that has driven Gov. Frank Murkowski to move hurriedly with his proposed gas contract with BP, Exxon Mobil Corp. and ConocoPhillips. Those three companies would own the pipeline with the state, under the deal the governor has spent about two years negotiating.
But most legislators don't like the company incentives Murkowski offers in the deal, and they have dragged their feet on giving him the authority to execute the contract.
Many want to see whether Murkowski emerges from his own Republican primary race before giving his contract more attention.
But Murkowski keeps pressing, and it's due to Croft's reserves tax initiative. A clause in the proposed contract would shield them from the reserves tax if it passes. The governor says if the companies had to pay the tax, it would kill the project.
Knowles also doesn't support the reserves tax initiative. Knowles said he would open up the negotiating process to other pipeline projects and judge them all, including the producer's plan, on equal footing.
Croft said that's simply restarting the process Murkowski has gone through, and if that happens, the state will come out the loser.
"I believe if we just send our next gladiator into the field, you're going to get beat again," Croft said. "It misses the question. What are you going to do to structure the negotiations in a way that you have a possibility of winning them?"
Croft is throwing everything he's got into the campaign. In June, he took a four-day, 14-village barnstorming tour of the Alaska Bush with pilot and fellow Democratic Rep. Woodie Salmon of Beaver.
And when he was called back in Juneau for the year's second special session, Croft campaigned throughout Southeast Alaska, ready to hop on a plane the moment he heard a floor vote was coming in Juneau.
By contrast, Knowles has quietly held fundraisers and kept his spending to a minimum. He's saving up for the victor of the Republican primary.
Asked if he thought Knowles was overconfident, Croft said he actually thought his competitor was taking a rational approach.
"People have made up their minds about Tony Knowles, for good or bad," Croft said. "There's a whole bunch of people who know me and like me, and there are others who don't yet. My job is to get out and do that. I need to go out into all those villages where they already know his name."
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